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  • Writer's pictureStephen Balogh

Coronavirus and a loss of social capital from thinner random interaction

Updated: Oct 11, 2020

I am stepping out experimentally and somewhat tentatively with a first-time personal blog post. It is about an aspect of the current coronavirus dislocations I am not really seeing remarked on elsewhere but which I personally believe to be important in its potential social effects. I thought I would therefore pen some words on it myself and see what people think who choose to read it, so I welcome others’ ideas, contributions and indeed counters to what I am writing. Please forgive me if in this relatively short space my argument and conclusions appear simplistic and incomplete; perhaps reaching fully rounded ideas could be a shared endeavour. They are intended apolitically and are from me alone and not from any entity I am associated with professionally.

The nub of it is this: if as a result of persisting changes in behaviours and patterns from coronavirus and its aftermath we are physically mixing less with those outside our ready circles, we risk as a society losing some of our social cohesion, an extremely valuable source of social capital especially in these times.

There has been a lot of recent thought about an accelerating trend towards what might be termed “virtual gated communities”. Such communities are usually effectively self-selective through means and circumstance and might be ring-fenced by company, profession, neighbourhood locale and so on. My concern is that this balkanisation effect could be amplified if accompanied by general loss of physical social interaction *outside those communities*. Given the enormity of other changes we are seeing this might seem secondary and relatively unimportant, but the longer-term effects could be large enough to exacerbate other fault lines our society is currently experiencing. 

We can all agree that there is so much to recognise and be thankful for in the technology-enabled location flexibility afforded to many of us during this now extended period of restrictions on movement and physical interactions. From effective continuity of business, commercial, educational and administrative activities to positive kinship opportunities created by a release from commuting time and a heightened sense of neighbourliness, there have been many benefits. And, indeed, it is hard to imagine just how much more destructive to economic activity and public service provision it would been in the absence of such widespread and relatively mature technology support, even 10 or 15 years ago. Much to be celebrated and to be grateful for in this harnessing of human ingenuity. It does strike me that members of the LinkedIn population are more likely to be net beneficiaries and ready participants in one or more overlapping virtual gated communities as I describe them, whether their company, social milieu or shared interest; this is entirely understandable because it is a classic feature of the network concentration effect, akin to the inverse square rule perhaps.

But who might be outside these virtual gated communities of the “flexible haves”?  There remains a vast and varied set of activities that require spatial proximity and physical movement without the luxury of location independence. Incredible adjustments have been made on the fly to render these as safe and efficient as possible, in some cases with large capacity expansion to cater for increased home-based demand. Also, there have sadly been very large dents knocked into entire sectors, notably travel, hospitality, leisure and entertainment. Finally, there are many who are not economically active, whether or not by desire, at least some of whom will not have means to access a virtual community. Albeit less homogeneous than the “flexible haves”, many will be “inflexible have nots” and also by definition less visible.

Even once the coronavirus threat is lifted, the accelerated structural changes and distortive effects will be felt for years to come: we all sense there will be no ready snapping back and resumption of patterns that existed until early 2020. Instead, what is often referred to as Schumpeterian “creative destruction” (after the celebrated twentieth century economist Joseph Schumpeter) is clearly in overdrive in the economic sphere. Much of this in the long run will prove to be beneficial and lead to more efficient resource allocation of every kind, albeit with public and private transitional costs. But I am wondering what of previously enduring, largely intangible value in the social sphere might be lost more generally.

What if the new normal, once equilibrium is reached, includes significantly less travel on public transport, reduced presence in shared public spaces whether streets, thoroughfares or town squares, and less frequent and lower density congregation in sports stadia, concert halls, bars & restaurants and places of worship? Even if some activities can be replicated to a degree through online means such as social network platforms and Zoom conferencing with massed and varied participation, to what extent are they real substitutes?

I think there are three ways in which they fall short.

The first is that virtual means can only partially cover everyday social interactions, mainly the associative ones of shared attendance such as a business meeting, match or concert. The second is that they are naturally self-selective and thus limited in their effective mixing of all-comers. The third is that they are intermediated, that is, there is something in between me and others, whether a web conference technology platform, format and filtering of a social media platform, hosting of a radio phone-in or even of an online voluntary group asking for donations. None of these create direct contact as such, however worthwhile and virtually seamless they may be. Even the window-on-the-world that the internet is generally doesn’t make up fully because every image we see is intermediated to some degree.

There is perhaps a fourth, observable consideration, that virtual platforms do seem to encourage a human tendency towards polarisation rather than plurality.

By contrast, where is the effective equivalent of “raw” interaction from physical proximity directly hitting the senses, the sheer randomness of a thousand people passed in the street, bus, train or coffee queue? These encounters may not be consciously generated, but they do subliminally remind us of our shared humanity in all its variety and diversity – often outside our normal social groups.

But so what, in practice? I think the twin dynamics of self-reinforcing virtual gated communities particularly suited to the “flexible haves” and a reduced density of random physical proximity in the everyday risks an “out of sight, out of mind” effect and a balkanisation of social groupings, bad for social cohesion in an arguably already somewhat fractured society.

Those who know me well will already realise, from my early career at London Transport (now TfL) onwards, that I am a fierce advocate of public transport. As well as the efficiency benefits of mass transit under normal circumstances, I have always believed strongly in the social benefits of chance temporary co-location, even if not always experienced in the greatest comfort. Take this and other opportunities of random interaction away and my contention is that a great deal is lost by society as a whole.

It is for this reason I want to suggest that everyday random social encounter is an essential social ingredient we will regret if radically reduced, and I don’t think virtual substitutes make a realistic replacement.

Another aspect: social mental health. There is, rightly, a great deal of focus on the individual mental health impacts and consequences from this period of restrictions and change. Extending this, I think I am writing here about what might be called aggregate social mental health. If I chance past someone in the street it might be a transient and forgettable encounter for me, but it might just be a lifeline of tacit human contact for that other person who needs it for personal wellbeing, anonymous thought it might be. In the previous world we have had to put aside, such a tiny boost to mental health came free of charge, so to speak. How much might it cost in the future?

Once we all come blinking finally into the sunlight, perhaps we should consciously make it our business to find ways of immersing ourselves once more in random social interactions deliberately away from our virtual gated communities. I think it would help recreate an essential social good for our communities and society. My guess is it’s likely to be harder to do given the frictions to movement and association we now have, but nonetheless foundational for our general wellbeing.

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