Bowling Alone in a Pandemic

Life in a pandemic is one of truncated sociability and growing inequality. It is probably not a temporary reality if it generates cultural patterns, namely, habits

(Picture from vasabjitbanerjee)

Since the late-20th-century, there has been a revival of interest in the study of “social capital.” The concept portrays a normative framework capable of generating trust among individuals and, thus, facilitate interaction and cooperation. This largely due to Robert Putnam, who picked up the term, coined in the 1960s, and in the tradition of Alexis de Tocqueville brought civil society to the center stage of analysis and public conversation.

Putnam tells us that the stock of social capital has declined in American society, the result of a visible civic disaffection. And he operationalizes his observations on the basis of the fall in the membership of voluntary associations: religious, civic, neighborhood organizations, and bowling leagues, among others.

The vibrancy of community life that once impressed Tocqueville has ceased to be so. And without robust mechanisms that promote civic engagement and personal interaction, there will be no accumulation of social capital. This, in turn, negatively affects public institutions by diminishing the effectiveness of their policies, ultimately eroding the quality of government and the democratic system.

That in addition to increasing loneliness—bowling alone is more than just a metaphor. Putnam views the role of technology in organizing our everyday lives as a causal factor. Digital technologies that privatize our leisure time—at the expense of traditional forms of entertainment that favor interaction—explain the growing isolation. The virtual reality we have built, he tells us, is responsible for the erosion of social capital.

Outlined a quarter-century ago, Putnam’s insight appears more powerful today and not only in the US. Consider how much time we spend in front of a screen. Twenty-five years ago there were no smartphones or social media. If the late 20th-century world worried Putnam for its tenuous sociability, today’s might frighten him and the post-pandemic world, perhaps terrify him.

As it happens to me. A study by researchers affiliated with Harvard’s School of Public Health published in Science projects that waves of COVID-19 infection will recur in winters after the initial one. To avoid overwhelming critical care capacities, they conclude that prolonged or intermittent social distancing may be necessary into 2022.

Which gives us an opportunity to reflect on the sociability of this unprecedented pandemic (without engaging in fortunetelling, leaving that up to Žižek and his overdetermined collapse of capitalism). The world at the end of the 20th century gave way to great technological revolutions, a homogenizing grammar that, we are told, reduces all differences—class, occupational, political, cultural, and so on. In a sort of fetishism of technology, social media experts proclaimed such homogenization long ago. The pandemic may help them moderate their claims.

Does technology really mitigate isolation? Or doesn’t it only create the illusion of closeness, through a virtual construction even more individualistic than Putnam’s depiction, strengthening rather than defusing alienation? Zygmunt Bauman had already warned us: we connect so that we can remain distant.

In addition to a deep and vast economic contraction, this global public health crisis will produce greater inequality, as any recession does. Inequality in the broadest sense of the term, that is, the gap between the haves and have-nots, between those who have access and those who have not, those who are connected and those who are not.

Families and friends communicate virtually, which keeps them connected. Yes and no. The use of technology can also discriminate between generations. Its ease of use is inversely proportional to age. The elderly tend to be virtually isolated, besides being actually lonely as in Italy and Spain, the societies with the lowest fertility rate of the European Union.

Education is now online. Also, yes and no. Consider the following example. In the Washington DC metropolitan area, there is a contrast on the availability of virtual instruction. This occurs both on the supply side—the infrastructure of the educational institutions—and on the demand side—ease of access to technology by users. Consequently, the vast majority of virtual teaching takes place among private schools.

Work goes on virtually. Social media features veritable tapestries with the photos of business meetings; for the benefit of Skype, Zoom, and Cisco Webex, by the way. But this is not the reality of the manual worker, the day laborer, the informal worker, and the immigrant. The quarantine is an unreachable luxury for them.

Working from home eliminates the office as a place of socialization—and thus of construction of social capital—which implies a radical change in the very conception of “work.” The consolidation of this practice will allow firms to save resources allocated to physical space, resulting in greater corporate profits. They will transfer that cost to their employees, who will have to secure space and technological means in their homes to be employed in the first place.

Life in a pandemic is one of truncated sociability and growing inequality. It is probably not a temporary reality if it generates cultural patterns, namely, habits. We might end up living in a world of greater isolation, bowling alone but more profound.

Isolation and loneliness; social distancing and confinement. This truncated sociability also begins to be part of affective relationships, perhaps resulting in a new type of love. Incidentally, officials of the Argentine Ministry of Health have prescribed video calls, sexting, and other forms of virtual sex to prevent contagion. “Liquid love” to say the least. Bauman couldn’t have foretold us better.

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