In the week or so since most of the US has locked down to slow the spread of Coronavirus, I’ve repeatedly joked to my friends and family that last year, when I was living alone and far away from them while on research, prepared me for the experience of lockdown. During that year, I lived in isolation, hardly went out except to go to my libraries, mostly ate shelf-stable food because I often didn’t have access to a kitchen, and communicated with everyone in my life via video chat. It was painfully lonely, and I don’t mind saying that it launched a deep depression that piled on top of my already untreated postpartum depression. But the Coronavirus lockdown has felt different, even though so many aspects of the experience are the same. And I think that difference is the fact that everyone in my life is experiencing this same isolation simultaneously – almost everyone I’m in regular contact with is either in New York or California, both of which are in full lockdown currently. As a result, that last piece, the communication via video chat, is something we are all willing to do. Last year, I had to constantly try to catch the people in my life at convenient moments, essentially taking them out of their own lives. But now, we all have the same daily struggles and schedules, and those aligned circumstances are making us all more willing to connect.
It’s an almost exhausting adage of the internet age that all this connection has driven us farther apart. I think the truth in that is that the convenience of constant contact has meant that we prioritize connection less, because it’s always there. But recent isolating circumstances have made connection more important, even as the technology itself has stayed the same. And now that technology feels like it’s fulfilling its purpose. It’s putting people who aren’t allowed to leave their homes in the same room every day. Since this lockdown started, I’ve had group conversations with my whole immediate family and my closest friends all at once for the first time since I left New York. The silver lining of this whole situation is that people are actually making time for each other, maybe for the first time in their adult lives.
I’m not the only one who’s noticed this, of course. In addition to the public discussion around this phenomenon, my oldest brother said during one of our group video chats that he believes our connectivity technology is making this pandemic livable in a way that past pandemics were not. As a historian I don’t totally agree, but I can imagine that, for instance, during the Spanish Flu there were a lot more people in dire situations because they couldn’t leave their houses and couldn’t work. But as with all aspects of technology, connectivity mechanisms fill the space that society gives them. So while I’m siting here video conferencing with my family 3,000 miles away, there are people in Italy standing on their balconies singing to each other. It’s not the technology that enables these interactions, but the will to connect.
I think about this a lot in my work, since one of the themes I study is communication between peoples in the Mediterranean. And maybe it’s surprising to modern people who are used to instantaneous electronic communications that in the year 1100, people in the Mediterranean had constant communication from Cordoba to Palermo to Qayrawan to Cairo to Damascus. They were dedicated letter writers, which is all the more amazing given how often letters got lost. The merchants whose letters I read in the Cairo Geniza always included personal correspondence as part of their business letters, and not just a perfunctory “I hope this letter finds you well.” They would dedicate whole paragraphs to asking about each other’s children or sending updates about their health. When the Normans were invading southern Italy in the later 11th century, a normal business exchange between two merchants became entirely about the invasion – what cities had been taken, how communities were trying to get access to food, and what these merchants were planning to do next. These personal conversations were essential to these communities, to their livelihoods and wellbeing. And the fact that there was always a risk that the letters wouldn’t make it just meant that merchants would send tons of letters and fill them with tons of information and summaries of previous letters received so that the recipient could tell which letters had arrived and which hadn’t. That was their technology – detailed personal correspondence enmeshed within business communications.
My hope is that this new (old) perspective on connectivity is something we’ll take with us from the pandemic, that we’ll preserve the will to communicate. I think this experience is showing us that the technology can’t make up for our efforts, that we still need to make time to talk, even when talking is easily available. But once we’re back to our regular lives, we have to remember how good it felt to make that time, to see each other’s faces, to say whatever we were thinking at that moment even if it wasn’t important. Technology isn’t going to make connectivity for us, it’s how we choose to allocate our time that will connect us.