In an earlier post, I assembled a selection of dots connecting an increase in social isolation and certain trends in technology adoption propelled by our tendency to privilege left-brain thinking.  Some have noted this trend towards isolation began with the emergence of the mobile phone, around 2008 or so.  Now after two years of intermittent lockdowns (or lock ups?) I wonder if the pandemic has accelerated that trend?

As a respiratory disease, the COVID virus has had us be selective about the air we breath lest it be infected.  In practical terms, not sharing air has meant isolating from others or meeting in places where there is plenty of air movements (e.g., outside).  For many, this has translated into staying at home for extended periods of time. For the unlucky, this has meant being alone in what can only be described as a form of solitary confinement.   Confinement in a closed space has limited our activities.  It has not only boxed in our bodies, but without attention, and vigilance,  our minds as  well.   Many have complained that the lack of  differentiation has blurred the days into what I would characterize as an unending Ingmar Bergman film.  As Marcos Alonso Fernández, faculty member at Universidad Adolfo Ibáñez, noted “…pandemic life seems to be a pseudo-life …” For all of us locked down, the isolation, the imprisonment, has magnified and exaggerated  the banality of life. 

We are social being, and physical closeness, seeing facial clues, etc. are integral to communications among us, which in turn is essential in maintaining our social bonds. During those periods of lockdown, where this ‘pseudo-life’ has dominated, these bonds have been either broken or mediated through technologies, such as FaceTime or WhatsApp, and  contained within a subset of our circle of friends and family.  When we have gone out, say to buy groceries, our interaction with other people has been physically separated by at least 2 meters and our faces have been covered by masks.  We have become suspicious of other people,  as carriers of the disease.  I sense however, our suspicions have broadened and become more generalized, for example to question whether these other people have been vaccinated, which in turn leads to questioning their principles and moral character.  

Our isolation and a growing fear of others tends to drive a sense of them and us, further weakening our social ties.  All these emotions have been fostered in a petri dish of uncertainty: will I get the virus? How bad will it be? And the broader question of when will it all end? Conflating these questions heightens anxiety, and develops a sense of uncertainty. Lisa Feldman Barrett, Professor of Psychology at Northeastern University, notes “Uncertainty is one of the most expensive conditions of the brain”.  The brain constructs a model of the world and makes predictions about the impact / meaning of incoming stimulus.  But under these conditions the brain receives an input stimulus but doesn’t know what it means. 

The Others become a source of the contagion, reinforcing our urge to isolate and lookout for the self.   Much like what happens when we racialize and segregate.  We become islands of self.  Our physical distancing evolves into an emotional distancing, making us less empathetic, less tolerant. Our technologies algorithmically separate us into tribes. Our “big tents”  collapse, making us more critical of others, less respectful, less civilized, less gracious. Then willing to subjugate.

These divisions in our society pre-existed the pandemic, but this scourge has intensified and accelerated the trend. Does the act of physical and emotional isolation foster the propensity to look within, to privilege the self over community?  Does this explain why so many people chose not to vaccinate? Why did they choose self over society? When conditions make it easier to “other” people, this does not bode well; it is a practice used by dictators and despots to gain and maintain power.  


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