Reflections On Lockdown

“Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months.”

Lockdown is coming to a close. The UK government opened the pubs last Saturday. I can’t say I was one of the people getting the beers in – aside from the sheer price of a London pint, I’m not all that inclined to get up close and personal with people, now of all times. Despite all the assurances of socially distanced responsible drinking, that went about as well as you’d expect. The British aren’t exactly known for restraint where alcohol is concerned. I don’t think anybody thought it’d go any other way, though, and not that I’m anything but another fine example. British drinking culture aside, I’ve been in my apartment for about three months or so now? I can’t actually remember exactly when. It’s something like that. Doesn’t really matter. It’s been an interesting experience, whatever the case.

Across the room and grind

It’s been nice to sleep in in the mornings, my company has been lucky that we could work remotely and the client we used for that was actually surprisingly stable. I thought the lack of access to a printer would cause more problems than it did – proofing on a computer screen does seem less effective than proofing on paper, but the adjustment hasn’t been too noticeable.

It was interesting in the early days watching tech companies scramble to deal with this sudden massive influx of use. Applications like Teams initially seemed to collapse, I wondered if that was an indication of a trend to come, and started to adjust expectations, but credit where it’s due – Microsoft stabilised it in short order and there’s been no significant lurches that I’ve seen, outside of quirks and issues specific to me. That said, it may have been a bigger issue for larger companies – mine is fairly small, so the amount of adjustment in order to get things to run smoothly for us may have been similarly scaled. My poor neighbours have been listening to me roar at my computer screen occasionally whenever something gets in the way. Deadlines are a bitch.

While I found working from home comfortable after adapting, I did wonder whether it could blur my psychological boundaries between work and home. In a world that increasingly encourages a lack of distinction between the two, resulting in an unhealthy ‘always on’ cultural mindset, I have always tried to draw a hard line. But I also spent a week or so of lockdown listening to a lot of podcasts and lectures and reading into Gilles Deleuze’s ‘Postscript on the Societies of Control’, and I wonder if an increased decentralisation of the workspace resulting from a rise in sustained remote working, could also further this idea. Where you can simultaneously be allowed a great deal of freedom…  so long as your data is harvestable and can be used to manipulate and engineer your behaviour, and are thus subtly encouraged to feel compelled to produce long after your working hours are finished. 

On the other hand, I still have a job. That’s a relief. A lot of people were furloughed. A lot of people are going to be out of work come the end of October when the government scheme ends. So not having to join the flood of people jobhunting in London is a relief. God knows how the housing and rental situation is going to go. The UK already has a housing and rental market that defies logic, and the London bubble is apparently burst resistant despite being, from every angle, completely unsustainable. It’s not going to collapse anytime soon. Homelessness has soared in the last decade, despite the government proudly proclaiming how low unemployment is. If housing hasn’t been working until now, it’s safe to assume that it’s probably about to get pretty ugly.

Doing what I do – productivity

I’ll be honest: I don’t understand people who get bored. I don’t remember the last time I was bored. Besides a mountain of reading, I have a lot of things I want to do, and some of those things are fairly large-scale projects. So when lockdown came I was ok with it – more time to get more stuff done. Have I been as productive as I wanted to be? No. I have, however, completed a few things that were long overdue, organised other projects or parts of projects, got a bit of admin done and all of that at least clears some much-needed mental space for me. So I’m tentatively optimistic that I can move forward with a bit more direction, even if I wasn’t able to become some sort of productivity maximiser while I had some extra time on my hands.

The extra couple of hours each day I’ve gained from not commuting has also been beyond welcome. In the spaces that I’d have been sitting on a train, I was able to shift cooking to. In the spaces I was getting ready for work, I was able to put more sleep. That was welcome. Just not being tired from the commute has been welcome, and my commute isn’t bad in the first place. As for the amount of money saved on the commute… well, I trust there’s no comment needed. So it goes without saying that readjustment is going to be at least a bit rough. That said, my electricity bill has gone up, and I imagine everyone else’s has, too. I won’t complain when that goes back down.

