|Viewing Mass through the window at the back of SS Gregory & Augustine, in Oxford|
Some people are excited about a post-Covid future, since the epidemic and government responses to it have had some good results, such as cleaner air, and have speeded up some processes they regard as positive, such as a move of economic activity online. For the World Economic Forum, which may perhaps be beginning to regret popularizing the phrase “the Great Reset” (too late now), a bright future beckons. All we need to do is “adapt”. Well, I don’t mind if some tedious and pointless meetings in the future take place online, and if that means that some people take fewer long-haul flights, that’s great. But I’m not sure they have really thought about the cost.
Suppose we come out of the epidemic with a much lower tolerance of face-to-face meetings, whether for health reasons or because we’ve adapted to working from home so we can’t so easily go to a meeting room in our workplace. Certainly, a lot of people, myself included, who’d used the internet for video conversations only infrequently up until 2020, have now had to get used to this way of communicating. So, this is possible. It is clear to me, however, that what this means is a greatly impoverished quality of human interaction. It simply isn’t as easy to have a meeting of minds online. I don’t know exactly why. No doubt it is some combination of the loss of social cues when one can’t see more than the other party’s face, the imperfect sound reproduction, the time lags, and the difficulty of inserting oneself into a monologue or conversation, and similar factors, to say nothing of technical problems. Whatever it is, it is real, certainly in my personal experience, at the level of large group meetings, at the level of intense one-to-one conversations, and everything in between. I fear that as we get used to it, what we will be getting used to is meetings where half the participants are playing solitaire and we’re all just going through the motions.
Suppose, again, we come out of the epidemic with a significant shift to online commerce, whether for health reasons, or simply because so many physical shops have closed down. Internet shopping has been a big growth story for years but there was a long way for this trend to go, and the epidemic has undoubtedly speeded up the process. Is this is a good thing? I won’t shed any tears over out-of-town megastores, which already had the impersonality of internet shopping without the convenience. But the swift disappearance of shops where we can examine unpackaged goods and talk to live, human, assistants is a massive blow not only to our quality of life but also to efficiency. Some things you need to see before you can make a meaningful choice about buying. The reason small bookshops and “mom and pop” grocery stores and the like had not all disappeared already by the beginning of 2020 is that they were valued: people wanted to use them. Being suddenly deprived of that option adds nothing to human welfare.
Suppose, finally, we come out of the epidemic, if we ever do, with a significantly heightened concern about hygiene. If people with colds are expected to stay at home or wear a mask, where people hesitate to shake hands, and try to keep their distance in social interactions. We’ve seen “compensation culture” make life difficult for children’s sports and playgrounds, and practically impossible for sectors of the medical profession in some places, so I think such a turning of the dial of risk aversion to an extreme setting is a very real possibility. What would this mean? Certainly, the business model of restaurants, cinemas and the like will need to be drastically reconsidered, and either they’ll be much more expensive, or impossible. More broadly, such a development would affect our experience of human interaction in a profound way. It would cut us off from natural human contact: being close to friends, of getting to know a stranger, of sharing space with people. It will also cut us off from the shared experience of watching live sport, of films, plays, and concerts: to say nothing of the liturgy. The atmosphere, the ability to pick up other people’s responses as well as to have one’s own, to what is going on, is simply impossible if we are all spread out, or online.
I have been talking about consequences of the epidemic and associated restrictions which may follow quite naturally from the current period. Things could be much worse if there are ongoing legal restrictions. I fear that even without significant ongoing restrictions imposed by the state, there will be no “return to normal”. If states step in to shape the “reset”, then anything is possible. It won’t all be good.