Curios of Quarantine
To say this year has been strange and unpleasant would be to down play the thousands of deaths and immeasurable damage to human life and well being it has had. Things are grim and given the near total economic collapse in a lot of countries, the fallout could be even worse. To observe the pandemic, its casualties and the response to it from a seat of privilege is a luxury and one I certainly recognise but a perspective that comes with its own bizarre trappings. Without wishing to denigrate or belittle the very real, life altering circumstances most people are finding themselves in at the moment, I wanted to share some (more or less) light observations I have noticed during the pandemic.
Red Hand Gang
At the first sign of the pandemic the UK’s powerful and immediate, sniper-like response was to recommend we all wash our hands a lot. Watching videos of celebrtities like Mariah Carey standing over the sink with her children, singing a song for the recommended length of time it takes to actually wash your hands, became a bizarre staple of early pandemic life. The fact people needed instructions for hand washing felt worrying enough but at least no one has an excuse not to do it anymore. The truly weird and rather hilarious side effect of this militant approach to digital hygiene was that hosts of TV programmes were required to wash and sanitise their hands throughout the day and especially before air. Being in an enclosed space is a proven vector for the virus but news programmes and late night chat shows simply had to continue so token measures had to be taken to look like they weren’t helping the spread. What this resulted in, albeit briefly, was the normally immaculate cuticles and pristine palms of our favourite hosts becoming dried, angry red paws. I noticed this mainly on my local news programmes but the red right hand of hygiene did appear in other places too. It didn’t last long however. There was no doubt a group chat with various recommendations for Hand Relief. That is Nivea’s hand cream, not the other kind. Though, judging by recent investigations that’s probably a different group chat altogether…
Accepting Low Res
As someone who plays video games, I am well aware of a the subculture of (usually white) men between 18–35 who demand a minimum of hi-res 4k resolution along with 120 frames per second. This is together with the ‘debates’ about cinema exhibition standards: what was true IMAX? Is digital an archival format? Is film’s clarity greater? Etc etc. Meanwhile sports fans were demanding ever higher resolution to better argue with a referee’s decision. But in one fell swoop, 2020 made us all lower our standards and live with a return to 240 resolution and 10 frames a second if you’re lucky. Whether it was the banal, empty interviews with celebrities made on suspiciously poor connections and bad cameras for Late Night TV, politicians struggling to jeer en mass in the Houses of Parliament thanks to watery audio compression, or David Tenant and Michael Sheen shooting an entire drama via the soft, barely watchable internal camera of a laptop, our quality standards dropped. While the now ubiquitous ‘Zoom Call’ became the closest we got to social interaction, we could accept its poor quality because most of us weren’t equipped to deal with this, but what swiftly became apparent was: neither was anyone else. Multi-billion dollar media companies and the PR-trained celebrity hosts were suddenly all at sea without their integrated studios, cameras, editing bays and so on. The people who emerged smelling like roses were the much denigrated online ‘Streamers’. Be they on Twitch, Facebook or Youtube, these — much younger — self-made personalities ruled the roost having an entire broadcast infrastructure in their bedrooms already. While Jimmy Fallon and John Krasinsky were making do with their wives holding a phone (without even setting a focus point or exposure, something every smartphone can do) and not bothering to mic anything up, N00bslayer44 had crisp 4k, 124fps, close condenser mic-ed, high ping streaming from the get go. If you ever needed proof that the kids are alright, watching Establishment ‘Sensibles’ struggle to google how to shoot from home made it clear that the next generation are better equipped for what’s coming than almost everyone else.
At times of crisis certain things are predictable and inevitable. One of those things is a ‘Run’ on things. Sometimes it’s the banks, like in 2008, and sometimes it’s pasta and toilet paper, as we just saw. But as proof of how decadent a society we inhabit none of these things were ever in danger of running out. The supply chain for basics like toilet roll and imperishable foods has always run at a surplus (that’s Capitalism folks) so we were always going to be fine. What most people didn’t expect was the higher value items that have low production refreshment rates disappearing from shelves for months…
As I watched my hair engulf my head, my clippers decided that this was the time to break, but when I went to purchase some more there was not a single brand to be found on the shelves. Even the evil, world-consuming Amazon was unable to provide. And it wasn’t just clippers. Remember those unequipped celebrities? Mics, cameras and audio interfaces vanished from every website as broadcasting companies bought them in bulk to dispatch to their technologically challenged talent. Budget laptops and computers disappeared, GoPros and webcams had a shortage, high value tech (besides smartphones) all suffered a leap in demand but with a dearth of supply. Why? Because like everything this year, this shortage revealed how strange and fallible our infrastructure is. All these items are made in countries like China, Japan, Indonesia, Korea and so on, i.e. Countries with the strictest lockdown measures to curb the virus. These were quarantines that included the closing of factories for long periods. This resulted in a backlog of orders for high-value, low-cost tech items, meaning anyone with plans to record that album, make a youtube video or just cut your hair for the Zoom conference was out of luck for the first half of the year.
