With COVID-19 we are going through something practically no living soul has ever experienced. It may be forging new realities, and could place us at the edge of a big change —politically, economically, culturally, and spiritually. What this will look like nobody really knows, but there are some things we can glean about the emerging future.
Human beings are wired to connect. From the second we’re born we seek the care of our parents, and, as we age, we find support and motivation from our closest friends, co-workers, and communities. We ourselves then convert these experiences into brain and body networks that make us smarter and stronger. The research shows that these connections are not only essential for our own well-being, but are also a core driver of the creativity and innovation that keeps society moving forward.
The Covid-19 threat tests these connections. Our ability to respond to the new global threat with clarity and confidence depends on how quickly we can adjust and collaborate towards a common cause. This is a time to explore new ways of sharing ideas, relating with each other, and working together where it’s needed most.
There has already been an explosion of new behaviors and places in the digi-verse. Telecommuting was already on the rise, but with social distancing in full effect the ‘electronic cottage’ might be here to stay. Telework has it’s pros and cons, but the time shaved off commuting to work and unnecessary meetings may free up time to spend with family, working out, or on personal hobbies – all of which can actually boost productivity. When all is said and done many companies will still go back to the old office building, but for many the taste of home and the flexibility that comes with working from it, likely will never fully go away.
Meanwhile the show goes on – online conferences, festivals, and cocktail hours have become staples in the era of covid-connection, with services such as Instagram Live, Zoom, FaceTime, and Google Hangouts taking the place of the public squares, town halls, restaurants and churches now all but shut down around the world. Yet while interaction may stay more or less the same or even go up for digital natives, those with little tech savvy or pre-existing social networks may be hit especially hard. As a millennial I’ve found myself joining dance sessions, casual celebrity livestreams, group calls, and check-ins with friends and family, but things aren’t as easy for my grandparents who are more at risk for not only the virus, but the potentially negative effects of complete social isolation.
Of course there is a certain x-factor that’s lost without having in-person interaction, but for what the digi-verse lacks in physical intimacy it tries to make up with the diversity of people that it can bring together. All of us on Earth are going through this intense experience together, and there’s nothing like a common platform, level playing field and shared enemy to build new bridges across background, class, age, race and even geography.
As people are coming together in the digital dimension, we’re seeing those in the physical plane moving ever farther apart. Given the costly and increasingly socially dysfunctional megacities, young people have already started seeking out the suburbs and the countryside for more space and sense of ownership. Now with the health threat we might expect to see even more of this, with the allure of nature becoming increasingly appealing for families and even the neo-hippies.
Many will debate this, and frankly, many still prefer, and will continue to do so, city living. There’s a magnetism and dynamic charge in urban cores that is aguably a critical pillar of the global experience, but a greater balance still seems likely. As cities find their groove, perhaps developers will start investing in smaller communities with off-the-grid eco-friendly lifestyles, sustainable transport, and home-harvested foods, all while remaining plugged into the 21st century digital and creative economies, that people have been asking for.
The next few months will by no means be easy – unemployment is spiking, markets are fluxing, and our ways of socializing may never be the same. There are theories of how it all started and why this is happening, but the real issue is that we focus on what we can do, right here and now, to improve our current situation.
Community support groups are sprouting all over the place. Across the Atlantic, Facebook has facilitated “an estimated 300 local Coronavirus support groups, whose combined membership now totals more than a million people.” Concerned citizens are starting these pages to provide local health updates and resources, and apps such as Nextdoor have been rolling out new features like health maps and groups to mobilize volunteers and bring neighbors together.
Collaboration between government and small businesses are taking interesting new forms too. Public private partnerships and federal stimulus packages are being put in place to keep local business owners and contract workers afloat, while citizens are joining forces and contributing what they can to support their beloved local joints.
For countries, cities, businesses and individuals this is also a chance to get in touch with what matters. As we shut our doors to the world outside, we can consciously choose to open them up to the one within – taking a deep look at who we are, who we want to be, and act from a place that will direct our journey back to ‘normalcy’.
With people closed up in their homes, either not working or teleworking, they now have to decide what to do with their extra time. Of course there will be those who choose to spend it binge watching Netflix or buried in social media. Instead of using all their time to consume content though, we might just see a wave of new content creators build momentum. From singing from rooftops to experimenting with new recipes, people are sharing what they’re learning, how they’re adapting, and what interesting talents and hobbies they’ve been cultivating in isolation.
Perhaps more importantly though, being forced in tight quarters is nudging some to face personal issues and build emotional resilience. For many, they’re being forced to interact with roommates, spend time with family and sit down with themselves in silence for the first time in ages. The sort of reflection and intimation this brings may drive some people and partnerships mad, but exposing the deeper realities of our relationships with ourselves and others is perhaps one of the first and most critical steps to building a healthier life.
Our true colors shine when the pressure is high. And right now the world is being pushed to its limits to stay positive, energized and open minded in the midst of a seemingly endless number of outcomes to this pandemic.
Nevertheless, times of hardship have brought some of the biggest discoveries, brightest realizations, and boldest leaders of history. From religious innovation and the cultivation of wisdom, to the founding of our country, hardship, isolation and necessity have turned out to be some of the great catalyzers of human evolution.
No matter what happens for better or for worse, certain unwavering qualities may keep us strung together. And as we can already see we are still exploring, we are still connecting, we are still creating, and I think it’s safe to say that the sun will rise yet another day.
This piece first appeared at New Geography.
Charlie Stephens is founding producer of Substrand, a media platform and podcast series featuring conversations with leading teachers, entrepreneurs, and public figures around ideas on human connection and innovation. Instagram: @charliestephens. Twitter: @thecharliebman.
Photo credit: Matteo Catanese on Unsplash