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Quarantine is the future big tech wanted us to want. How long before we want out?

As the sphere of daily life shrinks to the size of a house or an apartment for many of us, the coronavirus is heightening our awareness of space — both the public and personal kinds. Social distancing has us estimating the feet and inches that separate us on sidewalks or in grocery stores and tallying the people with whom we’ve interacted over the course of the day. At home, movies can make us nostalgic for the mundane, now-forbidden rituals they depict: shaking hands, packing into elevators, dining at crowded restaurants. Population density is suddenly a visibly relevant metric to everyone, not just city planners.

This new sensitivity to space strikes a jarring contrast with an attitude that had been emerging before the pandemic, which regarded space as an annoying set of limitations that could be overcome by digital technology. A recent spammy promoted tweet from a generic-looking tech-industry thought leader perhaps put it best: Technology could “turn the real world into a clickable, searchable, data-infused experience.” From this perspective, the physical world appears as a cumbersome, geography-constrained interface that the internet could streamline, making activities like talking, shopping, banking, and sharing photos with friends more convenient and, for tech companies themselves, more profitable as space ceases to limit scale. Our sense of reality and agency have meanwhile adapted somewhat to these affordances. As the fantasy gained traction that every problem worth solving was fundamentally an information problem, it started to seem as though there should be an app for anything worth doing.

Before the pandemic, tech companies treated space as an annoying set of limitations to be overcome by apps

In some ways, a pandemic is the ideal proof-of-concept for the particular utopia that the tech industry has tried to build. Social distancing plays to digital technology’s immediately tangible strengths: ubiquitous and sanitary access to other people, maximum convenience, broad consumer choice, and endless entertainment at low cost. As the coronavirus brought countless global systems to a halt, the internet kept working, heroically filling the gaps. Some longtime critics of the tech industry, having spent much of the past decade complaining about its toxicity, seemed ready to acknowledge a silver lining if not praise it outright.

At the pandemic’s onset in the U.S., Ian Bogost went so far as to suggest that we had already been living in a de facto quarantine, claiming that “the last thing anyone might worry about is getting bored at home” — a statement that already seems archaic. He makes the case that over the past decade, remote work and education, e-commerce, food delivery apps, messaging channels, social media platforms, and streaming entertainment services have eliminated reasons for leaving the house one by one. In 2019, blogger Venkatesh Rao noted a phenomenon he labeled “domestic cozy,” an attitude and aesthetic that “seeks to predictably control a small, closed environment rather than gamble in a large, open one.” When the formal quarantine came, it seemed like domestic cozy was fully coming into its own. Much of the necessary infrastructure was already in place. The world that tech companies had built and persistently tried to persuade us we wanted was waiting for us, ready to fully take over. It was consumer-facing disaster capitalism in action.

But rather than prove that nearly anything is possible with an internet connection, the quarantine is calling attention to what digital technology can’t do. It was easier to think of the domestic cozy, online-first existence as not only possible but preferable when it was strictly a lifestyle choice. Being forced to live it, many of us are now discovering how much of the physical world we have taken for granted. Without distinct places for doing different activities like work and exercise, and bombarded by an accelerated news cycle, we’re losing our sense of time as well as space. Spatial variation helps structure the rhythms of everyday life and without the structure imposed by commuting, gathering with friends, and doing errands outside the house, days blur together and scheduling begins to feel arbitrary.

Although the screens, browser tabs, and app interfaces that currently link us to broader reality can fulfill some needs, they also impose their own particular restrictions. In a recent essay about the need for spatial logic in digital tools, John Palmer writes, “Messaging apps are stacks of bubbles. Video calls are faces inside static rectangles. There are only so many degrees of freedom for users inside of these apps, which makes them simple to use. But this simplicity also strips away so much of the freedom we have during in-person interactions. You can type any message, but typing a message is all you can do.” Physical space, by contrast, is not optimized for any specific type of interaction, providing leeway for the nonverbal functions that human presence fulfills.

