Covid-19, Digital Distancing, and the Risk of new Social Divides: some thoughts

For many of us during this COVID-19 lockdown, our virtual selves have started to become more important than our physical selves.

For the last two decades, we have gradually been developing a kind of virtual doppelganger. In just one generation we have progressed from meagre, anonymous presences in online chatrooms on slow dial-up connections to the carefully “curated” online self of social media, perpetually connected through smart phones and other devices.

The sudden imposition of quarantine and lockdown measures across multiple countries have obliged millions of us to move our lives even further online.

No doubt some will see this development as a harbinger of the kind of technological rapture that some futurists and science fiction writers have dreamt of, a point at which the digital, connected self will become superior to physical existence — or even able to live independently in the “cloud”.

We are not there yet — by far. That said, something shifted, perceptibly, over the last few weeks. The social distancing measures imposed by COVID-19 have now made many of us — especially those living alone or far from their loved ones — more reliant on our digital selves than before.

Before, “the real life” was the life we had in physical contact with others physically: in bars, places of worship, gyms, classrooms, and workplaces. Now — especially for those of us who live alone — social distancing has reduced “the real life” to a kind of minimum, focused on essentials such as preparing and eating food, drinking, sleeping, keeping fit, cleaning, and breathing. Our physical self — once a vector of humanity — is now seen as a vector of virality. We are asked to stay away from others, all for the purpose of keeping the (now) famous R0 number as close to 0 as possible.

By a bizarre twist of events, many of us, a few weeks ago, decried the shallowness of online life, its endless feeds and ennui, and celebrated the need to re-embrace humanity by “unplugging” from our online life. Now we find ourselves embracing this reality with gusto, rebuilding the connections we had offline, as best we can, online.

In this, we are surprised by how much — in fact — is already doable online. We are confronted, perhaps more consciously than before, with the reality of what the British essayist and lawyer Jamie Susskind, in his book Future Politics, calls the “digital lifeworld”, a “dense and teeming system that links human beings, powerful machines, and abundant data in a web of great delicacy and complexity” — and which, as Susskind argues, raises political questions about who holds power in this lifeworld.

This lifeworld is now likely to be ratcheted up further, as a result of the COVID-19 crisis. Periods of emergency and war are great catalysts to the widespread adoption of technologies, and the overcoming of social conventions. In our case, the pressures of social distancing and quarantine leading to multiple tipping points in favour of new, digitally-enabled forms of economic and social activities.

Home working is of course an obvious example; uptake of this practice has been surprisingly slow, despite the obvious technical feasibility. Large swathes of working life still require people to physically move to another location to sit at a desk to perform tasks that arguably could be done from home. The European Union and the United States, some of the most advanced and digitalized economies on the planet, only had about 5% of their workforces working from home in 2017. It is very likely that these numbers will shift.

However, at the same time, we need to be very careful not to fall into a simple narrative.

For many, escaping into the digital lifeworld will not be an option during this crisis.

Social distancing and digitalization will only work for those who are, to be blunt, in a position to afford it. We need to think now about those who will not be able to, or afford to, take these measures.

It now appears that the COVID-19 lockdown measures may need to be applied for some time, or perhaps even repeatedly, in a stop-go cycle. During the duration of this, some parts of our society and our economies can be shifted more on this “digital lifeworld’.

Indeed for many of us, the next few weeks and months will consist of an exploration and discovery of new forms of work, entertainment and socializing. Yes, for some organizations, companies and governments, this will be the stimulus towards making breakthroughs in the ways in which they offer services and even organize themselves. No doubt a year from now we will know of a raft of companies that were able to capture the needs of the moment by inventing all manner of new services for confined societies.

However, to quote William Gibson, “the future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed”. Indeed, the sudden lurch into a more digital lifeworld will raise real problems of distributive justice. Not doing so means that the COVID crisis will not just be a major public health crisis but also a real crisis of distributive justice — with consequences for the stability of our political systems. As we saw during the 2008 financial crisis, not all adjustment and assistance measures impact everyone equally — and the perception of privilege or unjust protection can lead to social outcry afterwards.

Indeed, there will be a real there will be good swathes of our economy that will not be, and will likely never be, shifted onto our digital lifeworld, starting with the first responders, medics and nurses that are and will be fighting the virus in our world’s hospitals. But then there are all the other services and functions that will simply have to be physical as well: the gig workers who will continue to deliver food or drive taxis; workers in industry that will still be required to produce goods; agriculture workers that will need to help with harvesting the food that will be eaten in confinement.

There may be an additional perverse effect — there will be parts of the economy that could be digitalized or shifted to home working, or increased automation, but will not be able to do so sufficiently quickly. By contrast, this may also be a moment in which automation also bounces forward — more automated firms that will be able to operate with minimal or no manpower will be able to survive better than firms subject to the vagaries of unpredictable lockdowns. This also risks creating winners and losers.

Last but not least, there are those who simply cannot engage in social distancing — because they don’t have the space or time to do so, or lack access to the kinds of IT that you need to engage in teleconferencing, for a variety of reasons: poverty, inequality, distance, economic underdevelopment, both in rich societies as well as in less developed societies. This includes the world’s 70.8 million forcibly displaced persons, who live in conditions where social distancing and basic hygiene is just not feasible.

In the months to come, social distancing and self-isolation will be hard on many — but not in the same ways for all. For some, it will involve boredom and the trouble of learning to use new technologies to stay connected from the relative comfort of their homes, navigating the “digital lifeworld”. At the same time, the measures will likely push our economies and societies to embrace, in very differentiated ways, innovative forms of digital life. But not for all. If we want to make sure our societies emerge from this crisis healthier and more cohesive, we will need to be vigilant to the existing and new “digital divides” that this situation will risk creating.

Senior Policy Advisor, Policy Planning @NATO; thoughts my own and not my employer’s. Policy, geopolitics, history, innovation, culture, futures.