Problems of Place: Being Human in a Pandemic

For the last two years, I have worked as a Mellon Public Scholar through the UC Davis Humanities Institute. As part of that project, I was responsible for researching data that might prove the impact and value of the humanities across sectors—for example, in business, tech, and governance—where degrees and studies in the humanities have often been framed as irrelevant. My research caused me to be concerned, not that AI would become more like humans and replace us, but that humans would become more like AI. I reached the conclusion that before we can demonstrate the value of the humanities, we needed to first remind ourselves of the value of being human.

Because I am a former corporate web and print designer, I expressed many of my conclusions on the value of the humanities, and the human, through design. At the time I made these designs, along with several others, in late 2018, I intended them as think-pieces to facilitate conversations with my colleagues and students. But now, they seem eerily relevant. They get to the heart of our present surreal experience, and what this pandemic will mean for our future.

undefined

These designs were inspired in part by my training as an environmental historian. The books that have shaped my perspectives are too numerous to list, but I have found works by Donna Haraway, Stacy Alaimo, Linda Nash, Nancy Langston, and many other environmental historians and political ecologists to be particularly helpful to me. One of the core themes that these scholars explore is the fluidity of borders and boundaries between places and beings. Our bodies are embedded in our environments. We interact mutually with substances and microorganisms that surround us in ways that we are only beginning to fully discover. A second major theme that environmental historians study is the human effort to use technology to control environments and our exchanges with them. The idea that humans can control the environment has been a very influential idea over time, but one that is almost an illusion. We may succeed temporarily, or with great expense and intervention, at conforming nature to our wills, but the relationship is probably best perceived as a partnership with nature, because, as many environmental historians have noted, nature often pushes back. Environmental historians study specific historical examples of these exchanges that have led to many of the modern conditions and problems we face as a society today.

For instance, the development of technologies such as vaccines and digital devices have allowed us to expand the boundaries of what it means to be human. We have developed important scientific and medical advances that have allowed us to successfully treat smallpox, polio, scarlet fever, cholera, measles, and other illnesses that have been known to decimate entire populations. We have also developed technologies to expand our freedom of communication. Our computers, phones, and online networks allow us to transcend our material bodies, to virtually enter and live in spaces we do not physically occupy, and connect with others virtually.

But as many environmental historians have observed, these technologies frequently offer perceived benefits for some groups while creating problems for others. For instance, the choices we make to drive cars or purchase computers, tablets, or other devices can cause many types of pollution that tend to disproportionately harm marginalized populations. Our consumer practices must therefore be understood as political acts. We all affect one another.

Now our technologies and practices are beginning to converge in ways that extend these negative effects beyond marginalized populations to affect the global population. As with most “environmental” disasters, the COVID-19 crisis was exacerbated by political, social, and economic choices that began long ago and which inform our current policies and protocols. The responses of governments and individuals alike have allowed the COVID-19 virus to spiral into a pandemic that currently exceeds our ability to treat it. It seems that we have taken for granted our wealth and the technologies it affords. In many societies, we have configured our labor, our education, our households, and our social circles around the assumption that we can prevent a virus from escalating to a global catastrophic scale.

But now we find ourselves in a race against time with a virus that has evolved to circumvent the technologies that we have been developing and relying on for more than two hundred years. On the one hand, our phones, computers, and internet connections make this race against time possible. These technologies are allowing many people to continue their work despite global shutdowns. On the other hand, this sudden reconfiguration—just like the previous one—shifts economic and health risks to millions, or billions, more who have either lost their jobs or are working in hospitals and clinics, or stocking shelves, delivering packages, cleaning shared spaces, and working in commercial kitchens. These supplies and services do not magically appear at our doors. Everything we order—every book, every item of food, every activity for our children—is being sourced, manufactured, packaged, and delivered by human beings somewhere in this world.

This pandemic might be a perfect moment to consider to what extent these technologies have set us free, and to what extent we have become prisoners of our own devices. To frame the question another way: what have we lost? Or, what might we gain or lose in attempting to stop the spread of COVID-19?

What we will gain seems obvious: we hope to minimize the number of deaths that will occur due to this outbreak over the next few months and years.

But to accomplish this, for the moment, we have lost touch. Literally. We have lost face-to-face contact. Our world is moving online. A few weeks ago, screens were an optional tool that liberated us and let us be in two places at once, making us almost super-human. Now, screens are not an option. Knitted together with cables and signals and devices, with their own material histories, and subject as they are to outages, sluggishness, and the privilege that has always limited access to those who could afford it, this fragile infrastructure now risks the very thing that made us human.