Users experience Zoom more as a stultified form of virtual reality than an augmented one, because it now feels like there’s little off-screen reality available to augment

Pure economic exchanges can relocate to screen interactions with a minimal loss of fidelity, but encounters meant to be less instrumental are proving harder to sustain without the texture of physical space. Most of the apps we use for interaction simply unbundle an informational component from the scene of social contact. This was sufficient under ordinary circumstances, when messaging and video conferencing apps merely complemented in-person exchanges. But now those tools leave users wanting more, failing to substitute the richness and depth that interaction in physical space could otherwise provide.

Consider, for example, the video-conferencing platform Zoom. During the quarantine’s first few weeks, it emerged as a flexible (albeit insecure) tool for conducting interactions that could no longer happen face to face, rapidly expanding beyond its established domain of business meetings to accommodate gatherings ranging from happy hours to dinner parties to dates. But rather than providing support for adjacent activities, as an app like Slack does for office work, Zoom replaces those activities altogether. In other words, users experience Zoom more as a stultified form of virtual reality than an augmented one, because it feels as though there is very little off-screen reality available to augment right now.

Instead of supporting more robust forms of interpersonal interaction by adding layers of information or creating dynamics that aren’t possible in physical space, as video games and social media do, Zoom merely simulates in-person interactions in two-dimensional space while we wait for life to return to “normal.” Live events replicated via Zoom feel less like convenient alternatives than inferior and sometimes tedious simulacra. Instead of the full sensory immersion that we experience at a party, concert, or even a meeting, we have flat representations in browser tabs or apps, competing with the rest of the “content” delivered by the same screens.

This was already the perceptual logic of the internet: a nonspatial, atemporal universe in which everything feels always already available for instrumental use, whether we want it to be or not. Before the lockdown, this could manifest as power over information. Now without much physical experience to contextualize it, this feels both overwhelming and insufficient, failing to adequately organize experience or meet our social needs on its own.

It’s not hard to imagine companies like Zoom or Amazon wanting this quarantine to last forever, considering how well social distancing dovetails with their business models. In this recent New York Times piece, some of the paper’s tech reporters predict that the crisis will allow the tech industry to consolidate its dominance, strengthening its influence over everyday life: “With people told to work from home and stay away from others, the pandemic has deepened reliance on services from the technology industry’s biggest companies while accelerating trends that were already benefiting them.” But thriving within the context of a global nightmare is different from demonstrating a more general utility or social benefit. Pandemics, beyond their direct consequences for those who get sick, heighten fear, paranoia, isolation, xenophobia, economic vulnerability, and depression. If some tech companies complement such a world well, we should ask why.

The answer to that question, it seems, is that the contemporary tech industry benefits from an atomized society — the kind that coronavirus has brought about in exaggerated form. Discussing Airbnb, Rob Horning writes, “It is in a platform’s interest that people find they can’t get along, can’t communicate, can’t resolve their issues. This strengthens their demand for a third-party mediator.” In pandemics, those tendencies are amplified. Individuals become literal threats to one another’s lives, allowing digital platforms to reinforce their role as mediators, enabling and even encouraging users to indulge their instrumental use of one another. These platforms already presume a world in which relations are basically transactional and trust is difficult if not impossible without surveillance and ratings schemes. The traditional solidarity of geographically situated communities and the reciprocity they cultivate are ruled out. For now, that cynical vision is drawing additional support from the lockdowns.

The potentially dystopian future of public space in the post-coronavirus world is already becoming apparent. In addition to proving the viability of remote work at scale — thus eliminating many of the unstructured interactions and relationships that make jobs more tolerable — the pandemic may bolster popular support for more invasive forms of surveillance to regulate access to public space according to health or immunity status. Tech companies have already offered to help. If those same companies’ products already encouraged an instrumentalized mode of interaction before, the infrastructure they would provide could cement it, undermining public space’s critical role in allowing for other kinds of human contact.

What happens on screens is easier to monitor, despite the rise of encrypted messaging and other mechanisms of obfuscation. When an activity becomes mediated by software, it inherently becomes less private and less anonymous. Zoom calls can be recorded by their hosts, for example, subjecting teachers and white-collar workers alike to increased scrutiny that makes them more vulnerable. Similarly, remote work in general is easier for employers to monitor thoroughly, to the extent that software can track one’s every keystroke.

