2020 04 – Social Ties and Covid-19

Keeping In Touch

Eamon Dyas

The extent to which a culture of individualism has pervaded society has disguised the basic underlying feature that holds it together. While that culture of individualism has been around for some time it’s only really in this generation with its reliance on mobile phones and the way in which what is called virtual networking sustains personal bubbles that people have lost track of the importance of the tactile element of what underpins society.

That tactile need has always asserted itself in people’s work and how they socialise but the recognition of its importance has been to a large extent unacknowledged in the way that the alternative virtual world has been elevated into the primary role of what is perceived as communication.

This has served urban-dominated western cultures very well. Urban life creates an unnatural – for want of a better term – level of interaction. People are physically heaped on top of each other and space becomes a premium both physically and emotionally. Yet at the same time the continuing need to deny that crucial space to people cannot be conceded – at least not in any organic way. The resulting paradox was acknowledged in the past (and continues to be acknowledged) by the role allocated to public spaces like parks and plazas in urban planning. But, unlike rural life these spaces are not a natural feature of the primary activity of what they do – how they go about making a living in their normal lives. They remain a thing apart – a bit like the artificial landscapes constructed for the animals in zoos. They meet a need but only to a limited extend.

But humans are infinitely adaptable and in urban life that adaptability expresses itself in the way that modern individualism has emerged. Denied the feature of a rich and meaningful external physical space people are compelled to find refuge in their internal space. But not primarily in a passive contemplative way. Rather in an active and assertive way that lays emphasis on the construction of a belief in their own uniqueness. The more the world around them assumes the features of sameness the more the need to believe in something different within.

Yet, underneath it all is the core fact that in the modern world we need each other to an extent unprecedented in our history. Our physical existence is now reliant on myriad strands of contacts over huge distances. That need has resulted in and been made possible by the modern means of communication. But while it serves that purpose it fails to serve the core need that we as tactile entities continue to demand.

Modern communication systems sustain and encourage the individualism of modern life and it has enabled a belief to emerge that it serves our primary social needs. The current demands being placed on society will reveal the extent to which this is true. It may be that we have evolved in a generation to the extent that it is true but I hope not.

I was encouraged yesterday by the sight of a neighbour being visited by their daughter and grand-daughter. In compliance with the social distance recommendation instead of entering the house they communicated with each other through the window.

These neighbours are fully aware and have access to things like Skype and FaceTiming and could – indeed probably do – regularly communicate via these facilities with their daughter and granddaughter. However, in this instance the desire to see each other in the flesh was something that needed to be done. It’s that need that will probably be the undoing of the current plans for a long-term social lockdown.