I must confess that I hadn’t realised, until recently, quite how much of human social life involves people spraying each other with spittle. We now know a little more about how Covid-19 spreads than we did at the start of the outbreak. The virus jumps from one body to another along different paths, but its vehicle of choice is the saliva droplet. That rules out a surprising number of activities, such as football crowds, pubs, restaurants, Zumba classes, and nightclubs – basically, wherever we congregate to sing, pant or commune at close quarters. We can dance, but not with each other.
This pandemic, an economic and geo-political crisis instigated by rogue proteins, is a reminder that we are still fundamentally biological entities. That is easy to overlook, since we live our lives at the intersection of two modes of existence. The biological one is messy and textured and fluid, literally and figuratively. The digital one is ordered and precise, consisting of discrete units in certain quantities. Lockdown, itself a response to a biological event, has moved us further into digital mode: a world of straight lines, grids and scripts.
An algorithm is a set of rules that defines a sequence of operations. In every country, there is now an elaborate set of rules for where you can go and how you can move, even for children. When my five-year-old boy enters the school gates he no longer joins a careening swarm of children on climbing frames, but slots into his position in a socially distanced line-up, before being marched into the classroom. Once there, he doesn’t roam around spreading plasticine and glitter, but takes up his place at his assigned desk, where he stays until it is time for him to play in his assigned area, a box marked out on the ground.
The pandemic can only be grasped and responded to through data. This is true at the macro-level – transmission patterns and growth rates – and at the micro-level of our everyday lives. Everything must be counted so that we can execute our behaviour programs. How many people are allowed in the shop? If two, then wait. If one leaves, then enter. While waiting, we stare at our phones.
On the street, we scan ahead for on-comers and make calculations about how to avoid them. A friend of mine who recently had a baby described her daily walks with the buggy as like taking part in a very low-octane video game. What Jane Jacobs called “the intricate ballet of the sidewalk” has become slow-motion Pac Man.
Sometimes when I click on Google Maps and it can’t access enough data, all it shows is a dot on a grid. It gives me a little chill, as if my existence, and the rich and variegated world I see around me, are just so many data points on someone else’s graph. That’s what the current moment feels like to me.
Zoom meetings, though necessary, are missing something. To have satisfying conversations we need to feel, at some animal level, a sense of comfort with our interlocutor, and we seek the reassurance of touching each other before we begin. Hence the rituals of shaking hands or kissing before we get down to the business of spitting in each other’s face, otherwise known as talking.
In an essay called “Telling is Listening” the science fiction writer Ursula K Le Guin argued that human communication is about much more than swapping messages. Le Guin compared conversation to amoeba sex. Amoebas, famously, can reproduce alone, but sometimes they get together to exchange genetic material, and they do so by melding their bodies together for a while.
When two humans are talking and listening closely, said Le Guin, they form a single entity. They synchronise: their faces make the same micro-movements, they fidget to the same beat. She cited the researcher William Condon, who described communication as “a dance, with everyone engaged in intricate, shared movements across many subtle dimensions”.
When conversing over screens we communicate like machines, pinging messages back and forth. The participants take turns: you say your bit, I say mine. People are either on send or receive, whereas in physical conversations they are on both at once. Tiny inflections of tone and rhythm that are so meaningful in a room get lost in compression. When these subtle relationship signals are stripped away, what’s left is closer to pure information, a colourless code.
This is not a complaint – I can only imagine how much worse our condition would be without digital technology to connect us while in isolation. It is an observation about where we are headed. Trotsky called war the locomotive of history, and that’s true of this pandemic too: it is hastening and intensifying changes already under way.
Public debates are becoming more algorithmic and binary. You must pick one side or another, and when you do, there is always a ready-made script waiting for you to run. When Tory ministers defended Dominic Cummings over his trip to Durham, it wasn’t just what they said that was depressing but how: in a series of near-identical, robotic tweets. More of us are behaving like politicians. Every row on social media is conducted with a set of arguments, slogans and memes that each side – and in binary arguments there can only be two sides – faithfully deploy.
The anthropologist Maurice Bloch has observed that humans only look as though we’re separate; the truth is that we are always going “in and out of each other’s bodies”, physically and mentally. Ever since Plato split the soul from the body, we’ve been eager to forget that we are mammals first and everything else second, which may be why we are so keen to emulate our electronic tools. But whenever we squeeze the messiness of human life into cleanly drawn boxes we lose something vital. I hope that when this is over we can remember how to dance together.
This article appears in the 24 Jun 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Political football