The last weeks have continued to be dominated by a dizzying amount of covid-19 news. It seems as if the whole world is caught in a series of parallel accelerating spirals: one country after another goes from urging caution to shutting all activities down (or, more precisely, trying to move them online). The speed of change is tremendous, and there hasn’t been much time to reflect on the meanings of this disruption. Here, I want to continue taking small steps towards thinking through what it feels like to live in these times, maybe even towards beginning to understand what it might mean for our future.
I live in Belgium, and over the last week the country has taken the same path as Italy and Spain, moving from encouraging ‘social distancing’ to imposing a country-wide quarantine. It is interesting to note how much our language has changed in recent times: terminology once familiar only to epidemiologists is now widely used. This progression towards radical restrictions on all kinds of human activities is inevitably felt as a curtailment of freedom. Every move towards a strict quarantine carries with it a growing list of actions that can no longer be performed.
One of the greatest implications of the current measures have been on work. This is not just an economic issue. Work is a means of socializing as much (if not more!) as of producing things. Losing the ability to work also means being restricted in a manifestation of life that is crucial for our wellbeing. By not going to work I am deprived of a certain kind of public action that is an integral part of the social fabric. Again, it is not about not being able to produce the good that my work is supposedly aimed at, but rather about not being able to engage in a public activity that is weaved with my sense of self and with various communities of practice.
The official answer to the problems that the cessation of work poses has been predictably unimaginative and narrow: all shall be moved online! This itself raises more questions than it answers. The assumption that all manner of work can be done online reveals the flat way in which the actual world is imagined. The world around us is not just an ‘offline’ space, and the online is therefore not just a mirror of it. Moving teaching online, for example, does not just accomplish teaching by other means; it radically changes what it means to teach in the first place.
The drive towards the online amplifies an already existing trend towards digitalization, a trend that has gutted many public institutions in the last decades. Take universities as an example, where all manner of online platforms and administration have proliferated in parallel with the radical decrease in fulltime academic employment. In other words, even before the virus, universities were doing their best to have more students with less teachers, by investing in ‘innovative teaching modules’ and other such euphemisms for precarious employment. With the headlong plunge towards the online that has been the overwhelming response to the coronavirus, it is likely that we will be stuck with more online systems for a long time to come, as they fit so neatly into what was already happening.
Moving things online is not benign, as if simply answering a technical problem without also changing the terms in which the problem is understood. There are many that stand to gain from this. Amazon and Microsoft, for example, are sure to make a killing out of the crisis, and to emerge with their already monopoly-like positions further strengthened. The carbon footprint of ‘the cloud’ will grow tremendously, as will the precarious jobs that are holding the cloud afloat. The current crisis is a double lesson in acceleration: both internal, operating on the crisis itself, and external, operating on long term trends that are becoming more sedimented.
All of the above contributes to a tremendous sense of loss. It starts with the loss of physical freedom to move, but it also cuts through the loss of solidarity that accompanies the radical atomization of human activities. Above all, I cannot help but feel that the present moment is the first dress rehearsal for what future generations have in store as permanent conditions of life: a radical loss of world. The climate crisis – understood not just as emitting the wrong kind of gas, but in its multiple dimension of biodiversity loss, land-use change, nutrient cycle disruption, and so on – is not much talked about since the coronavirus appeared. But it is the climate crisis that is in the background, visible through the sudden loss of the world underneath our feet, the sudden liquification of what was supposed to be solid ground.
The loss of world can also be understood as a loss of horizon. In this particular moment nobody knows when the threat of the virus will recede, and therefore how long this radically curtailed life will last. In other words, there is no horizon of change, though undoubtedly, at some point, something will give. This kind of uncertainty as to what the future holds will also likely come to dominate a world ravaged by climate change. The current predicament is most sinister in this sense: it offers a preview of what it is like to live in a state of exception without an expiry date.
After this particular moment would have passed, we will eagerly go back to producing too much stuff and ripping through the living world at an ever-accelerating pace. The momentary break that the natural world is currently enjoying will most likely be just that, a break. As more species will be lost, more habitats destroyed, more frontiers crossed and more lives upended, the sense of radical loss will likely grow to become part of the everyday. Generations from now few will remember that there used to be a much richer world of natural abundance, and will find it normal to barricade indoors as the latest dust storm, virus, hurricane, or heat wave passes through. It feels like we are rehearsing for that future. I can only hope the rehearsal is powerful enough to push more people towards imagining, and actively working for, a radically better future.