By Rashmi Liyanage –
As the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic on the 11th of March 2020, everyday lives of people have drastically changed within a few weeks. Amongst other epidemiological measures, social distancing was acknowledged to be pivotal in mitigating the viral spread. As a result, a vast number of individuals and families physically isolated from the rest of the world historically. The digital platforms became the only leeway for individuals to socialise, gain knowledge, and to work from home and hence the society had no alternative but to incline more towards technology than ever. The generalised cynicisms on excessive usage of digital platforms, therefore, have been transformed in the new normality for the first time. However, these drastic lifestyle transformations could sprawl many social concerns in the years to come (Rosman et al, 2020).
Attributing to many phylogenomic research, it was identified that novel coronavirus is directly related to bats, the second-largest mammalian species that are organised in massive colonies (Wertheim, 2020). Although it was speculated that there could have been an intermediate host in the transmission (i.e. pangolins) of the virus to humans, what is striking is that the transmission of the infection predominantly occurred between two socially organised mammalian groups. Therefore, this elaborates the fact that the most effective way to combat the virus that seeks to thrive in close social knits was social distancing until an effective cure is being unveiled.
Social construct in virtual reality
Many species are evolved to co-exist in socially organised groups as an instinctive survival strategy. The notion that the human beings viewed as the supreme entity of the animal kingdom, they inherit a distinctive cognitive skill, ‘improvisational intelligence’, a skill that helps improvise solution at any novel situation and the ability to adapt to a new environment (Boyd et al, 2011). Humans also have a unique orientation towards one another far beyond the capacity of any other terrestrial species on the planet. Therefore, sociality is one of the dominant factors in materialising human behaviour (Waytz, 2014). This is elaborated in social constructivism and social cognitive theories further. Proponents who favour social constructivism (i.e. Piaget and Vygotsky) believe that both biological maturation and social interactions are important in establishing the cognitive structure of human beings. Similarly, social psychologists (from Maslow to Baumeister) have reiterated the importance of sociality as one of the fundamentals of basic human needs.
Physicality and human interaction
In the current context, the practice of social distancing is referred to as physical distancing between people. It does not encompass distancing across social boundaries or limiting social connections. Edward T. Hall (1968), a social anthropologist who coined the term proxemics discerned the concept of personal space and have recognised four zones of human distances; intimate, personal, social and public. In his study, he signifies that one’s intimate and personal domains are commonly occupied by social networks that are psychologically close whereas social and public domains are occupied by new acquaintances and strangers. A growing body of research has proven that physical connectivity, in particular, encourages prosocial behaviour whilst it is functioned as a mechanism of stress reduction (Shiomi et al, 2017). Social interaction is equally channelled through a number of gestures including body language and non-verbal communication. A verity of non-verbal commutative factors that humans used to connect with others includes kinaesthetic, haptic, and visual effects. The effect of human touch including hugs in particular (i.e. kinaesthetic and haptics) have been described as a method of communicating empathy which has a physical and psychological relieving effect. This phenomenon is referred to as the ‘Midas touch’ due to its therapeutic properties. Similarly, tactile stimulations can trigger the release of certain hormones such as serotonin and dopamine that could buffer stress and also believed to boost the immune system (Matthias, 2017). Therefore, human physicality is inextricably interwoven into the social structure.
Since the lockdown, technology has inevitably been playing a major role in controlling the spread of the virus. For instance, artificial intelligence has been deployed in detecting the spread of the virus whereas technology also has been utilised for genomic sequencing in the development of a potential cure. Furthermore, medical robots had been introduced in clinical settings whilst the conventional doctor’s appointments have been transformed into virtual visits to reduce human to human contact. Likewise, an array of digital applications and devises have been made available to the public to stay virtually connected. Videoconferencing (i.e skype, Zoom and Viber etc) in particular has become the latest platform for the world to stay connected. Statistics have shown that at least 50% surge of the usage of the internet in many countries (Sweney, 2020).
Since the spread of the virus, the old cliché on technology has been transformed and in fact, the society has gone obsessed over the latest digital advancements without much age barrier. Limitations on screen time for children have been relaxed as education is becoming more reliant on digital tools during the time of lockdown. The society, therefore, has begun to appreciate the virtue of working from home and the perception that existed on the necessity of physical presence at the workplace has altered in the new normality. Therefore, technology serves as a powerful tool to keep the society well connected than ever.
What future holds in the new normality?
The turbulent times will settle soon after a vaccine is developed. Whilst some critics argue that returning to normality in the post-pandemic era would be a definite struggle, some assume that the world would be at the same place where it stopped at the end. The lessons from the history related to previous pandemics have been and continued to be important in shaping the future. However, in a broader sense, variables such as time and space should be equally considered to have an influence in making an insight into this phenomenon. Hence it would be harder to contemplate that the real-world social construct would remain the same as ever in the face of the viral outbreak in an era where the society is deeply involved with the technology in making social communication than any other time in history.
The society is already embracing cloud-based working in their comfort zone while children have their logical reasons for digital access. Although materialistically the world appeared to be kept on halt, it is moving forward at a slow pace owing to these technological advancements during the pandemic. Similar to the Renaissance that followed the black death, the wider access to technology could trigger an intellectual awakening in the society. Better technological platforms with kinaesthetic and haptic capabilities would be designed to improve human lives. For instance, artificial intelligence will be deployed in detecting human emotional states and wearable haptic devices will be introduced to facilitate psychological stress in the near future (Birnbaum, 2020). Therefore, more customized technological advancements with less human engagement will be immanent in new normality.
The pandemic has led the society to be more obsessed with physical than psychological wellbeing. Around 150,000 avoidable deaths have been predicted at the beginning of the pandemic that could have direct link to mental health issues and domestic violence (Nelson, 2020). This highlights the limitations of technological advancements in addressing the human needs in the current context. Furthermore, there is also a tendency of perceiving strangers to be ‘infectious’ and as a result, in societies, where inherent personal space is at particular concern, individual personal boundaries would invariably be expanded. Face to face space would be invaded by the virtual space and thereby, transform the social relationships into digital relationships. While physically shielded behind the digital screens, someone’s sensitive information would be exposed to the rest of the world in the cyber space even without their knowledge.
It is observed that since the spread of the virus mankind has arrived at a juncture where the physical interactions between individuals have been replaced by the technology to a greater extent. The society now have more customized choices in human interaction through digital platforms whilst physicality would be modified into simulations and virtual realities. This new trend, therefore, would lead the way to an era of transhumanism much earlier than that was anticipated before, however, the lack of ‘human touch’ in this new normality could pose a challenge in the interpretation of human values and social construct.
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*Rashmi Liyanage, BSc (Hon) is a reader in MRes in Health, Social Care and Medicine at Edgehill University, Ormskirk, United Kingdom.