Togetherness In Times Of The Pandemic
Piuli Basu – Research Assistant, Kautilya
By 2021, fatigue had become a major hurdle in our efficiency towards our respective work-from-home responsibilities, be it as students or working professionals. With India gradually opening up the gates of its offices and institutions, not many of us are unhappy about our return to workplaces. Might I even say, we are glad to be back! And that, precisely, will be the focus of this article.
The first quarter of 2020 was surreal when the pandemic forced the world indoors. Left without a choice, schools and workplaces shifted online, so did entertainment and everyday social interactions. Festivals, carnivals and celebrations had all become digital, our only recourse was to derive joy and satisfaction from seeing our loved ones through screens. Lovers of the performing arts could continue their vocations on Zoom while quarantined indoors, while the daily humdrum at the markets had succumbed to e-commerce websites. In a society such as India characterised by a collectivistic culture, social connectedness is a significant part of people’s personal identities. What I am trying to show here is that we Indians tend to form close-knit networks and communities, which are held together by common activities or interests. And the spaces these communities physically occupy develop a reciprocal relationship with the above kinds of social interactions that are a part of these common interests.
So what happens when these spaces become inaccessible? When the pandemic pushed us all indoors, the physical sites of social interaction became hollowed out architectural compartments of brick-stick-and-mortar. Although many of the activities went digital, the community-interaction which these sites birthed and bred ceased to exist. We did have digital tools, nonetheless the collective feeling of togetherness could not be substituted with AI programmed devices.
As we move further into the future, of what is called the post-human technology-driven era, what implications might technology have on our social interactions? With AI driven forms of communication becoming widespread, ‘friction-free’ virtual interactions are increasingly gaining popularity amongst current and future generations; and the pandemic has only acted as a catalyst to augment this wave. While AI promises efficiency and vulnerability, it has the potential to alter human qualities of friendship, kindness and altruism. Professor Christakis of Yale says, “Especially as machines are made to look and act like us and to insinuate themselves deeply into our lives, they may change how loving or friendly or kind we are – not just in our direct interactions with the machines in question, but in our interactions with one another.” Take for example my niece, who has attended online school. Having been away from school for years now, and quarantined for the fear of infection, her young mind now hardly remembers friendship.
Another aspect of this digital interaction is that, who gets to access it? The financial cost of the devices necessary for virtual interactions to be possible cannot be afforded by many. TRAI (Telecom Regulatory Authority of India) reports, India had 719 million internet subscribers by end 2019. Considering India’s population, this translates to only about 50% of people connected to the net. In this pandemic itself, only 20 per cent of school-age children in India had access to remote education, of whom only half participated in live online lessons, as reported by ICRIER and LIRNEAsia. In a society that is increasingly polarised in terms of income and socio-economic status, it is the groups on the margins of society whose voices are silenced in a post-pandemic virtual world. Even if some manage to get hold of these devices, the algorithms that govern virtual media platforms prevent intermixing of social groups by only feeding its users the kind of content that is in tune with their pre-built interests. This locks users into ideological echo chambers, thereby contributing to the increasing polarisation of the world community.
Human-to-human interaction is a key element in our social lives. Even if the virtual realm can provide a temporary work-around for times such as the pandemic, it can never be the permanent substitute for physical human interaction. If social life is transformed entirely into digital, it calls for a redefinition of what it means to be human, of what togetherness looks like. And it is the need of the hour to deliberate upon the consequences of this newly defined humanness.