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The Digital Pandemic: On Covid-19 and the Tools of Social Change

There's nothing like a pandemic to make the internet a truly tedious place.


Everyone has flocked to it; social media is saturated with covid-19. What happens online is frenetic: information sharing, followed by analysis, then a reaction to the analysis, then a reaction to the reaction to the analysis… We move in this way, collectively, in wave after wave. Surely I'm not the only one to find this constant stimulation overwhelming, to find it numbing.


For all the connecting that people are doing online, the world of social media is a remarkably lonely place. At least it is for me. How are you practising self-care during social distancing? Look at the social distancing cake I baked! What social distancing projects are you doing, now that you’re stuck at home?


For some of us, staying in and being somewhat bored and lonely is not a novelty, it is our lives. Your "pandemic projects" are my regular evenings. Your "social distancing" is my social life. Your panic in the face of boredom makes me acutely aware of your otherwise exciting life. Have none of you ever just sat around reading a book before?? And what about those with young children, for whom this is a time of stress and chaos? What about the single parents? What about those who are suddenly out of work…?


Do you see how it happens, this social media game we've all been corralled into? It's a trap: the social correction, the subtle boasts, the pity-me's—behaviour designed to keep us clicking and nattering, filling internet server warehouses with the data of our inanities and tendencies. It bores me to death.


Let's think bigger. Here's a question: What discussions are we not having, because we're having these ones instead? And how can we create a space in which those discussions can thrive?

Facebook is a commercial space. We all know this to be true, though we prefer the illusion that it is not. We like to tell ourselves (as they like to tell us) that social media platforms are spaces for discussion and for exchanging ideas. These things do indeed happen online, but only within a structure designed to benefit advertisers, and only under the thumb of their algorithms. We are given enough freedom within this space to feel like it is worth being there, but no more. We are encouraged to "share" and "like," not because ideas are important, but because the more we participate, the more advertisers learn about us. That's it, that's the point of Facebook.


Another question: Do we believe that the digital world can be a central tool for social change? And if so, how do we create the spaces in which this can be true?


One digital response to the covid-19 pandemic that has been particularly encouraging is the creative and innovative ways in which people are trying to connect online: live-streamed pay-what-you-can concerts by musicians whose tours have been cancelled; people offering to read stories online to the children of overburdened parents, or having the children read to them; call-outs for emergency supplies for shelters, or food deliveries for people in the neighbourhood who are under quarantine. Self-care is fine; but collective-care, now that's the thing.


We all want to connect—we need to connect—and we are creative at finding ways to do so. What we are doing with the tools on hand is impressive; imagine what we could do if we controlled those tools as well?


As it stands, the tools we have are failing us. They were designed to tease out information on our material wants and our lifestyle habits. They were designed to keep us petty, silly, surface-level, addicted. Like everything else on Facebook, discussions of coping mechanisms for social distancing, for example, can be used (and are being used) to create consumer profiles. Agitating for dramatic political, economic, and social change, on the other hand, is a harder thing to monetize.


And yet there remains this problem: we can try to agitate for change within these spaces, but we will always be doing so within the confines of these spaces—and thus they will, invariably, hold us back. On these digital platforms, as they currently exist, we cannot be who we need to be.


It was this quote, reposted by a friend, that got me thinking:


"While some would argue that recent events herald an age of digital collaboration and virtual space making, I would argue precisely the opposite: that experts and non-experts have suddenly become acutely aware of the limitations and constraints of the world and its relationship to the human body—the architect's original domain." @treero

The scramble to connect with each other online during this pandemic has made two things apparent: our overwhelming need to do so, and the failure of our current digital environment to allow this to happen—and not just its failure during this crisis, but, crucially, its failure over all the months and years that preceded it. We have never had a digital architecture that could truly foster community and encourage social change.


Our gifts as social creatures—creativity, empathy, connection—these are the things we need to encourage, in times of crisis as well as in times of relative normalcy. We need tools designed to encourage and promote this creativity, as well as our desire to connect at a deeper level. This kind of digital environment simply cannot exist in a commercial space, because the commercial aspect of that space will always take precedence, and because we will always be vulnerable to the increasingly invisible manipulations of that commercial intent. We need to create these tools ourselves, and to control them, collectively. Only when this happens can true community form online. And only then can true social organizing occur online.

I don't normally spend much time thinking about the digital world, but right now I feel a sense of urgency. This is because an unprecedented opportunity for social change has suddenly, unexpectedly, come about. Covid-19 is a crisis, and out of crises come the ideas and the responses that will shape our future.


A lot of people have been preparing for this kind of opportunity for a long time, but on a larger scale we have been woefully unprepared—which is curious, because preparing on a larger scale is exactly what online tools are supposed to be good at.


All around the world, governments that are based on capitalist economics are turning to socialist measures to provide relief during the crisis.


Workers who have been laid off have been given financial compensation, seemingly out of recognition that sometimes unemployment is beyond our control—something that was true before the crisis as much as during, and will remain true afterwards.


Evictions have been suspended, out of recognition that everyone deserves a home, particularly in times of upheaval. Child benefits have been boosted. Rents and mortgages and loans have been frozen. Health care systems have been given emergency resources, making up for all the things that have been stripped from them by previous and current governments.


In short, in times of crisis, we recognize this truth: that we are stronger, more resilient, and better off when we care for each other—and that at a national level such care takes the form of social programs and protections against the loss of the essentials of life. Which, in short, is socialism.


Our opportunity, our duty right now—for those of us invested in this project of collective care—is to push for these measures to remain in place after the crisis subsides, and to push for the expansion of these measures. The more comprehensive we are in bringing in these measures—or so the argument should go—and the wiser we are in designing them, the better equipped we will be to deal with future crises.


And it is those future crises that worry me. For whatever reason, despite how terrifying the pandemic is, I have yet to lose sleep over it. The climate emergency, on the other hand, continues to make me toss and turn. Perhaps this is because the solutions to the pandemic are apparent and attainable, and its timeframe finite, whereas the climate crisis is inevitable, with limited mitigation and adaptability our only options.

Mitigation and adaptability—and creative resilience. These are some of the things I have in mind when I talk about social change. I think about the vulnerable, overflowing refugee camps threatened by covid-19, and I perhaps too quickly extrapolate to the even larger, even more desperate refugee camps to come by, say, 2050, when the climate crisis will be in full swing. I think of the food supply chains and the economic systems that are on shaky ground with covid-19, and I wonder how they will cope in 2050 if we do not prepare today for what's coming.


We bolster ourselves for the future by caring for each other now—by making sure no one is left vulnerable. And we do it by allowing our ideas and our creativity to flourish, and ourselves to become deeply entwined in nourishing, supportive communities. These should be our priorities.


In order to prepare, we need the proper tools. We need spaces in which to discuss, to dream, to organize, and to build. In this digital age, much of this organizing will necessarily happen online. And yet we cannot continue doing so within the forums that are given to us, but which are not designed for us.


This crisis is an opportunity to push for the dramatic social, political, and economic change that we and our future generations so desperately need. It's nice that we're all going online to share our coping mechanisms for social distancing, but this is not the vital discussion we need to be having right now. Our future depends on going deeper, and building something greater.

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