Physical Distance is Social Distance.
Let’s work on being-together again.
Suddenly we became aware again of one another and of the things about us. People emerged from their seclusion and anonymity through their heroism, their selfless exertions, through acts of kindness and sometimes simply through the acknowledgment of tears and consolations.— Borgmann (after 9/11)
Somewhere mid March I read a statement on a social media platform that read: “we should not talk of social distancing, we should talk of physical distancing, because we need the social contact, for our health and well-being”. While everyone seemed to understand immediately what was meant with this statement, I felt it could not be both more close to and at yet the same time further from the truth. Variations of this empathic call returned in my timeline in the days to come, and everyone agreed: let’s not forget to make social contact, especially with those we know as prone to loneliness and depression. As best as we could, we made contact with our loved ones, using all creative means available, through skype, tik tok video’s, a voice on the phone, mailing packages with little gifts to offer a bit of comfort, to show empathy, to make it clear we were still there, or here, but in any case: for each other, even if physically apart.
The Corona crisis has put so much of our everyday world up on its head that it would be a shameful waste to let it pass without reflecting more deeply on some of the things we had, up to now, simply assumed to be true and unchangeable. This is not only the time to fight a virus, it is also a time to reconsider some things we took for granted. But to do that we typically first need some space and opportunity to take a step back from our daily lives, and look at it with fresh eyes and wonder. And boy, how these times offer that opportunity, in abundance. Personally, I have felt reflections about human life, the planet, society, economy, health, communication, technology, hit me in rays of ongoing fire so fast and rich that I simply cannot process them all, and I fear that most of it will be lost before I ever get the chance of writing it down. Yet there is one thought that stuck with me, because it is close to my heart, and this has to do with this call to dissociate physical from social distance. Some, especially some of those living in the Bay Area and comparable places of technological futurism, may hope that the crisis will mean the final transformative breakthrough of a completely digital, online life, whether it concerns shopping, education, the office, and even being with friends. Forced to use digital technologies and screens exclusively to do the things that up to now still had a physical, embodied counterpart in the real world, we may think that this will indeed be the time to leave the physical world for good: the world where your feet are located will be useful purely for that purpose: to store your fleshy behind, while at the same time, we meet, interact, trade and educate ourselves in virtual, digital spheres. And these people may very well be right. But if you ask me, it would really be the worst that could happen.
Instead, if anything good comes out of the Corona crisis, I hope, it will be that we in fact uncover the shallowness of the digital, and the poverty of the interaction provided by the screens that come along with it. The crisis has the potential to surface not a triumph of the virtual, but rather the deep necessity of our physicalbeing-together. Yes, it is true, we do need the social contact: people are social beings, even if we express our particular forms of social needs in a rich diversity of ways. And so the social media statement I quoted is absolutely right: we should not sociallyisolate ourselves, because social isolation, eventually, means death. Even if there is the odd person that can, and wishes to be on their alone for a very long time — and to be sure, such persons are known to exist, and perhaps even more than we think — still it is evident that for the vast majority of human beings social contact is as essential to their survival as the air they breathe. On the other hand, the social media statement is also very wrong to dissociate the idea of physical distance and social distance. To continue the analogy: there is actually no ontological divide – no difference in ‘kind of being’ – between social contact and the materiality of fresh air in our lungs. While we need both to survive, neither air, nor social interaction, can be fed to us through a wifi connection.
