There’s a type of writing you’ve probably read a dozen times in recent months: a newspaper op-ed, a magazine essay of the kind that reporters used to call a thumbsucker. A think-piece, written in a deep and pensive prose. Reflective, contemplative, and wise.
Goo, in other words. But goo of a particular sort, about how all the world has been forever changed, altered to its core, by the coronavirus — and yet, somehow, those changes are easily explained by small events in the writers’ lives. “The comfort of being in the presence of others,” writes a linguistics professor about the isolation she’s felt since the lockdown, will have to be “replaced by a greater comfort with absence.” The empty shelves of a local supermarket have empowered one sociologist to opine (not that sociologists typically need much empowering for their opinions) that the coronavirus pandemic has forever ended market society and individualism.
Meanwhile, sex has been permanently transformed by the nude selfies sent during quarantine, according to reporters at both Vox and the New York Times, who drew that conclusion when they received nude pictures from people with whom they were not having sex. After getting his art fix from online sources for several weeks — basically analogous to gulping methadone to feed a heroin addiction — an art critic has confidently assured readers that, from now until the twelfth of never, art will exist only as online streaming.
Geopolitics is a favorite for those who peer into the crystal ball of the coronavirus. The People’s Republic of China is on an inevitable rise to rule the world — or maybe it’s that China will soon collapse, broken into pieces like smashed dinner plates. This is the End of the West, you see. Or a demonstration of the West’s great strength. Hard to say.
But at least we know that capitalism is toast. Or that socialism has at last been exposed as the fraud it always was. Again, difficult to decide. But it’s surely one or the other. Each of the thoughtful, thumbsucking writers you’ve read in recent weeks has had a personal experience during the crisis that provides the perfect figure, the ideal synecdoche, for proving it true. Whatever it may be.
We needn’t feel left out of the general prognosticating that has taken over journalism. My own experience during the lockdown has been an experience of reading think-pieces about the long-term effect of the lockdown. And surely that’s enough to provide me with some insight — which is, in essence, that every attempt to describe the changes is overstated. Every one of those thumbsuckers is overburdened with the bias of the present moment. Every claim of utterly changed society is overwrought. Every declaration of altered human nature is overbroad.
Even more to the point, most of those predictions are entirely, well, predictable — confirmation of the views held by the writer before the coronavirus. Want strong government? The virus has revealed to you the necessity for centralizing power. Want an end to global capitalism? The world crisis has demonstrated its failure. Want to end the family as a rival to the power of the state? The disease has shown that family can be abolished. Want … oh, hell, whatever you want, the virus can be taken as either bringing it about or requiring that it be enacted.
All of this is just a way of saying that nothing should remind us to be philosophical conservatives more than the gleeful or even despairing declarations that reality itself has suddenly been made different. A little skepticism about grand explanations, in the mode of Michael Oakeshott. A little confidence in the perdurance of human nature, in the mode of Thomas Aquinas. A little faith in the resilience of the human spirit, in the mode of Winston Churchill. A little historical perspective, in the mode of Edmund Burke, and we have some shelter from the barrage of claims that what the Plague of Justinian, the Black Death, and the Spanish Influenza failed to achieve in their time, the coronavirus has somehow accomplished in 2020.
Ah, well. None of this means that we cannot do at least a bit of prognostication. Grand notions of universal alteration are right out the window, but we might hold back from defenestration a few smaller claims. A number of social and political trends were building before the coronavirus crisis arrived in its two forms: a potential health disaster, giving way to an economic disaster. And if any of those trends intensified during the lockdown, then it seems reasonable to suspect that they will continue for years after — the enduring residue of the virus and our responses to it.
The massive increase of surveillance is the first and most disturbing of these lasting effects. To live in a major city last year was already to have one’s picture recorded around thirty times a day. After forty years of the computer revolution, we already had our mail turned primarily electronic, which means accessible to hackers and law enforcement in ways no other correspondence had ever been available. The move from local hard drives on personal computers to cloud storage was doing similar work: increasingly allowing our documents to be accessible by people we did not intend to see them. The use of data-collecting apps on our cell phones was making tracking us by avaricious advertisers and curious prosecutors ever easier.
One observable change is that, last year, hardly anyone was strongly defending this kind of surveillance. Hardly anyone thought it was a good thing. And now? In its fight against infection, China has deployed the most advanced forms of computing to control its citizens. The government is monitoring cell phones and collating face- recognition data from millions of public cameras — all while compelling citizens to report their medical condition and record their DNA. Billions of these medical reports are subject to calculation by high-speed computers and advanced algorithms designed to identify the vulnerable, criminal, and undesirable parts of the population. What incentive could the Chinese government ever have to give up this kind of medical-research treasure trove or this level of social control?
