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Adrift in the multiverse
Written by Tom Gillingham, associate partner
3 February 2021
A problem shared is a problem halved, or so the saying goes. But what happens when we no longer experience the same problems and lack the places to share them?
With the storm of Covid-19 raging outside, we have again retreated into relative individual isolation. A traumatic year on from the first whispers of something bad in Wuhan, we are all painfully aware that this virus thrives in the spaces we used to share.
Those who are able to work and study from home now live in a series of bubbles. Guarded by screens, everything from the air we breathe to news sources and social media is filtered. These individual retreats are mirrored in the behaviour of nations, which have eschewed the norms international life to focus on Covid-based domestic strife.
These behaviours all risk a further deepening of what I’d like to tentatively term the ‘shared experience crisis’.
This phenomenon had taken root before Covid-19, but as the pandemic has worn on, it has become brutally apparent that we are not at all in this together. All too often, we are universes apart.
Societies have historically revolved around collective experiences: similar schooling, stories and legends, participating in mass events or, significantly, collective responses to adversity. These norms are under threat like never before.
Even before the pandemic, this complex web of interconnected human experience was being frayed at the edges by fake news, feedback loops and the emergence of new populist movements.
The rising alternative realities of QAnon or the re-emergence of flat earth truthers is the most extreme manifestation of this phenomenon, where shared experiences relocate from public discourse to mutate in the confines of self-selecting groups. These ideas can then spread relatively free of challenge, aided by the algorithms that increasingly define the world we see.
There are, of course, positive outcomes from the fact ideas can now easily go beyond geographical and community boundaries. The message of the Black Lives Matter movement has transcended borders and generations, while Greta Thunberg’s climate interventions have reached vast online audiences, but those who engage with these particular issues exist in universes of their own and are subject to the very same algorithms too.
Public spaces, universities, pubs and even places of worship are closed, meaning unstructured contact with other people, and alternative views, has essentially been erased from day-to-day life. Just as we miss the incidental creativity of being together in workplaces or schools, we are also surely missing the challenge to our own beliefs that can emerge from inadvertent conversations. Offline and in public we are protected, to some extent, by social norms. Online, it’s all too often a screaming match between avatars of those who know they’re universes apart.
We now talk of bold post-pandemic changes. Of 20-minute neighbourhoods and permanent working from home. There are undoubted benefits to these ideas, but at their worst these concepts could spark a round of enclave creation that merely replicates the detachment of our online existence.
This fracturing of people’s ties to the societies they inhabit has profound implications for the future of the nation state too. The storming of the US Capitol and the deep split in the US electorate is a dramatic illustration of how fringe beliefs from a particular online universe can spill over into the real world.
A free and democratic nation should always accommodate a plurality of views, but in our current state it seems there is very little space for the best of human nature to challenge the very worst.
The longer term financial and health impacts of this pandemic are predicted to continue to hit the poorest in society hardest, and views on the big issues of the day have never felt more polarised. There is a looming mental health crisis, which can only be exacerbated by any lingering sense of dislocation and prolonged economic turmoil. Saying “I understand” has never felt more difficult.
On top of this, we will have a generation of children with a fundamental fault-line in the bedrock of their shared school experience, town centres and civic spaces that have been decimated, and a rarefied cohort of established workers who may be less willing than ever to step outside the cocoon of the home office.
We have to hope, then, that vaccinations and other health measures give us the confidence to return to offices, schools and pubs in a meaningful way, and – most importantly of all – allow for the return of random interactions that may just challenge views that could otherwise run unchecked.
When we can, we should revel in the chance to step out of the universes we have created and cherish the uniting power of shared experience. Online communities are not inherently a bad thing, but if we continue to bar others from our walled compounds – real or virtual – there is a real risk of forgetting we have neighbours at all.