You can’t escape the Red Death

“The Mask of the Red Death: A Fantasy” is a short story by Edgar Allan Poe and an explanation why escapism is futile. The story follows Prince Prospero’s attempt to avoid a dangerous plague, known as the Red Death, by hiding in his abbey with many other wealthy nobles. They are guarded by thick walls, protected by iron gates, lavishly supported by good food, drinks and luxury items. One night, while hosting a masquerade ball, a mysterious figure disguised as a Red Death victim enters and makes his way through each of the rooms. Prospero dies after confronting this stranger, whose “costume” proves to contain nothing tangible inside it; the guests also die in turn. The enraged and terrified revelers surge into the black room and forcibly remove the mask and robe, only to find to their horror that there is nothing underneath. Only then do they realize the figure is the Red Death itself, and all of the guests contract and succumb to the disease. The final line of the story sums up, “And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all”.

Just like everybody else, I like to shop online. Books, electronics, weird stuff I couldn’t find anywhere else. Big items, small items. Each purchase decision made for different reasons. And each of them have changed my life. And turned our society upside down.

I was exploring more in the old days. On a normal Saturday, I walked through the city, ate a bite, maybe saw a movie, met friends, ended up in a restaurant, bar, sleep. The same program today? Amazon, Netflix, Foodora. The world comes to me. Isn’t that paradise — immediate access to everything? Isn’t that what our ancestors of hunters and gatherers were dreaming of?

Digital Shopping and streaming services lure us into a new, homely escapism. A digital Biedermeier. And it’s such a nice and convenient world. Unlike the inconvenient and annoying world outside. When I recall those Saturday’s, they feel like a movie with many commercial breaks. Looking for a parking spot, carrying the heavy bags, the wait at the register. It took sometimes a day to get the right shirt. Four book stores to find that book. These wasted hours disappeared. And we filled them with relaxing, watching more media and wasting our time on the smartphone. Less community, less walks, less culture. The only time we move is when our Fitbit tells us to.

We are slowing down physically while we ask others to do the work. An army of couriers and delivery people runs and sweats for us. Each Amazon price comparison clogs up our streets more. Yes, we love to complain how badly those online services treat their warehouse employees. But we keep clicking the purchase button.

When I walk through my old hometown, Bocholt, or my old home, Los Angeles, it’s easy to experience the consequences. The shoe store is closed, the hardware store gave up. Everything seems to turn into a coffee place. Maybe it’s only the product that can’t be delivered well. I’m sure many startups in the Valley are working on solving this problem. Some predict the retail apocalypse. I feel it’s already there. But it’s much more than that.

It’s not about the party store that disappeared because Amazon was cheaper and more convenient. It’s about the way we want to live together. The American sociologist Richard Sennett wrote in the 70’s about this escapism, calling it the ‘tyranny of intimacy’.

“The reigning belief today is that closeness between persons is a moral good. The reigning aspiration today is to develop individual personality through experiences of closeness and warmth with others. The reigning myth today is that the evils of society can all be understood as evils of impersonality, alienation, and coldness. The sum of these three is an ideology of intimacy: social relationships of all kinds are real, believable, and authentic the closer they approach the inner psychological concerns of each person. This ideology transmutes political categories into psychological categories. This ideology of intimacy defines the humanitarian spirit of a society without gods: warmth is our god.”

As he explains, the city used to be a polis. One showed itself, met people, exchanged news. Formed a common “We” out of thousand “Me’s” through trivial customs. The movie line, the chat with the butcher were not a waste of time. They were an important part of what made us citizens.

A while back, I read about a development project in Africa. They built a cistern in the middle of the village. The next cistern was more than an hour walk away. The first world people thought they would help the villagers by avoiding their daily walk. None of them wanted a cistern. They preferred the daily walk because they could be among others. I believe we all want to walk to a cistern. We just don’t know it.

When the stores have disappeared, what will happen to our churches, museums and libraries? Will they be remote reminders of a civilization long lost? Removed from real life? Or will they just disappear because there’s an online alternative?

Richard Sennett writes how the tyranny of intimacy is being promoted while we give up on public goods and leave behind an hollowed out community. In other words: The digital Biedermeier creates a vicious cycle: The more we hide behind closed doors and empty Amazon boxes, the less reason for all of us to leave our house. Only a healthy community can sustain a world worth exploring.

Time to dust off that bike. And make friends with strangers.