The contemporary tech industry benefits from an atomized society — the kind that coronavirus has brought about in exaggerated form

Amazon stands to gain more from the pandemic than almost any other company — the largely unseen backbone of a privatized, post-spatial world where public space is considered unsanitary and dangerous or just unappealing. Anticipating one potential post-pandemic dystopia, Anton Jäger writes, “Without a massive stimulus package, the corona crash will wipe out most of the small-scale service sector, from barbers to nail salons to internet cafes to specialty coffee bars. The only companies left standing will be Amazon and the large chains, now lording over a recalibrated sub-economy designed to deliver ‘essential’ goods.”

Amid surging pandemic demand, Amazon’s fulfillment workers have organized strikes to protest the company’s neglect of their own health and safety, prompting Amazon to retaliate by firing at least one strike’s organizer. In a way, these labor struggles are an outgrowth of a concurrent struggle for space: Amazon provides what appears to be a seamless interface between consumers and merchandise, concealing both its physical supply chain and the workers that power it, thereby creating the illusion that the products it sells come from the internet itself. As with other apps reshaping the sphere of possibility in various domains, Amazon seeks to reshape consumers’ relationship to the world of material goods, making it seem as though any need the company can’t satisfy isn’t real. At the same time, Amazon masks the human costs needed to serve its customers, encouraging the same interpersonal transactionality that tech platforms in general have facilitated. By ordering from Amazon during a pandemic, affluent consumers can transfer the risk of being outside to workers who must fulfill and deliver those orders. In a particularly egregious instance of this behavior, some Instacart users have exploited a bait-and-switch tipping scheme in which they entice the shoppers who pick up and deliver grocery orders with large tips that can be withdrawn once the transaction is complete.

After quarantine, if we hope to avoid settling for an atomized, decontextualized existence in which our primary identity is that of the consumer or user — one that isolates us and even pits us against one another — we will eventually have to find a safe way to return to public space. The cultural inertia of entire cities and countries coming out of hibernation after months indoors will be profound, but we should not interpret the fact that we eked out an existence during quarantine as proof that such an existence might seem desirable or permanent.

In How to Do Nothing, Jenny Odell makes an eloquent case for the importance of place as a site of non-transactional human relations. As an example, she describes how, for many, public transportation is “the last non-transactional space in which we are regularly thrown together with a diverse set of strangers, all of whom have different destinations for different reasons.” She goes on to summarize Louis Althusser’s contention that true societies can emerge only within spatial constraints, where individuals live in bounded proximity without the ability to easily disperse. In such settings, individuals have no choice but to encounter one another repeatedly and establish durable connections based upon a firmer foundation than the exchange value those relationships promise. This represents a quite different logic than that of an app that enables hiring random (and often unseen) strangers to perform tasks for us at a social distance. Althusser writes that people must be “forced to have encounters that last: forced by a force superior to them.” Such forced encounters work against the ethos of frictionless convenience that governs the commercial internet, especially under quarantine. Online, we do not have to occupy any specific place, much less visit repeatedly — and in an environment made of up ever-changing feeds, we frequently can’t return to the same place even when we want to.

After the quarantine ends, many stores, jobs, people, and even institutions won’t return. Significant economic and emotional pain will be distributed unjustly across vast populations. Cities won’t be the same as we remember them. But that doesn’t mean we must consign ourselves to a flattened and fully consumerized surveillance society in which digital platforms continue to spread us apart. The post-pandemic transition will at least serve as an occasion to evaluate what’s lacking from our current clickable, searchable reality and find new ways to fill those voids outside once we’re able to. We will still require the depth, freedom, and embodied presence that we can only fully achieve in a physical world with healthy, functional, and accessible public space, even if we still rely upon the internet to help us use it. The internet was never meant to be a self-contained space — it is an augmented reality, not a virtual one — and humans can’t live entirely within it.

Drew Austin writes about technology and urbanism on the blog Kneeling Bus.