Social distancing is nothing new, and a great deal of research has highlighted the benefits of social distancing for highly transmissible diseases in the absence of vaccines, but never before has the term occupied the central place it has in our mind’s today, with governments around the world anxious to reduce or even stop all interpersonal contact in order to control the covid-19 pandemic. While the precise medical, economic, and social consequences of this unprecedented measure remain uncertain, we should be clear about one thing: we have never been as prepared to minimize the psychological cost of social distancing as we are today, thanks to the digital age.
Since most of us have already migrated a great deal of our lives (and identities) to the digital world, creating virtual equivalents for virtually any human activity, physical isolation is far less likely to feel like loneliness, equate to boredom, or truly represent social isolation. In fact, it is conceivable that for a large number of people isolation from the digital rather than analogue world – in other words, switching to a purely offline life – would be more traumatic. Perhaps this is why we have recently devoted more time to worrying about computer viruses and cybersecurity attacks than biological viruses and pandemics.
This is not to say that we will find it easy to adjust to a life less rich in face-to-face contact, and the prospect of being removed from our families, friends, and work colleagues for an indefinite amount of time is for sure daunting. It is also obvious that in certain cultures, age groups, and less technological societies, it is far harder to reduce physical interactions or simply replace them with digital alternatives (the same goes for certain jobs, industries, and organizations). At the same time, there has never been a better time in history to cope with a radical reduction in physical contact, not least because technology has been downgrading the value of physical human exchanges for a few decades now, and dramatically so during the past 10-years. We would not have seen this drastic approach to social re-engineering imposed so systematically if so many of our key activities couldn’t be substituted (at least in part) with virtual alternatives.
Ironically, we have devoted (myself included) much of the past two decades to being shocked and scandalized by the psychological harms caused by our smartphone addiction (NoMoPhobia), lamenting the rise of digital narcissism fueled by Facebook and Instagram, the threat to truth and harvesting of fake news caused by Twitter and our digital filter bubbles, and the dystopian fears that the very algorithms designed to simplify our lives would end up controlling and manipulating us, amplifying human prejudice and bias, and downgrading us to mindless advertising products or data producing machines. Although these fears are arguably still warranted, we should also acknowledge that the very technology accused of making us stupid, lazy, or antisocial has just turned into an indispensable tool for minimizing the social and emotional costs of physical isolation.
It is important to note that there has always been a salient interaction between social behaviors and environmental constraints, including the threat of viruses and pathogens. Culture itself is the product or result of this interaction. For instance, cultural differences in curiosity, social exploration, and extraversion can be explained by environmental (climatic and geographical) influences on parasitic and pathogenic risks to human health – with cultures developing more openness, extraversion, and curiosity in places where the risk of physical interpersonal contact, particularly outside one’s in-group, was lower. In other words, our evolutionary ancestors have previously encountered many instances in which there was a strong wellbeing cost linked to socializing and hanging out with others. Historically, social distancing, in the sense that it is currently understood, has been the norm rather than the exception, with clear health risk associated with physical interactions outside our in-group. Modern medicine and globalization have done a great deal to mitigate these risks in recent centuries, but it’s thanks to the digital age that we are now able to maintain meaningful emotional and social connections with others even in the absence of physical proximity.
In this context, it seems logical to at least acknowledge some of the reverse arguments to the alarmist discussions on the adverse psychological effects of digital media on social and work behaviors. For example, it seems feasible that our concerns for the potential increases in loneliness, depression, and social anxiety caused by excessive social media usage must coexist with an acceptance that those same digital addictions have helped us cultivate deep virtual connections with others, which have become very real. By the same token, our tendency to condemn digital distractions, whether it’s binge watching YouTube, getting hooked on the Netflix series, or falling for clickbaity headlines, may feel less problematic when we find ourselves with more time and boredom to kill, and distractions are rather welcome. And of course if it weren’t for e-commerce, virtual meetings, and remote working, we would be facing a bigger shock to the economy, as well as an even more pronounced tension between our wellbeing and productivity.
But it’s not technology that we should celebrate, but the human capacity to create it, and adapt to it. Even in those who are suddenly forced to adopt a more virtual way of life, replacing precious in-person contact with seemingly cold and clunky digital substitutes, we can expect quick adaptation and the creation of new long-term habits. Any technology involves doing more with less, and there is no true technological adoption without an underlying need or necessity. Just as our desire to know, learn, produce, bond, and improve our mental and physical wellbeing has fueled recent technological innovations, any threat to such desires will only exacerbate the value of these inventions. Our individual and collective imaginations have enabled us to evolve into the most collaborative species on earth, and the digital age represents the latest phase in our quest to push the boundaries of cooperation. As tragic as global pandemics can be, we should regard them as a test for our capabilities. We are better equipped for dealing with them than we ever have been, largely because we have been able to create an entirely new system for coordinated human action – now we must make proper use of it.