The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Technology made the pandemic bearable. It’s also behind our national crackup.

A man walks down a usually busy street in Washington on March 30, 2020. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)
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Ian Marcus Corbin is a senior fellow at the think tank Capita and co-director of the Human Network Initiative at Harvard Medical School.

If all goes to plan, vaccines might spring us from our digital purgatory by late summer. Some of us will hurl ourselves into the messy, rich world of in-person sociality. But others will have grown accustomed to the algorithmic comfort of Netflix and dinners dropped silently on the porch — and might not be so quick leave them behind.

One way lies the potential for national healing, the other a continuation of our national crackup.

To be sure, Zoom, smartphones and social media have allowed many to remain healthy, sane, employed and somewhat connected during the covid-19 pandemic. But these nine months of tech dependency have also accelerated a less-welcome process long underway: the atrophy of our friend-making muscles. That has deeper implications than you might think.

According to the philosopher Aristotle, friendship is natural for us — we are made for human relationship and unlikely to flourish without it. But friendship requires time and effort to build sufficient affection and trust, so friendliness — being good at making friends — is a virtue that requires the cultivation and expansion of other virtues such as patience, generosity, honesty and courage. The way we get these — Aristotle and modern neuroscience agree — is by building habits through practice.

This means that the friction you feel when stuck in an awkward conversation with your landlord or a new classmate is like the pain of exercising an underutilized muscle. You don’t need to stop — you need to get better at it.

The desire to avoid this kind of friction is nothing new, of course, but today we have far better tools for avoidance than Aristotle could have ever imagined. The technologies that have kept us minimally connected during the pandemic offer us a smooth and painless social world, in which we can indulge in some level of sociality, while minimizing the hard work of virtue-building.

This smoothing out happens in at least three ways. The first is the delocalizing of our relationships. When the telephone became widely available, we suddenly became more able to curate our social lives, to find and stick with friends we have, regardless of where they live. Our need for sociality no longer led us out our door, into our neighborhood to see who might happen to be nearby. Staying in touch with old friends across the world is wonderful, but it’s also easy. We become more likely to trust the “generalized other” by being brave and patient enough to befriend people who are not much like us.

The move to tech-mediated relationships has also facilitated a partial disembodying of even our close relationships. Hard conversations are necessary to build a friendship and become more friendly, but they are indeed hard, and even harder when you are looking a person in the eye. It’s much easier to have that talk by text or telephone, but it’s also less effective. As Robert Putnam reports in his classic work “Bowling Alone,” in-person interactions contain a wealth of nonverbal information, “particularly about emotions, cooperation, and trustworthiness.” Trust built in-person is deeper and sturdier.

Finally, befriending oneself is a prerequisite for becoming a true friend to others. We do this by sitting quietly alone, coming to terms with who and what we are, forging some order out of the riot of thoughts, fears and desires that rages in our heads. But now our various screens and speakers furnish ever-present mental and emotional stimulation, which displace the work of self-confrontation.

What might happen as we become less adept at converting strangers into friends? The motto of the United States is to make one from many — e pluribus unum. That’s a heavier lift than, say, keeping a small, homogenous nation intact. We ask strangers who often have little in common to trust each other and build together. But this tender, loose cohesion is coming increasingly unstuck — more and more people doubt the truthfulness and good faith of their fellow citizen, and of the politicians, scientists, doctors and journalists tasked with speaking for us as a collective. QAnon, anti-vaxxers, and online flame-wars are just the latest manifestations of our unraveling.

In the 1960s, a majority of Americans agreed that “most people can be trusted.” At last count, that number now hovers around one-third. Americans are not happy about this — a low-trust society is a terrifying place in which to live. The good news is that these problems are not just national — they are partially local. As the historian Michael Zuckerman argues, “People’s feelings about ‘most people’ are inescapably conditioned by their intimate relations.”

As the pandemic releases its grip on us, we will be freed to shake off the comforts of frictionless social lives, and dive into the hard work of looking America in the eye and learning to trust her again, neighbor by co-worker by friend.

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