Thank you science. Last February, predicting a working Covid-19 vaccine within 18 months seemed wildly optimistic. Less than a year later, we have two ready for injection, and another well on the way. When today’s teenagers can get back into their school or university laboratories, we could see a new generation inspired to become scientists.
Science will get us out of a lockdown that technology made possible. The assumption that everyone now has internet access let governments tell people to work from home, consult their doctor through a screen, claim emergency handouts online, and stay in touch with relatives and friends via Zoom.
In reality, a significant minority of UK adults were not online. In 2019, 7.5% had never used the internet. Almost a third of retired people, and over 10% of disabled adults, were not internet users before the pandemic. But in March 2020, many reluctant late adopters were faced with the choice of virtual or nothing.
In parallel with the global boost to vaccine development, Covid-19 has accelerated our shift to online relationships. When physical shops closed, consumers moved online, and we won’t entirely move back again. Remote consultations with doctors and other professionals are also here to stay.
Our personal relationships were increasingly conducted through screens even before 2020. Now, the same parents who were baffled by the always-connected, never-actually-present nature of their children’s friendships are running family WhatsApp groups and setting up Zoom quizzes.
As we emerge, blinking like bears, into a post-Covid summer, those devices which connected us will still be clutched firmly in our paws. Although I foresee a euphoric embrace of face-to-face, not to mention skin-to-skin, human contact, I also predict that interaction through the safe filter of technology will be more firmly embedded than ever in most people’s lives.
New divides emerged in 2020, as existing social differences were catalysed by crisis into visible cracks. Those who embraced working from home, and are not keen to return to the commute and the office routine, are generally older people with families and bigger houses. They have enjoyed the freedom to fit the school run into their day, spend less time on the train and more in the garden, less time with annoying colleagues and more with Lockdown Puppy. Younger workers, hunched over laptops in shared flats and houses, show less enthusiasm. For them, going out to work is an opportunity to learn informally about the job and workplace culture, to meet people, to explore the wider world beyond their front door.
Then there are the workers whose jobs cannot be done from home. Less than half of UK employees worked remotely during the pandemic. Unfortunately, most of the media fell into the working-from-home side of that divide. That skewed the narrative of 2020 towards questions of sourdough and birdsong, and away from the continuing reality of people whose jobs still had to be done in worse conditions, or those whose work evaporated overnight.
These divides won’t continue in exactly these forms, though they will add to the many fractures in society. What will persist, exacerbating the splits and hampering our ability to recover from both pandemic and economic shock, is the atomisation of society.
Instead of a country united in the face of Nature’s novel threat, we split into millions of individuals, separated into households or “support bubbles” (as if every single person is only a mental health patient waiting to happen). The normal, informal, everyday encounters that remind us we’re all human, and not so very different, were severely restricted by law.
Instead, we built connections online, seeking out what scratched our itch, whether that was friendly networks to lift our spirits, or groups whose analysis of the crazy world confirmed our own instincts.
Little wonder that rational scepticism about politicians or medical authorities slid so easily into conspiracy theories. In the pub, or across the workplace coffee machine, the idea that Bill Gates is microchipping the population is quickly laughed out of existence. On the internet, you can always find a YouTube video to tell you it’s true.
The shift towards more working from home, for those who can, makes it hard to build any workplace ethos of professionalism, of teaching younger colleagues, or of solidarity with your fellow employees. Universities may be able to deliver lectures online, but it’s hard to cultivate any sense of a shared project of scholarship in virtual seminars, especially with no trip to the bar afterwards.
Transferring cultural, or political, or sporting events online revealed how much more an audience is than a number of individuals who watch and listen. Without them, performers, speakers, or players, have no focus, no feedback, and no sense that this occasion is unique in happening here, now, with this specific group of people, transformed into a whole greater than its parts.
I hope that we enter 2021 with a much deeper sense of why shared, public, social life is important, and a commitment to restoring it as fast as possible. I fear that there are long-lived social forces moving against that. Re-starting the economy is going to be much easier than knitting together the unravelled strands of a society that already lacked coherence and trust.
There are practical reasons why managers might welcome the persistence of virtual, individual connections, instead of shared spaces. Employers can save on rent and bills, universities sell their educational products to a worldwide audience. Routine interactions are on the record, so everything can be supervised and surveilled. There are also good reasons for continuing to accommodate online participation. Obstacles of geography, physical disability or family responsibilities need no longer exclude. Travel time and expense can be slashed.
But the trend towards relating to the world as individuals, through technology that makes even informal conversation more controllable, was already well under way. We, the individuals in question, have often been willing to embrace it. American teenagers, surveyed before Covid, slightly preferred texting their friends to meeting them in person. In a world that often feels out of our control, we can at least edit our selfies and choose our words carefully as we “chat”. Spontaneous, real world situations are more risky.
This unwillingness to engage with risk also underlies official reluctance to allow group situations to resume. The tendency to see crowds, or even crowded pubs, as unsafe for Covid reasons was built on a suspicion of crowds as unpredictable gatherings of people who might get an idea into their collective mind, and act on it. How much safer, and easier, to gather people on Zoom, or to relate to them as individuals, each in their private space, through an app.
For better and worse, our immediate future will be more atomised, more mediated by technology, than ever before. How far 2021 goes towards restoring what is valuable about shared, unmediated human life, whether intimate or public, is an open question.