Written by Ezio Manzini, DESIS Network President

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What will the world be like after the Covid-19 crisis? It will certainly be different. But how? Where will the change go?

Faced with these questions, some recall that every crisis has possibilities in itself. And that, in this case too, we should recognize and develop them. In this case, however, more than in others, to recognize them it will be necessary to look very carefully. Or rather: it will take a lot of attention to recognize the possibilities of a resilient, fair, open and collaborative future. While, unfortunately, those going in the opposite direction (that is, towards a less fair, less open and less collaborative world) are quite evident.

Lifestyle and politics of the everyday

Some, the most optimistic, venture to say that, since these days we are forced to change our lifestyle and recognize the importance of human relationships and common goods that we used to take for granted, there will be a lasting change in our well-being model. And that this will have its centre precisely in the quality of relationships and common goods. It would be nice. But it won’t be that easy.

When the health crisis will be less acute, the economic crisis (which will also be political and cultural) will emerge with disruptive force. Of course, this crisis will also lead to changes in ways of living: many people will consume less because they will become poorer. Others, many others, will do so, and will be anxious, because they will be out of work (or with precarious work). On the other hand, everyone will be subject to media pressure to consume more, with the ethical justification that “consuming as much as possible is right because it helps the economy”.

In this atmosphere, I don’t think that much space will be left to the issues of quality of relationships and common goods. Or, more precisely, I don’t think there will be room for these issues without a confrontation. That is, without the existence of another trend in opposition to the present main one. This counter-trend, if it will emerge, will have to be generated by a new wave of social innovation. In fact, if “after the crisis nothing will be the same as before”, the social innovation that we have known in past decades will have to evolve towards something new. Even though, at the moment, we do not know it, something can be seen by observing how the Covid-19 crisis affects some trends and countertendencies that have characterized the past decade.

All at home, all online

The peremptory, even if necessary, injunction “all at home!”, In a world already widely permeated by digital technologies, tends to mean “all online!”. And, in fact, many signs tell us that this is precisely what is happening: elderly and children, rich and poor, all closed in their home to navigate, each according to his/her abilities and tastes (and the width of his/her connection to the network) in the digital universe. What are and what will be the implications of all this?

Humans are social creatures. In every situation they try to find some form of relationship with others. The need to socialize at a time when “social distance” must be practiced, and in an environment where digital technologies and social media are already sufficiently widespread, has generated and is generating a substantial social phenomenon: many people have been pushed towards doing online everything that can be done online. More precisely, they have been driven to do more online than they ever had before. And not only in terms of dedicated time, but also in terms of the variety of activities practiced: study and work, of course. But also solutions to various daily problems. The result is that social and cultural changes are taking place on this ground which are very likely to last even after the current crisis, somehow, will be over.

In other words: a large number of people have been forced to overcome the threshold of practical and psychological difficulties in the use of digital technologies in fields previously not practiced. As a result, once the initial practical and/or psychological difficulties are overcome, many are discovering that these online activities can be easy, efficient and sometimes fun.

Not only. They’re noting that moving online more and more activities entails, or could entail, significant environmental benefits. And, finally, that the reduction of “necessary mobility”, frees, or could free up, precious time previously occupied by travel.

Therefore, there are reasons to believe that this positive attitude towards online socialization will continue after the crisis. And that, when the “stay at home” will no longer be an order given from above for health needs, it will become, or will be perceived as, the most convenient solution. The problem in all this is that these virtues of online sociality (real, potential or presumed that they are) are difficult to separate from the ways in which they are implemented. And these latter are entirely consistent with the causes of the social and environmental catastrophe with which we are confronted today: individualization, virtualization and widespread social control.

Trends and countertrends

Individualization, virtualization and widespread social control are trends that have been in place for some time and that, despite saying that nothing will be as before, the Covid-19 crisis will strengthen. The result is that, if nothing else happens, in the name of this convenience (that is, in the name of the search for a frictionless and effortless daily life), society will continue its march towards self-dissolution in a myriad of individuals, so connected how lonely. A society of more isolated people (less relationships between them, that is, more individualization), more detached from the places where they live (less relationships between people and places, that is, more virtualization), more willing to be observable and observed, in the name of security (less privacy, i.e. more control). Ultimately, a society, as a whole, less cohesive, less capable of self-organization and less free.