This situation did not occur overnight. Our ability to connect with others through touch, through physical contact, through presence, has gradually been superseded by technologies, including cars, phones, and computers, that now function as a primary means of contact with many of the people we know and love. As we have changed, so have the viruses. So when I look at COVID-19, I see a sort of map of the temporal and physical spaces that have grown between us. A virus, to survive, must be able to live long enough in the air and on surfaces to pass from host to host. There is still much research to be done to know how long this coronavirus can linger in the air or survive on a surface, but it appears that it has evolved to fill the gaps of touch and presence that we have left between us as we retreated into suburban, individual, and then virtual worlds over the past few decades.

With closures and shutdowns all over the world, we will adapt and possibly draw closer emotionally to neighbors even while practicing social distancing. And families will get to spend more time together at home, but this begs the question, what is a family? We live in a time when many children migrate constantly between co-parents’ households and many people have support networks that do not consist of blood relatives or legal next of kin living under one roof. Many people live alone, or in contexts of domestic violence.

To be absolutely, abundantly clear, I completely support the development of vaccines, treatments, and the measures that our global health organizations and governments have recommended. I fully support social distancing and every technological and medical advantage that we can bring to our aid in addressing this crisis. I also applaud all individuals, communities, work-places, and governments who offer grace, support, and care during these difficult times. All of these measures represent the very best that we are as human beings.

These measures also buy us time, and time is what we need. We should use this time wisely. While we conduct research and work to develop treatments and solutions, we should also think about the kind of future we want to build. As we adapt, work, and wait, we could ponder questions like the following:

1) Is this a long-term problem (much longer than the projected 18 months needed to develop a single vaccine)? In other words, if this is not an isolated incident, but a new era—one that leads to a high-stakes struggle between humans and viruses and bacteria that evolve to by-pass our technologies, vaccines, and medications—then what kind of future should we begin to build?

2) How do our current political and economic structures create invisibility, inequality, and injustice for marginalized populations? How do the current measures we are adopting, both temporary and permanent, exacerbate or potentially improve these issues? How can we amend or rebuild these structures to improve access to healthcare, technology, and financial security across regions, nations, and the world?

3) What role do we want touch and physical presence to play in our lives? Digital devices and internet are a temporary or supplemental solution, but I believe there are few who would want our connections to be reduced indefinitely to the virtual world. Not to put too fine a point on it, but it will do little good to prolong our lives if we lose much of the meaning we have in living them. In my own case, I am certain that my parents do not want to live in a world where they cannot hug their grandchildren. So, while we must take drastic measures temporarily in an effort to spare lives, particularly those from more vulnerable populations, we should use this time to ask our families and communities what they value. Can we strategize alternative household configurations? Can we honor core values while temporarily using social distancing and shutdowns as measures that allow us to restructure our society in ways that could work for us long-term? In many cases, this may mean building strategies that acknowledge touch and presence as a primary and necessary form of human expression. In the years ahead, can we grow back into the spaces we have left empty, and remember the extreme gift we have of being in the presence of another human being?

4) Humans have been connecting with others long before we had our devices. We do not actually connect through technology, but through the things these technologies allow us to share: conversation, art, story-telling, music, poetry, knowledge, humor, and emotion. In the past week, we have watched as countless museums, opera companies, athletic teams, and educational programs performed to empty auditoriums, broadcasting to global audiences in their homes. If the future will be televised, can we embrace the power of the humanities to facilitate connection? This pandemic reminds us that we cannot build strong and resilient economies without also building strong and resilient humans. Can we recognize art, history, literature, music, and performance as powerful building blocks of humans and society?

Environmental historians ask and seek answers to questions like these for a living. It is what we do. We research the many ways humans have interacted with environments in many places and times and how humans have created and responded to environmental problems and crises. We critically evaluate the decisions we make in building our societies. We see humans as a part of nature, and also, we look at how non-human nature responds. As a scholar in this field, I want to urge all of us to spend some time thinking about what it means to be human in this pandemic. I want to cherish the power to communicate with others “IRL” and work together to find a viable balance between the needs, desires, and technologies that define our human experience, and the worlds we inhabit.

The author would like to note the following: 1) While the historians mentioned in this post have inspired and shaped the author’s understanding of environmental history and policy, the views expressed here are her own and reflect no endorsement by the scholars mentioned. 2) The author made the designs included in this post as part of a set of images for conceptual and educational purposes, using well-known works of art in the public domain or available under fair use terms, during a research project for a non-profit organization, enabled by grant funding through the author’s home institution and the Mellon Public Scholars program. The author would like to thank these programs for their generous support. 3) This post contains a subtle reference to the well-known poem by Gil Scott-Heron, for which the author would like to give credit. The future may be televised, but the revolution will always be live.