The United States, along with many other industrialized nations, is currently engaged in a large-scale experiment that is in some ways the realization of the fondest dreams of a small but influential segment of the population.
For some time now, many investors, as well as leaders of the dominant high-tech companies—Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, Google, etc.—have strived to move us toward an ideal future in which all human interaction and economic activity would take place by means of digital platforms—owned and operated by them, of course. This ideal world would consist of two classes: the small symbolic-manipulator elites of owners, designers, and engineers who create and operate these platforms and profit mightily therefrom and the masses of consumers whose only useful function is to use what the platforms provide.
Well, the shelter-in-place orders that affect about half the US population and have shuttered all non-essential businesses have violently catapulted us into this ideal future in a matter of a couple of weeks. And so far, the results are not good.
Yes, a few lines of business have benefited: food-delivery services, the online videoconferencing system Zoom, and those who provide binge-watched TV series. But we have also seen the largest number of applications for unemployment benefits in history (over 3 million last week), a stock market slide resembling an avalanche, and a level of economic uncertainty that has no parallel in living memory.
I have the privilege of knowing one of the few people in the US whose weekly routine has been almost completely untouched by these events. He is not a resident of a desert island, nor a fantastically wealthy hermit living in an isolated compound with years’ worth of supplies. It’s just that for years now, he has been following the shelter-in-place rules by choice.
This relative of mine acquired enough funds to retire about 20 years ago, and chooses to live by himself and spend most of his waking hours online in chatrooms, watching YouTube programs, and viewing the occasional sports show on TV. He ventures outside once a week or so for grocery shopping, but other than the occasional medical problem, he has no other human contact, and likes it that way. The only inconvenience he has experienced so far from the coronavirus restrictions is that he had to go to four grocery stores last week to find bread—the first three were sold out. But other than that, his lifestyle is largely undisturbed.
A nation can afford only so many people like my relative. It’s a free country, so far, and so if a person chooses to cut himself off from society like that, he is allowed to do so. But we are currently experiencing what happens when he is joined by dozens of millions more forced to live that way.
Yes, we’re glad there are such things as Zoom, Netflix, YouTube, and for that matter, cellphones, electric utilities, and water supplies. But we are also finding out by direct experience that a vast part of our economy consists of embodied people going places and being together to do useful and entertaining things. And when you cut that part out, everybody suffers in one way or another—the subsistence-wage person who loses the low-wage service job at a restaurant or movie theater, to the wealthiest investor who has seen his net worth decline by a third recently.
Underlying the prejudice in favor of digital everything, and the corresponding disdain for people and industries that make things rather than bitstreams, is a kind of Gnostic dualism.
The Gnostics were sects popular in the early years of the Christian era. One prominent branch of Gnosticism believed that the universe was divided into a good spiritual part and a bad material part. Because the physical human body was material, they disdained it and believed that the real person was a good spirit who just happened to be imprisoned in a decaying material body. The goal of life was to free yourself from the body and all its trappings, and rejoin the other good spirits after death. Or something like that.
Well, we are finding out what happens when we all become temporary Gnostics, and eschew as much human contact with each other and with our physical workplaces as we can. The distant goal of having everybody exist mainly online as an anticipation of the day hoped for by transhumanists (a popular movement in Silicon Valley) when we can all free ourselves from our mortal biological “meat cages” and live forever as software, has just jumped into our laps without being invited.
The fact is that human beings are creatures that don’t just inhabit bodies: we are bodies, but we are also more than our bodies. We are also immaterial minds, but a mind without a body is incomplete, as is a body without a mind. Any rational political economy will acknowledge this fact, and will plan for a future that includes bodies as well as minds—full human beings interacting in accordance with human nature, which—despite the last few hundred years of innovations in philosophy, science, and culture—has not changed.
We as a nation will get through the coronavirus pandemic somehow, though not without serious losses that could have been mitigated with more foresight. But the experiment we are now undergoing of trying to live all-digital lives holds lessons for us that we can all profit from, and I don’t mean just dollars and cents.
Here’s an idea.
If your life has been disrupted by the pandemic, start writing a list of things you miss from back before the pandemic began. Ask yourself why these things were important. And when things get back to whatever the new normal will be, don’t lose the list. Ask yourself, and ask your leaders, what things we have chased after too hard, and what things we have neglected.
And then let’s try to apply the lessons that this experiment is teaching us, before we forget about the whole thing and go back to the mistakes we were making before.
This article has been republished, with permission, from Engineering Ethics.