In this postmodern, information age of imagination, the pandemic is a confrontation with realities—both the one we have created over the past fifty years and the one that was always there, bleeding behind the screens.
The reality we simulate
In The Utopia of Rules, David Graeber described an historical shift since the 1970s in the development of technology, away from physical objects and towards simulated projects:
What technological progress we have seen since the seventies has largely been in information technologies—that is, technologies of simulation. They are technologies of what Jean Baudrillard and Umberto Eco used to call the ‘hyper-real’—the ability to make imitations more realistic than the original.
If you doubt the essential truth of this broad assertion, then consider your life in 2020. Many of your human activities, I’m sure, have been reduced to their simulations:
- WFH instead of with colleagues in the office
- Email instead of love letters
- Dating apps instead of meeting strangers
- Sport, drama, comedy on television instead of in the crowd
- Video calls instead of birthday parties
- Emojis instead of touch
These simulations are only possible because of the development of information technologies. They’re not the real thing, but they’re the best we can do at the moment and I’m sure many of us are very grateful.
But these simulations didn’t come out of nowhere. As Graeber continues:
The technologies that emerged were in almost every case the kind that proved most conducive to surveillance, work discipline, and social control. … Information technology has allowed a financialisation of capital that has driven workers ever more desperately into debt, while, at the same time, allowed employers to create new ‘flexible’ work regimes that have destroyed traditional job security and led to a massive increase in overall working hours for almost all segments of the population.
The evolution of this society has been like boiling the proverbial frog: change has been so gradual that few people notice until it’s too late.
But this year, without warning, the hyper-real dropped the ‘hyper’ and became pretty much the only reality left to us. This abrupt shift to a life entirely mediated through screens has confronted us with what, perhaps, we might otherwise have forgotten.
The reality that bleeds
Conspiracy theories notwithstanding, Covid-19 is caused by a virus—a virus with what I’ll call a ‘bleeding reality’.
The virus is no simulation. It is not a threat that leaps out at us from behind a screen, like bankruptcy, trolling or slow broadband. It is a real and present danger of the kind that, in wealthy societies, we are not used to confronting, personally, daily.
The threat of pandemic has shown us our direction of travel, from bleeding to simulated reality. It’s zipped us to the end of the hyper-real and asked, Do you really want this? When bleeding reality is stripped away, what are you left with?
It’s the same discombobulation caused by technological revolution, as described by Marx and Engels in the Manifesto of the Communist Party:
All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.
It took millennia for physicians to dream the idea that intangible viruses could kill humans. Funny that something we can’t see, smell, taste or touch should be what cuts through the imaginary play of light to show us what is real.
The Shock and The Reason
The pandemic has shown us that bleeding reality still matters deeply, and in a way that the simulated worlds of surveillance capitalism never will.
We hear of a vaccine and realise that real science matters. We read a book and realise that real art matters. We climb a tree or swim a river and realise that real nature matters. We sit alone in our houses and realise that real community matters, and that fairness, justice and equality really do matter too.
Your life isn’t meaningless. It’s not postmodern or ironic. It is real. Your life matters, desperately.
The pandemic has been a shock, but that shock has helped us come to our senses. As Marcel Proust wrote:
Some moments after the shock, my intelligence, which like the sound of thunder travels less rapidly, taught me the reason.