Touching the COVID-19 future

If you are settling into this 'no-touch' normal, brain cells are dying. Do NOT get used to this.

From the moment my recent chemo treatment began, months ago, I had one thought in mind: Once this is done, I want to travel. I had my sights on Tashkent, and Samarkand, and Amritsar. Don’t ask me why, I don’t know, it’s like something is waiting there for me. No matter, it won’t happen: The virus happened, and I am grounded. I know, my timing sucks!

When will it end? No one knows. I no longer consume virus news. And while I do not mean to litter our collective mindscape with more virus food, I will. Because if I don’t speak out now, it may be too late.

Our response to the virus worries me. Not for our 3-6 month future, because we know that will be painful. But for how life will be in 3-5 years and beyond.

There are unrecognizable lives ahead of us:  a healthcare disaster; economic collapse; retail, and airlines, and hotel industries going down; geopolitical games with China; the environmental rebound that nature engineered, that we have incapable of designing in over 30 years.

But I will focus on only one:

The cratering of our social life

I am worried we will lose our humanity and slip into the Dark Ages.

What prompted this is a recent research that companies are planning for a percent of people not going back to work, ever. They will be permanently ‘remote’. Twitter already announced that they will let people work remotely indefinitely McKinsey reports that one pharma company is shifting 30% of work permanently online. Other tech firms are following. They are realizing that the work is getting done, and the savings are massive.

The emerging realization is that our ‘new normal’ will be all remote: “No-touch” working, “no-touch” learning, “no-touch” shopping.

Great, you say, right? What’s wrong with working, learning, or shopping from home? Everyone was so exhausted from the relentless pace of our lives, this is going to be perfect!

On one hand, I couldn’t agree more. Our lives had careened way out of control, with brutal demands for productivity, growth, competition, to fuel a mindless consumerism. For example:

Too much time in the office: Work structures were highly inefficient and exhausting; the 10-hour workday is unsustainable and unproductive. (. I’ve been there : I once had regular 100-hour /  7-day weeks); too many inefficient, face-time meetings; and too many hours wasted in commuting with too much damage to our nervous system. And business travel – I so love that one, but!! I once flew around the world, 3 continents, 3 meetings, 3 days – LA to Sydney to Delhi to London and back. Planes, taxis, meeting, all sleeping in flight, all showers in the United lounge. That’s crazy.

Too much damage to our world, traffic pollution, industrial pollution, plastic packaging pollution. We couldn’t even come up with a plan to save the planet by reducing pollution a tiny bit over 20 or 30 years!

Are we thinking it through?

So yes, we had lost it. We must make life more sane, safe, and sustainable. But I am worried about the pendulum swinging all the way to the other end, and we are not conscious of the risks. There are important social considerations to these decisions:

  • Remote working: Work has always had a social component to it. A rich, complex social life, built with relationships, chats, lunches together, informal popping into other people’s offices to check an idea, or to crack a joke. Now, I have this image of people losing any remnants of the meaning of work: Becoming robots, that are just supposed to sit at home, crank out the needed output, and sign off. Talk about feeling like cogs in the machine!
  • Remote learning is the same: School and college life are a lot about being exposed to others, to people you will love, hate, or are indifferent to, and learning to deal with that. Try to imagine college graduates without the benefits of debate, socialization, emotional growth – and you will see future robots!
  • Working from home is great for working parents, right? More time, less guilt! But for other groups?
    • Young people need to go out, make friends, socialize, and date
    • Old people need contact with others so as not to wilt and die
    • Children need other children
    • Even working parents need a bigger life, they need other adults.
  • Finally, what about collective activities: sports, music, drama classes in schools, music recitals, festivals. Collaboration and competition – the stuff of human thriving – can we feel the excitement from 6 ft apart?

Who is deciding how life will be?

Regardless, here’s a reality check. Look what is in the works for us, what the decision-makers are putting in place, without bothering to ask us:

Urban planners are redesigning the cities with sidewalks widened so we never have to bump into each other; parks are being designed as mazes so we don’t have to cross paths or touch anyone.

