The marketplace and the public square since the very inception of the city have been at the heart of public life and social interaction. And neither the pandemic, nor the pandemic-fuelled transition to the digital age, seems to have diminished the centrality and role of these spaces. On Thursday, Wall Street rallied as Amazon and Netflix stocks soared because of the lockdown. In addition, video conferencing apps like Zoom have seen an exponential rise in value. Their ephemeral existence notwithstanding, each of these services mimics, respectively, the bazaar, the Colosseum (entertainment in ancient Rome) and the agora (public square in ancient Athens). But despite their financial success, the digital alternatives to social life have been found wanting.
For those who haven’t directly faced a deep disruption to their lives — hunger, unemployment, disease and dislocation — due to COVID-19, online giants have indeed provided comfort and convenience. Yet, people who binge-watched shows on OTT services, pre-pandemic, remember with nostalgia on social media their love for the theatre. The desire to go to a restaurant cannot be replaced by ordering in; the joys of the company of colleagues and comrades aren’t quite the same in an online meeting. Even the small interactions with people on public transport, at shops, have become a thing of value.
The digital alternative can provide for people’s wants and even the means for physical sustenance. But without others, the self crumbles; even the greatest narcissists need an audience. Perhaps that’s why people are reaching out in their neighbourhoods, performing music and theatre through windows, coming together to applaud the otherwise unseen and unrecognised, like sanitation workers. The mimicry of civilisation online just isn’t enough. In isolation, perhaps, people will realise why no one can go it alone.