Though the most egregious, China is not alone. South Korea, Singapore, and Taiwan have implemented some parallel measures. To fight the virus, the Israel Security Agency is using drones and other technologies it developed to find terrorists — the country’s own citizens essentially equated to its enemies. In New York and Paris alike, hotlines have been set up to encourage residents to report violators of lockdown policies. Perhaps these are necessary accessories to the public policy during a moment of health crisis, but the cities’ political leaders seemed to feel no hesitation in urging Stasi-level of citizen reporting, with people enlisted as agents of the state to rat one another out.
Yuval Noah Harari suggests there was a bright line we didn’t even notice we were crossing when we made the transition from “over the skin” to “under the skin” surveillance. “Hitherto, when your finger touched the screen of your smartphone and clicked on a link,” authoritarian governments “wanted to know what exactly your finger was clicking on,” he points out. But in the name of public health, those governments now want “to know the temperature of your finger and the blood-pressure under its skin.”
In fact, under-the-skin computing was already on the rise before the coronavirus. Companies were experimenting with subcutaneous ID chips, computerized hearing and sight implants, chip-laden artificial organs, wearable medical- monitoring devices reporting to a central computer, and even the first tentative efforts at brain-stem additions. We’ve suggested that we can expect continuation from any trend that both was rising before the virus and gained broad new uses during the lockdown. By that measure, intrusive surveillance of the body itself is very likely to continue. Governments will find it far too easy to demand ever greater electronic monitoring of the health of its citizens — all the while proclaiming, in self-congratulatory tones, the need to protect public health from future pandemics.
We should not pretend that a halting of human touch comes with no social or psychological costs.
Once we have the body monitored to this degree, we will know people’s physical locations and even something about their emotional states (drawing on heart rate, blood flow, and temperature data). The Soviets could only have dreamed of the social control such information allows. In the weakened state of the Western democracies, with lockdowns already sweeping aside claims of infringed civil liberty, we could easily see a race to the bottom — as health services and police demand the powers granted to their counterparts in authoritarian countries. All in the name of public health, of course. All with, we will be assured, the best of motives.
None of the other likely enduring changes from the coronavirus scare are as threatening, although that doesn’t make them good. Virtual meetings, for example — to replace the baby boomers, the rise of the baby Zoomers — were increasing in recent years, and they have, of course, vastly expanded in recent months. We can probably expect more of the same in the future. And why not? All businesses would be glad to shed the expense of travel. Even more, many of them would be happy to abandon their costly offices, with employees working from home.
It’s worth noticing, however, the pressures warring against the trend. Back in the 1990s, we were constantly informed by futurologists that telecommuting was going to take over and transform the office as we knew it. The reasons it didn’t still obtain. Workers often require the kind of oversight and visible competition that offices provide. For that matter, the mating impulse is strong. Most young people don’t want to work for a New York firm from their parents’ basement in Pierre, South Dakota. They want to move to the city, where they can meet and mingle with others their age. They want to work with comrades, colleagues, and potential mates.
Still, though the trendline will settle back down, virtual-meeting spaces will remain a factor in national life. And so, for that matter, will online education (again, a phenomenon that was building before the coronavirus). A complete revamping of American university would be a welcome change, given that we use the college system for incidental social purposes — notably, social-class formation and emotional individuation — for which it is not ideal. But the cultural investment in higher education makes that unlikely. A handful of financially vulnerable universities may go under, but young people’s desire to attend physical colleges will restock most of them once they reopen. Those students, however, will have an expectation that online classes and recorded lectures will be available.
Maybe the loss of handshakes will also continue. An end to political baby-kissing. A disappearance of social touching — a pat on the arm, a cheek rub. All in the name of public health. But these also represent a loss of the tactile and the haptic. A loss of presence, in the sense in which philosophers and psychologists speak of human interaction. And we should not pretend that a halting of human touch comes with no social or psychological costs. All of these declines in physical presence, from virtual meetings to a cessation of handshakes, represent a diminishing of something very human.
Injured freedom, damaged natural relations: This starts to sound like the grand think-pieces we started by mocking. But at least in these predictions, we see measurable trends that existed before the current crisis and grew during the crisis — and trends, moreover, related to the computer revolution. Technology has put into play capacities for social control and virtual retreat from the physical that did not exist when humanity faced previous threats to health.
The Plague of Justinian, the Black Death, the Spanish Influenza, for example — all they did was kill millions of us. The coronavirus has proved far less murderous. But perhaps it is also more dangerous. We need to resist not just the effects of the disease but also the effects of the treatment.
Joseph Bottum is director of the Classics Institute, a cyberethics think tank, at Dakota State University.