#120: All That Is Solid Melts into Air

The lateness of today’s newsletter reflects the fact that time isn’t real anymore and everything is blurring together. I almost forgot it’s Friday. But I assume you’re not about to run off to something, so any time is as good as any other to send this. The other day someone said, “Imagine if this lockdown had happened before the internet,” and several people offered the same response I would have: Without the internet, a lockdown like this wouldn’t have happened. There are two ways to interpret that assertion. The first and more obvious reading is that the internet is an extremely effective mechanism for raising awareness of the virus and the measures necessary to limit its spread, enabling us to enact social distancing sooner. The second interpretation is that without the internet we might not have embraced quarantine as quickly because the prospect of not leaving the house would have been too unappealing—and for all my complaining, I have to admit that, in 2020, staying inside for a while isn’t all that bad (for me at least—a fortunate position to be in). As William Gibson said about the future, both of the conditions I just described are unevenly distributed: Comfort with digital life appears correlated with taking the coronavirus seriously as well as having the inclination and ability to hole up at home, but not everyone possesses that comfort, so responses to the pandemic vary.

For those of us who can live most of our lives online while we ride the crisis out, this may be the closest we ever come to experiencing the Singularity—abandoning ourselves as much as possible to a platonic, sanitary digital universe where disease can’t pass between us, and adapting to a temporary reality in which our bodies are more of a risk than an asset (even though, as mortal beings, that’s always the case). About a month ago, Nadia Eghbal described online friendships as “space friendships” shaped by their own peculiar environmental conditions. “A moon-woman might be genetically human, but she'd be stretched tall, willowy and pale.” I feel similarly distorted at the moment—untethered from the usual forces that impose a consistent form upon everyday life, and rapidly evolving for new zero-gravity conditions. Many have speculated about whether this quarantine period is a catalyst for the remote work future that was already developing, and while I’d put my money on the opposite outcome—once we return to a semblance of normality, we’ll crave in-person interaction like never before—quarantine at least proves that we can move everything online when we must.

The above discussion might obscure the fact that large segments of the workforce still have to show up in person for their jobs. We’re gaining awareness of this reality as all the less essential business shuts down, heightening the contrast between the tangible value provided by grocery store employees and health care professionals and the abstract symbol manipulation that keeps everyone else (including me) busy. The former group’s visibility becomes more critical at a moment when staying home becomes a virtuous act that the rest of us can perform to score points with one another: We’re largely able to score those points because someone else is doing our errands for us. Not long ago, I noticed how car ownership had become a similarly loaded issue. Services like Uber, food delivery, and Amazon Prime make it easier than ever for consumers to cut back on their own vehicle miles by simply transferring them to gig workers and concealing rather than eliminating them. Today, those same workers are taking on unwanted coronavirus exposure as well as driving mileage. One person’s Singularity is another person’s job.