By Tom Robotham
On March 6, I was scheduled to depart for Rome in the company of Jeff Maisey, the publisher of this magazine, and another friend. It was the beginning of my spring break, and I’d been looking forward not only to connecting with history, but also to spending a week in European café culture, where people know how to enjoy life without the crutches of electronic devices.
Fortunately, we’d had the good sense to call off the trip one week earlier–so instead of heading to the airport, I settled in at home, feeling grateful, at least, that I’d have a week of relaxation. Little did I know that six weeks later, I’d still be largely isolated in my one-bedroom apartment.
Over the last month I’ve thought a lot about what all of this means, not only for the duration of the quarantine—however long that may last—but also in the long term. I think most of us agree that this catastrophe is unprecedented in our lifetimes. And yet, in some ways, this pandemic seems to fit a pattern that has been developing for a long time.
For one thing, “social-distancing” had been a growing trend for many years. On the campus where I teach, for example, I had often noticed for a decade or more a striking lack of social interaction, compared with the social dynamics at play when I was an undergrad. Oh sure, many students and faculty still stopped to chat on their way to or from class. But more and more frequently, I saw students staring at their phones as they headed to their destinations—and after ear buds and headphones became common, the self-isolation became complete. I never thought to use the term “social distancing,” but that pretty much describes what I was witnessing.
It wasn’t just students, of course. People of all ages had been social-distancing more and more frequently. I’m tempted to blame the Internet, but the phenomenon, it seems to me, actually took root after World War II, with the rise of suburbia and the death of downtown retail and business districts. Think of the very design of modern suburbia as it evolved: the prominence of the garages out front, which symbolized the amount of time people now spent alone in their cars, rather than walking to work, passing neighbors along the way, or at least riding the bus together. When they got home, moreover, there was no need to even get out of the car and risk encountering a neighbor; simply click the garage door opener and drive on into your house, then perhaps meander into the backyard—protected by a privacy fence—where you could enjoy your evening cocktail free of unwanted social interaction.
Going shopping, too, increasingly became an exercise in social distancing. Whereas previous generations shopped on Main Street, where they’d encounter neighbors and shop owners they knew, weekend shopping trips increasingly meant going to big-box stores where you rarely ran into anyone you knew—or even the same checkout clerk on any given visit.
Now, of course, even the odds of running into a friend at Target, or the mall, have grown slimmer, as more and more people do their shopping online—and get their entertainment that way as well. I’ve been struck, in particular, by the slogan for Sling TV—“Slinging in”—and the commercials to promote it, which suggest that chilling alone on the couch is far better than going out to dinner with friends.
The trend has long been reflected in dating apps as well. No need to meet someone at a party, or through a mutual friend, get up the nerve to ask for a phone number, then get up the nerve again to call—for years now, it’s simply been a matter of swiping right or left, as if the faces you’re looking at are merchandise, not human beings. Talk about social distancing.
Then there’s the Trump Effect, which we’d already been enduring for three years before this crisis hit. One might argue, I suppose, that he’s bound people together within their socio-political camps; the Women’s March of 2017 was certainly the largest social gathering I’ve ever attended, and the desire to be in a large group of likeminded people was palpable. I imagine that Trump supporters feel the same way at his rallies. Nevertheless, Trump has done more to contribute to social distancing than any other leader of our lifetimes. The key to his success, after all, has been to fuel social animosity to the point where many people I know simply will not tolerate conversations with the “other side.” Click, “unfriend,” and “block”—the ultimate act of social distancing.
No, this virus didn’t start social distancing—not by a long shot. It just brought the tragic effects of the trend to the fore. The most heartbreaking examples are stories of people who can’t sit by the beds of dying loved ones because the virus is too dangerous.
Less dramatic, but still noteworthy, is the fact that millions of high school and college seniors will be denied the opportunity to celebrate an important milestone in their lives with friends. The latter may seem trivial to you by comparison, but one of my fondest memories is shaking hands with my college president on stage after he and I had been at odds for much of the semester because, as editor of the college newspaper, I’d been forcefully critical of some of his policies. Afterwards, I introduced him to my parents, and he told them that I’d earned his respect. I don’t think I’d ever have known that had graduation been cancelled for some reason. I know for sure that if I had to take classes online with my favorite professor, rather than sitting with him and my fellow students, talking about Plato, I wouldn’t remember it today as a profound experience of intellectual engagement.
But therein lies yet another example of how this crisis has merely accelerated the social distancing that had already been a growing trend. Colleges and universities have been growing their online offerings for years now. Those offerings are helpful to people who cannot, for whatever reasons, attend traditional classes. As someone who’d already been teaching online classes, I recognize the benefits. But nothing can compare with classroom interaction—or those spontaneous post-class discussions with students who want to continue talking about the ideas we’d just explored.
I don’t want to cast all of this in an entirely negative light. Social media, for example, has yielded some benefits—notably the ability to stay in touch with old friends in other states.
We’ve also even seen some beautiful examples of social cohesiveness as a result of the virus—the glorious spectacle, for example, of Italians singing to one another from their balconies. Closer to home, I’ve spent more time on the phone lately, not messaging but talking with old friends from New York to Seattle to Florida, for an hour or more at a clip.
The great irony of this virus is that it’s reminded us how much we need each other—and reminded us not to take “normal” life for granted.
Whether or not we will continue to bear this in mind after the virus dies down, I do not know. Nevertheless, I suspect that it will permanently propel the trends I’ve highlighted here. It is almost certain, after all, that many small businesses will never bounce back, while online shopping, home entertainment, and gourmet-meal delivery services will continue to grow.
There never was any turning back from all this, and there certainly isn’t now. I suppose, in the end, all will depend on how well we’ve learned the lessons of the pandemic—and what we do with that knowledge.