I think I have learned the value of breaking some things into smaller self-contained chunks. Not just for the ability to complete things in a fairly consistent manner, but simply so that I can avoid getting stuck on giant knotted issues that end up raising a slew of extra questions and requiring far more research than initially anticipated. This is how most of my ideas go – I’ll throw something simple down on a mindmap, start asking questions, and then an hour later I’ll pull back and realise that instead of a simple flow chart, I’ve built some kind of monstrous concept tree that’s still growing and what started off as a simple idea is significantly larger. Given this trend, it’s about time I started to come at things in a more compartmentalised way if that compartmentalisation isn’t going to undermine the interconnectedness of the main concept.

“Such men live at the end of all the long lanes in the world and in reaching a place like this they have run out of country they can’t live in.”

People ask me if being alone during the lockdown has been a problem. Short and long answer: No. A week or so into lockdown people seemed to be heading straight into bouts of hysteria about not seeing other people. Sure, I can see problems arising from prolonged lack of contact, but that initial melodrama was excessive. Honestly, I’ve relished having the opportunity to just step out of the world for a bit. That came alongside a slight disappointment about remaining in work – I probably would have been perfectly happy to go without contact the whole time.

It’s a bit like putting yourself in a glass case or on a slide. What happens to you if you don’t interact with anybody for three months? Can you deal with it in the first place? I quite enjoy observing myself. Prodding him, seeing how he responds, twitches, and adjust as necessary. So the fact that I didn’t get to isolate is actually vaguely disappointing. I know. Sad, isn’t it? It sounds like exactly what it is: pay me for 3 months while I sit on my arse pawing at my own brain like some kind of narcissistic pervert. One day I might actually grow up, but still, if you’ll excuse the tepid lyricism of the sentiment, a person should strive to know themselves. In knowing themselves a person can make that self better. Great. Another recluse writer. It’s a cliché I can live with being.

The second wave

At this point I wonder if, or rather when, the second wave of Covid-19 is going to hit. Remarkably, it seems like Britain, despite our haphazard beginning and alarming infection/death rates, might actually be in a better position to deal with a second wave. Against all expectations, we’ve not rushed into opening up again for the sake of some hedge fund managers somewhere. I remain surprised by this. I do expect that, as increasing numbers of people go back to using public transport, the bars remain open, and so on, that we’ll see an inevitable rise in cases again. It’s frankly unrealistic to social distance on the tube in the mornings. A metre apart? It’s the underground on a weekday morning, you’re lucky if you can forcibly jam yourself into the nanometre of space under some estate agent’s armpit.

It’s also funny how we’ve gone from disliking face coverings, associating them with rioters and looters from protests past, or just street kids out for trouble, to demanding that everyone wear them. Now everyone’s dressed up like a ninja. Suddenly we’re all cliché delinquents, rioters, and disaffected trouble makers. Who’s got the Molotovs?

The Newshour podcast on the 4th July interviewed Deborah MacKenzie, a scientist who just published a book, ‘Covid 19: The Pandemic That Never Should Have Happened, and How To Stop The Next One’, who pointed out that we’ve more or less known that a viral outbreak was coming, but much like an extreme solar flare, it falls under the ‘high risk-low probability’ category. Meaning that if you’re attempting to assign budgets for a nation, it’s difficult to justify the cost of preparing for something that, while inevitable, is also not likely to happen. I was listening to an interview by the Financial Times with Jeremy Hunt, previously the health secretary, who suggested that while the UK had done a lot of preparation for a non-Sars flu-like pandemic, they were caught flat-footed by the current coronavirus pandemic.  

We are, by all accounts, anticipating more pandemics, especially with the nightmare scenario that medical science is currently grappling with: antibiotic-resistant bacteria. One of the current fears is the zoonotic virus, Nipah. The accompanying concern is that, with the pandemic in the western first world, outside of the US, calming down, and despite that the fact that we are well aware of the risks, governments and people will probably try to go back to ‘normal’ instead of adapting and learning. I anticipate that we will begin with good intentions and then, depending on whether or not adaptation and learning are profitable, will determine whether we progress or revert. 

And now, the future

This once-in-a-lifetime experience brings up questions as to how the pandemic will affect the future in the medium-to-long term. If at all. With no vaccine in sight, the way we’re doing things, even when we are back up and running to some extent, is not going to be the same. We can’t go back to easy physical proximity anytime soon, even if we all start wearing masks. I wonder, over a long enough timeframe if this will turn into a naturally more distant society, a default lack of contact. Contactless deliveries, investment into automation, remoteness-oriented technology? More hygiene-oriented people? In the USA, UK, and parts of Europe that won’t be much of a problem, but it could be an interesting change in naturally closer nations and cultures, where community, proximity, and touch are a natural part of everyday life.

