The advent of COVID-19 is so timely, one could feel justified to suspect a conspiracy. I don’t, but it is as if the purveyors of everything Internet and virtual and robotic had come up with the perfect way to monopolize human life. That trend had already been fast afoot, of course, what with all of us glued to our monitors, laptops, and phones at work and at play, robots and expert systems ready to replace workers of every color collar, and self-driving vehicles and drones available to deliver all of our needs to our doorstep.
But now comes a virus that no one has yet developed a vaccine or cure for to scare us all into staying home, or put us into mandatory quarantine. No more going to work or school, no more cruising or jetting to other cities or foreign shores, no more local shopping, no more concerts or theatre or parades, you name it. Nowhere to go and nothing to do but stay at home if at all possible.
Another conspiracy one might concoct to account for this is a plot by a climate-change cabal. We will certainly be pumping a lot less carbon into the atmosphere now. Then there’s the good old communist conspiracy, since the global capitalist economy is about to take a nosedive [note: I wrote this just before it did]. Except that there are no more communist countries left to benefit from this, with the possible exception of North Korea.
But I’ll stick with the computer and AI conspiracy … although I don’t believe in that either. I just think there’s a very cozy symbiosis between this pandemic and all the technologies and devices we now have that can pander to our voluntary or enforced isolation.
In fact it was all foreseen with remarkable prescience in 1909 by E. M. Forster, the author of A Passage to India and A Room with a View, in his novella, The Machine Stops. Set in a future, which could pretty much be an alternative today, everybody on the planet lives alone in small rooms in an underground complex. All needs are provided for by delivery and Internet-like communication.
The plot revolves around a giant machine (computer?) that controls everything, so you know where that’s going to lead. Our system or systems may not evolve into that. But one way or another we could be looking at a prolonged or perennial state of increasing isolation and technological dependence. Maybe new viruses will keep cropping up, or climate-fueled weather crises, or you name it, that will move us further and further apart and even underground.
Shut-ins of the world, separate! We have nothing to lose but society.
Postscript: I wrote this essay in early March, and on March 12 it was accepted for publication by the New Haven Register in New Haven, Connecticut, USA. However it still has not appeared there and may simply have become buried under the subsequent avalanche of op-ed submissions on the virus. So I am posting it here. Meanwhile, now that we are in the thick of the pandemic in the U.S., I am able to acknowledge that society has not disappeared after all, but, on the contrary, a wholly new kind of society has emerged, in which we seem to be doing a lot more caring about one another than we have for a generation and more (not to mention having marvelously enhanced ways of interacting remotely, as I ambivalently alluded to in the essay). Will this endure beyond the pandemic, or even for its duration? I sadly doubt it. But I would love to be proven wrong yet again.
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