To think social interaction can be delivered through a screen is perhaps the biggest delusion of our times. Being on the internet is great for many purposes, but in terms of social interaction, it is a being-alone in the illusion of being together. Or rather – it is, at best, a temporal extensionof the actual being-together that grounds it. It works like stretching an elastic band, which can only go so far, and should certainly not be stretched all the time, for if so it will surely loose it’s capacity. We can keep it up for a while, but only because we compensate the loss with renewed physical contact with others. Usually we just about make it through, and then, just in time, we slip back into the actual world of people and things, and we replenish ourselves with relief. We play with our children, we visit our parents, we go to the party, the bar, the neighbors; we talk with the shop owner, the random person on the street. Standing in the street and experiencing people stepping back from you, because we need to be 1.5 meters apart, is not adding to this replenishing, it is killing it. Asking a person not to touch your dog because you are afraid the dog will carry the virus over: the same. It has to be done, today, and perhaps for a while longer, to fight the spread. But it is killing us in another way, on the long run. We are currently like divers, on pressed air, and we now have been under water for quite some time. Like divers, we need to resurface at some point, to take some deep breaths, filling our lungs with the real social interaction that implicates an actual physical being-together. Air – the air we breathe – is not compressed oxygen in a tube, as we now are so aware of, reading about the devastating consequences for those who have been artificially oxygenated for multiple weeks. Likewise, social contact is not the flickering image on a computer screen. It is not the sending of photos and messages and emoji’s on a chat channel. Being in social contact is not a matter of digital information exchange at all: it is about what it is, literally, a being-together. And since our being is not some internal, mental thing, but our whole being, which is to say, our entire living body that is in the world, being-together means living bodies being together. If we had slightly forgotten how to make sense of what that meant, we are now in the strange lucky/unlucky position that we can reappreciate it, because we feel it with a strength that cannot be denied. Physical distance issocial distance.
If it turns out that, given the developments of the Corona crisis, it would be impossible to survive without completely abandoning physical being-together, if government will call upon us to self-isolate, not for a month, or even three months, but a year, two years, a lifetime: that would be the real crisis. And that would be the crisis we cannot survive – even if it means we stop a virus from spreading. We can feel now, on each day, and on each occasion, the loss, what is missing. It eats on the inside. Each phonecall, skypecall, email, we feel it, we feel what it is about. Let’s take it seriously, this feeling. Perhaps self-isolation, for a while, is also good, in order to really feel it, not as this implicit aspect of everyday life, in which it creeps in slowly but goes unnoticed, like a pick-pocket. Let’s feel it hardcore: stay inside and only have contact with your family and friends through the screen. Try it, for weeks on end. Feel, how that really feels. We must turn to the countries with the strictest quarantine measures to ask: how does this feel? We are now in the unique position that the ‘digital society’, that we stumbled into in the first decade of this century is now so much amplified that we can finally see its true shallowness before our eyes. This feeling, the feeling of wanting to go and have a chat with the neighbours, to meet your dad, but not being able to, to resort once more to this shallow picking up of the phone, and feeling how it just doesn’t cut it – this is the feeling that you should remember, even if we beat the virus, which I have no doubt we will at some point. And if you do not feel it, I urge you to do some soul searching and refind it. Because it is there, somewhere, inside you. It may have been obscured with layers and layers of Cartesian delusion, the age-old delusion that ‘we’ are a virtual mind, not material together-beings. It is obscured because you may have been brought up in a world that already tells you the lie from the very first day you see the light – which in your case was sadly enough most probably the flashlight of four or five iphones hanging over your crib. Let’s work on a cure and a vaccine for this virus. Yes we we need to self-isolate, to increase the capacity in our hospitals, to give anyone who becomes seriously ill the chance to survive if they need to survive on hospital oxygen, if, for a while, fresh air is not enough anymore. But let’s also work on a cure and vaccine against the virus that is the digital delusion that human value is a purely virtual thing. Let’s work on being-together again. Let’s put screens back to where they belong: in dedicated places, for dedicated tasks. Like hospital oxygen, paradoxically enough, we can use the internet for a good cause. We can use internet to strengthen ourselves, our whole bodies, so much that once the medicine has been delivered and the vaccins are being administered, and once, as we say, life returns to normal, we will have changed so much that we will simply close our laptops, put away our phones, and go out and meet each other again, to touch each other, hug, talk, be together and feel together. To take a deep breath, and be human again.