It was good to see people rejecting the idea of returning to ‘normal’. The pandemic let people reflect on the state of an overwhelmed population bombarded with the demands of relentless industrial capital mining, resulting in workers ricocheting between exhaustion and consumerism, spending as a mode of overcompensatory distraction, an society revolving around economic monetary movement at any costs to simply function, all at the expense of individual long-term stability. Normal is the neoliberal production-at-any-cost unhinged hustle culture mode of living that caused all manner of problems.

That works for those at the very top. It wasn’t working for anybody else. Entire generations heading into the second major recession in an alarmingly short span of time, many of whom already had no hope of financial security nor any prospect of retiring. Die at your desk, die at the counter, die in the gutter? There’ll be a self-help guru along shortly to eulogise on how much of a martyr to the hustle you were. No, you won’t see any of the proceeds for your contribution to their next book about getting rich in an afternoon, or the follow up book on how to deal with the fact you didn’t get rich in an afternoon.  Someone needs bigger margins. How much is a selfie with your corpse worth on Instagram?

I have to wonder if this lack of distractions played into the wider attention to the George Floyd protests. We’re all well aware that those problems in their entirety have been present well before the virus. It wasn’t like one more black man getting his throat compressed by yet another idiot with something to prove, or another quota to meet, was a novelty. The world watching the police instantaneously roll in like they were going to war with the people they were allegedly being paid to protect, media included, certainly didn’t help. But why this protest and why now? There’s a lot of factors besides the lockdown around the world, but I have to assume that under normal circumstances these protests wouldn’t have been so large. That’s sad but probably true.

I have an idea that it might be that we were just on pause long enough to take a more active interest in the situation on a larger scale. Not as many people mentally exhausted and distracted by existing in a system that functions to create a burned-out population. Which in turn means that when some abuse of power goes on somewhere, people can sympathise but ultimately have a hard time delivering a sustained protest that would create enough disruption and economic damage to make the people with the money take the problem seriously. For many people, most of their remaining energy was going on preparing for the next week or blotting out the previous one.

We’ll see how long that lasts. Governments and business, those who haven’t already, will probably insist on going back to ‘normal’. The American government currently seems to be hoping they can normalise the Coronavirus, and treat it as another part of daily life. Send the kids back to school so the parents can go back to work so the Trump administration can get back to talking about stock markets and so on. They’ve moved on from sacrificing the elderly, now everyone can be a candidate for the volcano.

Going back to technology, science and laboratories have already started integrating some fascinating AI- and automation-based laboratory systems, capable of running batteries of tests around the clock and to user-defined specifications, without needing to pause for pesky human necessities like sleep. I can only imagine that this is potentially a real advance for clearing out some of the routine steps and test processes. It might also drive changes like more exact measurements, how long a something is left, etc., which currently can be quite nonspecific or just subject to human error. 

Could this also impact the spread of things like Amazon lockers coinciding with the rise of deliveries, integration with existing postal services – everyone gets a P.O. box? Does an increase in remote shopping drive a future of warehouse-centric work, replacing a high street that is increasingly avoided due to crowds and germs. The value of delivery drivers and transporters increases with demand. However, with the introduction of 5G, depending on the speed and spread of its adoption, coinciding with advances in automation, could start to eat into the driver side of the gig economy. It’s a way off, but considering the advances in AI and automation without the incentive of distancing, you could potentially see a steady rise in demand for drivers of all kinds across first-world economies, before a sharp drop off as automated vehicles are accepted and then become increasingly prevalent.

However, it’s worth noting that, currently, 5G is not necessarily cost-effective. There’s a healthy amount of scepticism on the uptake, with heavy investment and infrastructure necessary, with 5G needing five- to ten-times the number of ‘nodes’ from towers, antennas, and so on. 4G has only recently started to make money on the cost of investment, so if the next step is that much more expensive, then it simply might not be worth the money. Despite the hype, driverless cars are thought to be a minimum of 5 years away so it’s not an immediate-term money maker and that’s before the teething period.  Other than that, it doesn’t seem like many people know where the profits in 5G come from at the moment.