Benches with Plexiglas so we cannot sit and hold hands. Barriers everywhere. Touchless office buildings and mall stores. Masks and gloves, thermometers, and disinfectant sprays. Everyone is the enemy, a suspect. Beaches becoming ‘business class’, with 6ft distances on the sand.

I see restaurants, from McDonald’s on, redesigned to be half empty, so we never rub elbows with anyone. One upscale restaurant in Virginia is putting mannequins in empty seats, so you have the feeling of a full place – but it’s all fake. I don’t find it funny or clever. We each live in our own bubble, untouched, unbothered, safe, scared. Can you picture it?

I see office buildings half- empty or abandoned. City centers and downtowns expected to wither and decline – again.

I see college campuses lethargic and cautious, not buzzing and vibrant.

How tech looks at it

Tech companies are developing ‘smarter education systems’, because as they see it: “All these buildings, all these physical classrooms – why, with all the technology you have?”

They don’t get that these building are sacred spaces!

The CEO of a tech company puts it like this: “There has been a distinct warming up to humanless, contactless technology. Humans are biohazards, machines are not.”

As Naomi Klein puts it: “The future that is being rushed into being … treats our past weeks of physical isolation not as a painful necessity to save lives, but as a living laboratory for a permanent – and highly profitable – no-touch future.”

She concludes: “It’s a future that employs far fewer teachers, doctors and drivers…. and has skeletal mass transit and far less live art.”

I’ll give you a moment to catch your breath here. How does that sound?

Fear and human adaptation will not be our friends

Here’s what I think:

  1. We are operating out of panic, and can’t make good choices. Fear is only good in the moment of ‘fight, flee, or freeze’. After that, we need a strategy.
  2. Adaptation is our friend and our enemy: Humans adapt, for better or worse. We get used to wars, shootings, and domestic abuse. We just try to survive. So, likely we will get used to the isolation and to the sensory deprivation. Slowly, we will lose new experiences, or even the desire for them. We will lose the adventure, the growth, the learning, the tolerance, the diversity. I hate that.

I don’t want a return to the craziness, and I don’t want this ‘new normal’.

I love the clean air, the easy traffic, the families having time together, the absolutely lower stress levels.

I am not liking the lack of human contact, the opportunities to spread even more fear about ‘the other’, the missed interactions, diversity, sharing, collaborations that make humans brains bigger and better. Yes, it is social interactions that account for our dominance on this planet. Social historian Yuval Harari (and many others), have made this point repeatedly: Multiple, complex, flexible social interactions are key to humanity’s advantages. We may just kill them.

“… Sapiens can cooperate in extremely flexible ways with countless numbers of strangers. That’s why Sapiens rule the world, whereas ants eat our leftovers and chimps are locked up in zoos and research laboratories.”

— Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens

Do not get used to this

I am hoping that instead of letting it happen, we strive to be smart for a change:  For example: have a ready pandemic response plan, and medical research; work from home 1-2 days a week, or go to the office 5 hours a day. Keep kids in schools and colleges most of the time and do the collaborative and competitive stuff on campus. Humans are not two-dimensional flickering pixels.

Again, my lens is a telephoto, taking in the view 5 years out.  By all means, social-distance for now. But my plea to you is this:

First, Do not get used to isolation. Brain cells will die. Tolerance will go down. Wars will happen – trade wars, cultural wars, flesh-and-blood wars. The Dark Ages of isolation, disease, and tribal wars have happened before.

And, Do not turn your back to the ‘other’. Remember, we are all ‘the other’ to someone else, right? Blaming the ‘other’ is a race to the bottom, where everyone loses.

Personally, I hope to hear the magic of foreign tongues tickle my ears again, where more humans stretch my mind, and my heart, because that is how I feel alive.

My fervent hope is that in five years’ time, our passports have not expired unused, we have not gotten so comfortable within our little village tribe that we forgot that we are all just the human tribe. That’s all we are.

Let’s use all these brains and find or a better way. Do not get used to this.

Marina K
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