As we continue to try to wrap our minds around the surreal events of COVID-19, one thought has been recurring for many:
This will destroy the last motivations in our society to actually interact with other human beings.
I understand this fear. It’s reasonable. As the jokes and memes attest, social distancing was happening well before it was mandated. Loneliness has been pandemic a lot longer than coronavirus. It’s logical to imagine that a society voluntarily isolating itself to death would interpret mass quarantine as a validation of the wisdom of living online. I think this fear is probably what kept many churches in the US from closing their doors this past Sunday. People already ask what’s the point of waking up to go to church if I can find a world-class preacher on the Podcast store. If we start asking them to say home, it’s over. Right?
Maybe. But maybe not. There’s another version of this whole story that keeps playing out in my head and I can’t stop thinking about it. I can’t shake the feeling that an oppressive pandemic might actually be the one thing that disrupts the unthinking embrace of virtual social behaviors. When the toxic dust settles, I’m wondering if we’ll find that the punishment fit the crime, and that the anxiety of not knowing when we will see the people we love in real life is sadder than getting a new “Like” is fun.
I’ve written previously in this space about Facebook, and how over the past decade Facebook has made a series of design and functional choices that drop even the pretense of trying to connect people to each other. I’ve been without an account for almost a year now, and even I’m surprised how little I’ve missed it. When I’m looking at wife’s personal feed, here’s what I see: influencer post, influencer post, meme, link to an article, influencer post, somebody trying to sell something, etc., ad infinitum. In other words, Facebook has shifted from a tool to facilitate contact among friends, to a platform by which individuals can communicate with the masses, preferably to help turn a profit. The friendship ethos is totally gone.
People know this, which is why just about everyone you know under the age of 30 has either deactivated their account or gone to Instagram. That’s why predictions that places like Facebook or Twitter will just become more and more omnipresent until they’ve essentially totally replaced communities have never been compelling to me. A lot of us are addicted, yes, but that doesn’t mean we cannot tell when the grass is greener somewhere else. Twitter has the advantage of monopolizing the journalist class and therefore being the substance of choice for “informed” people. But people leave Twitter too, and the odds are good that if Jack Dorsey keeps it up, they’ll keep leaving Twitter. Eventually the same will happen to Instagram.
Before COVID-19, most of us held the assumption that when these companies decline, it’ll be because their users find some other platform. But that’s what I wonder about.
If people in the West will be, as is expected, confined for several months to an absolute minimum of social contact, holed up within their homes and cut off from classmates, church members, concerts, and sporting events, then I think it’s more than possible that social media will fail the cultural test that is given to it. In the coming months social media will be asked to fill a void that is fundamental to who human beings are. Count me among the number who believe that it will fail that test because it cannot do otherwise.
It’s not difficult for digital technology to replace human contact. It is impossible. Silicon Valley advances not just tools for harnessing human nature, but an alternative belief system about what human nature is. That belief system is sort of like the prosperity gospel—it works as long as it doesn’t have to work. When the infrastructure of normal life crumbles, when suffering and sea billows roll, the check always bounces. I understand the fear that people will emerge from their quarantine wondering why they ever left their living room in the first place. But I see another question coming: “Why did we ever bury ourselves with our machines in the first place?”
The logic of tech addiction has been so powerful in part because it almost never feels like we’re losing control. We’re so agile, so upwardly mobile as a society that literally limitless options available to us make retreating into our screens feel like a necessary act of self-care. The infinity potentialities of self-expression in offline life make online life feel accessory rather than replacement. What COVID-19 is about to strip away is the illusion of options, the illusion of total control over what our tech does to us. We are faced with several months of having little else aside from our screens. There’s a gut check coming. And a lot of us will decide we don’t want to live that way.
Maybe this is what we needed. I’m not talking about death, obviously. The deaths of thousands from coronavirus don’t serve the “higher” purpose of rehabbing a culture off technological delusion. I’m talking specifically about those who survive, and go on after this crisis is over to live relatively normal lives. For us, maybe this is the only thing that could really trigger change. I’m optimistic that it will. Once upon a time meditating on death was a spiritual discipline that wise believers said would fortify against complacent worldliness. Hardly anyone remembers their death until they have to. That’s human nature. Human nature.