All of this, as it has been said, if nothing else happens. So the question is: can something else happen? Is there any sign that makes us think that things could also go in a different (and less dystopian) direction than the one outlined now? Fortunately yes. As always, reality is contradictory. And very different trends can coexist. Even those that run counter to the previous ones. To see them, these countertrends, however, you need to have the right glasses. That is, it is necessary to adopt evaluation criteria that allow to recognize them, even when the signal they emit is weak.

Hybrid communities of place

In Italy, the first days after the issuance of the “all at home” decree, we all saw flash mobs of people on the balconies: driven by the desire to feel less isolated, children and the elderly, professional musicians and entire families, at 6:00pm of a day agreed on the net, they appeared on their balconies to sing and play together. Certainly, due to their nature of exceptional events, these initiatives cannot produce lasting social forms. Nonetheless, they are more than a moving expression of humanity. They indicate one possibility: that of inhabiting a hybrid physical-digital space. That is to use the net to do something together in the real world and also without close contact.

In the following weeks, this same possibility emerged in other initiatives (numerous though less flashy): there have been those who organized themselves to help the elderly or people in isolation. There have been public bodies and voluntary associations that coordinated locally. There have been shops that sent home shopping to those who could not move. There have been bookstores that supported local cultural activities … they are all examples of a contactless sociality, which, however, solves problems using the network and physical proximity. A sociality cultivating a network of relationships that, after the crisis, could evolve into hybrid communities of place, That is, communities capable of living in both the physical and the digital space. Communities which, precisely by virtue of their hybrid and localized nature, can confer cohesion and resilience to the wider social system of which they are a part. In fact, it is proven that these hybrid local communities are the ones that best know how to cope with catastrophic events. And that they can do it precisely because, operating daily for mutual care and for the care of the environment in which they live, when such events take place, they have the ability and the knowledge to act and to self-organize.

A new culture

Building these new communities requires a vision and some specific skills in deciding how to act, listening the feedbacks (form the others and the environment) and reorienting the actions. It also requires imagining and developing social and institutional experiments. And, no less important, it requires a deeper reflection on the relationship between us, human beings, and what we have so far called “nature”. In fact, the Covid-19 crisis, adding to the environmental one, is modifying the framework in which this relationship is perceived. What is emerging is the idea that nature is not inert and passive, but an entity that reacts to our reckless actions. Thus, the number of people who perceive that the traditional polarity humans-nature must be overcome is growing. The emerging idea is that that we, the humans, are “nature” too. That is, the idea that we are part of that larger living entity that we call Earth. This change in perception is also a result of the on-going crisis: the demiurgic vision of the humans who are masters and lords of the world could (finally!) be overcome.

But for this to really happen, and lead to positive outcomes (which is not obvious), this philosophical reorientation must intertwine with the experimentation mentioned above. It needs to meet with the visible and tangible construction of what the new non-anthropocentric model could actually mean.

Strategies for resilience

Returning to the starting point: what is the hidden opportunity in this crisis? It has been said that, alongside so much suffering, the Covid-19 crisis has also brought about great behavioural changes. And that these have a paradoxical character: in this planetary catastrophe, today, being social means being separated from others.

This unprecedented practice of contactless sociality has, as a more evident effect, the search for online sociality. From here, our working hypothesis: the obligation to stay at home and the urge to do everything possible online can lead to a system of digital relationships which, once the virus is over, could be capable of evolving and moving into the physical world. But to make this possible, a precise decision must be taken from the beginning: to cultivate in the digital space only (or at least mainly) relationships in-between “neighbours”. That is, in-between a well-defined and localized group of interlocutors.   Making this hypothesis does not mean aligning with the (dangerous) idea that technology alone will save us. On the contrary: it means betting on the fact that the same energy that now pushes us to go online could lead us to the construction of localized networks: online interactions that, in the post-crisis period, could continue and prosper even in the physical world. And in doing so, generate unprecedented hybrid communities of place.