Pubs, bars, and nightlife could be impacted if there is enough of a cultural shift. Though we saw crowds on the 4th, what happens if the public start to head further away from mass venues? People aren’t drinking as much these days anyway, more people that do drink prefer to drink at home owing to the sheer price of nights out, even casually.

Could we see a gradual avoidance of public transport or a falloff of use? We’ve seen a shift towards bikes in many places during the lockdown, suddenly everyone and their grandma has invested in lycra and rediscovered the garden shed or the basement. A subset of those lycra-clad riders have also forgotten that said fabric can be… inadvertently revealing, and they’ve brightened, or perhaps soured, various people’s days with a morning eyeful. It’ll be interesting to see how long the cycling boom lasts as countries begin to reopen around the world. You can also expect bike thieves to make absolute killing due to the number of people who will leave their bikes in the street and/or won’t buy a D-Lock.

For many of my colleagues it is simply not viable to bike into work, and this is reflective of a significant portion of the London working population, for whom living in London is simply beyond feasibility. The result is that many people rely on public transport to get into work. Despite the high cost, it is still far cheaper than getting a taxi. While it is still not possible for the majority of commuters, those with shorter journeys may begin to favour taxis as a way to avoid an increased potential for germs and contagion. With cheaper taxi services, and a potentially increased demand for them, this may be a more reasonable option than it seems at current – especially for those without cars or can’t find a parking space in cramped urban environments.

In the middle-distant future the increasing advances and prevalence of automation and artificial intelligence-guided systems, subsequent generations and iterations of driverless cars, could speed the implementation of driverless taxis.

Automated warehouses are already being developed. A handful already exist, owned by Amazon, UPS, FEDEX, and others. It’s not like anybody thinks Amazon aren’t going to inevitably turn the entirety of their insane warehouses into automated production-delivery lines. The reason they raised the minimum wage and lobbied congress to raise the federal minimum wage was because they could pay it and they want to put pressure on other companies. Higher minimum wage is a great thing, but in realistic terms, corporations, especially on the scale of Amazon, are not interesting in the conditions of their workers beyond productivity metrics. They are interested of getting rid of the competition. Raising minimum wage is a way that they can exert pressure on adversaries. They are already developing automation – alongside any smart industry professional – and they know that if the competition wants to keep up it’s going to have to follow suit. With Amazon having the resources that it does, I don’t need to explain how much of a one-sided fight that is.

So, theoretically, the future in which low-skilled workers are replaced by automated robots might actually speed up in response to the coronavirus lockdown, investments into avoiding similar problems from other low probability-high risk events, and potential accelerating delivery-oriented economy really kicks into overdrive. It seems like, sooner or later, the future is post-human.  

Of course, I say all of this. According to Bladerunner, we were supposed to have electric cars and neon pyramids by now…. But if Ray Kurzweil thinks technology is doubling its effectiveness over time, we’re going to see, in the words of an interesting guy I once saw in a film one time, “some serious shit.

Can you imagine how hilarious it would be, long into the future, if we managed to establish off-world colonies, and then something hits earth, wipes out the human race, and the next person to arrive on earth finds a planet devoid of life but full of automated AI robots running around the place executing commands and completing their assigned task loops so the economy can keep moving?

We could also see an increase in corporate surveillance software potentially invading your home. If you work in an office you expect to be watched and tracked to some extent. What happens when more people start working from home? Not so bad if, say, your employer provides a separate computer for you to work on – but what happens if an employer feels that they are entitled to their employees personal privacy and will only hire people on the condition that those people install spyware and keyloggers on their personal computers? One part in a potential future of ever more overt corporate colonisation.

Out words

The answer to what happens when you leave me in a flat for a couple months is exactly what I expected – nothing. It more or less just meant I got to work without a shirt on in the encroaching summer and in an apartment that absorbs heat surprisingly well. No doubt my colleagues would object strenuously were I to attempt this in the office. Selfish bastards.

Recovery? Yo-yoing back and forth between reopening and lockdowns like a failed rehab patient as successive waves of novel coronavirus roll over the world? Who knows. More at ten. Watch.

Even though we may be returning to work, the coronavirus pandemic, and the consideration of subsequent pandemics, could have far-reaching impacts on social dynamics and the economies in the future that won’t be fully realised for a while to come. This in addition to the technology we’re already developing. It’s going to be an interesting time.

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