On the other hand, other items did gang busters. Purely from anecdotal evidence, everyone I know bought a new pair of slippers (or ‘House Shoes’ as some of the more pretentious folks put it). Sales of ‘lounge wear’ went up, with leggings, jogging bottoms/sweat pants, dressing gowns, onesies, baggy sweatshirts/jumpers and fleece blankets all seeming to have done exceptionally well throughout the year. Sadly almost all of this stuff went through Amazon helping it to near total global market dominance making it Bezos’ best year to date, increasing the company’s (and his own) profits by billions while thousands are made jobless and homeless all while he refuses to pay his employees anything more than poverty wages and legally inhibits any move toward unionisation. ‘Stop buying comfort items from Amazon’ is what I’m saying. Actually what I’m saying is: either break up Amazon as a monopoly or remove Bezos as CEO and turn the company over to its workers.
This is mainly a UK thing but when part of the lockdown was a requirement that you should work from home if you could, something bubbled up that few people expected. You see Cities, since the time sewage systems were developed to prevent cholera and the like, have underground networks that accommodate for large numbers of people in high concentrations using their ‘facilities’. Villages and towns however are used to smaller populations. Even in towns like my own — that have been gentrified and see an influx of wealthy people buying second homes to rent out as AirBnBs which are all slowly being sold as the economy tightens — most of its populace are commuters heading into a city for work, but with the stay at home order that sewage system has become over burdened. No adjustment in population density was accounted for in the 200-year-old villages all over the UK when it comes to pipes and sewers. The only time this infrastructure is highlighted or dealt with is when a pipe bursts, but purely from anecdotal evidence (again) I am hearing and seeing with my own eyes an overburden sewage system struggle to cope with copious amount effluence now channelled into Victorian brickwork sewers. Combined with the alarming rise of ‘Fatbergs’ that clog our waterworks now, I foresee many a water company bankrupting themselves having to deal with innumerable damages in the near future. A similar issue is appearing with internet usage and bandwidth. With towns and villages now maintaining a stay at home population, internet infrastructure is groaning under the demands of hundreds of thousands of homes needing hyper fast connection speeds. And that’s in the areas that have any connection at all, too many are the places across the UK with poor internet support. Ditto things like parking. Most households now have two cars but in towns built on roads from the 1800s, space to store these unused vehicles doesn’t exist. If anyone had been listening this time last year, these issues were raised but were summarily dismissed. Snobbily laughed at as unnecessary changes to a “perfectly adequate” system of marketisation. Challenging the ‘running repairs’ approach to national infrastructure was deemed stupid and a waste of money, turns out that it is going to cost more in the long run than it would have to invest in these various networks while things were working.
What all of this has proved is that many of things people were worried about prior to the pandemic proved not only to be true but are, indeed, proving fatal. The Pandemic has been a stress test for Hyper-Platform-Capitalism’s Always-markets-everywhere-all-the-time approach to running society, and it has come up appallingly short. The previous model of doing basically everything has been shown to be drastically unfit and not at all future-proof, or past-proof as the case is now. The financial markets will not survive the quarantines, with rocketing unemployment figures and companies going under almost daily; infrastructure is overburdened and bursting at the seams; wealth hoarding individuals and companies are stamping the populace into a practically murderous form of poverty; And investment in anything creative has vanished, leaving a wild west of gigantic media mega-corporations dictating what is seen and heard, alongside self-funded ‘Content Creators’ scrabbling for scraps from their tables. It should depress us all then that the solution to this near total collapse of the world we knew is not to forge ahead with something fresh, rebuilding and future proofing society for the challenges that lie before us, but instead to double down on the defunct and unworkable model of operating that got us into this position in the first place.
The Pandemic was an 80 tonne juggernaut trying to cross a crumbling bridge and instead of seeing the failings of the structure and building a new bridge, we are tying bungee cords and string around the old one while painting over the death crack in the middle. At a time when we should have come together, we have isolated ourselves more and deferred control to unaccountable companies that consider profit before human lives. The next decade is to prove make or break for our species with the pandemic as evidence, so we must choose carefully how we proceed. There is still time but clinging to the past will be catastrophic. We need change, not recidivism. To use a near hundred year old quote: “The old world is dying and the new world struggles to be born; now is the time of monsters.”