For the last few weeks I’ve been preoccupied by the question of what social distancing and the threat of Covid-19 means for our sense of self. It’s remarkable how quickly we have adapted to sustaining a distance from others because of the reciprocal risk inherent in our interaction. There are many cases where this doesn’t hold true because (a) someone reads the risk as coming from the other, without recognising they can in turn threaten others (b) the negotiation of norms for comportment in shared spaces breaks down to varying degrees. While acknowledging the frequency with which these conditions hold, it’s still striking how our comportment has changed to reflect epidemiological concerns. What happens when this is habituated over a matter of months? How about through multiple rounds of lockdowns to deal with successive waves of infection? What is the sense of ourselves in relation to others which emerges?
I find it hard to imagine how we could come out of this experience without a significant psychic change having been brought about, even if it varies immensely in how it unfolds in relation to other psychosocial factors across contexts. If we develop an epidemiological folk consciousness it would involve a transition away from possessive individualism with ramifications for all aspects of social life. It occurred to me when reading Deborah Lupton’s Data Selves that one example might be our sense of privacy. From pg 111:
Instead of the traditional Westernized theory of autonomous privacy, which represents it as related to the rights of individualized selfhood (Bannerman 2018), many privacy scholars now frequently argue for a ‘networked privacy’ concept, which acknowledges that sharing of personal details online often inadvertently involves revealing other people’s details. Privacy in relation to online data therefore cannot be understood as the right or privilege of an individual (Marwick and boyd 2014). Another concept that has been offered in response to new digital media communication is that of ‘relational privacy’ (Bannerman 2018). Both the networked privacy and relational privacy concepts critique the idea of autonomous privacy, highlighting the distributed nature of privacy as it is performed in digital media.
Imagine Covid-19 leaves us with a persistent intuitive sense of risk as networked, as opposed to individualised. How will this change our expectations of privacy? This is likely to be a huge question because of the growing awareness that technologically driven surveillance is possibly the most efficacious means for controlling infection. It’s legitimate to argue the costs of this might not be worth the benefits in terms of individual liberties. But we shouldn’t assume that others will agree with us based on our past expectations because our sense of how risks are borne and distributed is one of the things most likely to be transformed by this unfolding crisis.