In July of 1962, French cave explorer Michel Siffre took off his watch and descended into the Scarasson abyss. What had been planned as a geological survey turned into one of the most important experiments in human chronobiology ever conducted. For the next 63 days, he would live alone underground with only a torch for light. When he emerged on September 14th, he believed that it was the 20th of August. Siffre’s original objective had been to spend a fortnight exploring an underground glacier discovered the previous year. Then he decided that a fortnight was not long enough; his investigation would require two months at least – and then an idea dawned on him. What if he were to live on his own clock – in his own words, to live ‘like an animal, without a watch, in the dark, without knowing the time’? As Siffre’s period in the cave passed, he began to lose focus on the passing of a normal day, staying awake for thirty or even forty hours and then sleeping for fifteen. Intending to study a landscape, Michel Siffre ended up changing our understanding of how humans experience time itself.

It would be melodramatic to compare state-mandated social distancing to living alone in a cave for two whole months. Many of us are fortunate enough to be self-isolated with friends or family, and most of us still have access to things that can cue time and structure our days: sunlight, regular meal-times, analogue clocks. But as the days turn into months rather than weeks – or so it feels – I’m reminded of one experiment conducted in the ‘hole’. Siffre related the procedure to Cabinet Magazine in a 2008 interview: ‘I had to count from 1 to 120, at the rate of one digit per second. With that test we made a great discovery: it took me five minutes to count to 120. In other words, I psychologically experienced five real minutes as though they were two.’

Many of us will be feeling now, as Siffre did then, that time is something subjective when we’re (mostly) alone. The passing of day into night alerts us to the kind of schedule we should be living to but does nothing to keep us on it. It’s a kind of illusion that real-life still exists outside of the house. In truth, all of our daily comings and goings have moved online. There’s a reason that current events feel surreal, and it might be that our whole lives have been put at arm’s length. Everything has become digital – and while we hold everyone else at a distance of six feet, the world as we know it is now forever a short reach away. There is the same oxymoron to be found in Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s St Patrick’s day plea that Ireland should ‘come together as a nation by staying apart’. To feel stultified more than anything else in the midst of a crisis is a privilege; not having to work, not being sick with worry over the health of a relative or else ill with coronavirus, is a blessing. Such strict social distancing measures are necessary, but we don’t have to pretend that they are easily bowed to. And in the rush to do the right thing, it’s easy to forget just how odd the ‘right thing’ is.

We all as people need a certain amount of social interaction with others to be happy and healthy. That’s why we’re used to isolation from others in the context of punishment. Being sent to your room as a kid turns into solitary confinement in the penal system, the use of which is condemned by human rights watchdogs around the world. It’s a last-ditch measure too often a first resort. On any given day, about 61,000 people are incarcerated entirely alone in US prisons, housed in cells more comparable to elevators than en suites. One such man is Albert Woodfox, who spent four decades of solitude in a Louisiana prison. In his book Solitary, he recalls that he always ‘woke up with the same thought: will this be the day? Will this be the day I lose my sanity and discipline? Will I start screaming and never stop?’.

Siffre had some of the same fears, at one point even considering suicide. The effects of loneliness – anxiety, low mood, in some cases a new onset of paranoia or hallucinations – are good for no one. Those with existing mental health problems are impacted more severely, and prescription medications are becoming increasingly difficult to access in the ongoing crisis. Distraction is an important constant for many and something we are all short of now. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed; it’s also easy to switch off, to drop out of this collective trauma involuntarily as a way to cope with what is going on. However we react – and our reactions are essentially multifarious – most of us attempt to stop the gaps left by normal social interaction with some kind of digital alternative. The internet is our only hope of experiencing what might be the most significant event of our lives together, while apart. Can this ever be a long-term substitute for face-to-face socialisation? And if so, why would we ever go back?

Our use of new technologies for social purposes has been variously welcomed or bemoaned since the end of the 20th century. Siffre repeated his cave experiment in 1999, emerging on Valentine’s Day 2000 and so avoiding the Y2K scare. Then, the prevailing fear was that the world’s computers would cease to work on December 31st 1999, thus leaving the world in the dark. This did not happen; neither did the world emerge on the other side of the millennium remembering the collective panic experienced when it seemed that our technologies may at a moment be taken away. While texting or calling friends can alleviate feelings of loneliness, some studies have linked a reliance on social media and mobile technology to an increased likelihood of anxiety and depression in young people. At the best of times, putting down the phone can be difficult: since it contains so much of our lives, we have a hard time abstaining from the use of it, and this is the case now more than ever. The internet is more than a communicative tool – it’s an important source of validation, and the same mechanisms that allow us to keep up with those on the other side of the planet allow us to measure our lives against those of absolute strangers too.

Like Siffre’s cave, such extraordinary conditions as those we are experiencing now will lead to an unexpected exploration of what we as people need to function in the (now quite ironically named) Digital Age. There might be a chance to stop and think about the extent to which certain advancements replace important aspects of modern life, rather than compliment them. It’s easy to defend the belief that social media, mobile technologies and the interconnectivity they provide have brought about more good than harm: the internet has revolutionised opportunities for education, activism and correspondence. But our belief that it will always be there to rely on is not without its downsides. In our haste to problem-solve our lives into greater ease, we’ve pushed our planet’s natural resources off of a cliff-edge. Our attempts to cut societal corners with new technologies too may have steamrolled ahead with little consideration for how such changes will be passed onto and received by those to come. When does a social media platform die, and what happens with our information when it does? How do we know which interactions are genuine, and how blurred is the line between those known to us online versus in person? The answers to these questions may seem self-evident now, but they are not by any means fixed.

Internet access allows us to keep up vital forms of communication with those we can no longer see, but it can also bring about desensitization. The deluge of new virus-related information is constant; it’s difficult to find things to watch or to read that are not in some way tied to pandemic. Every week is ‘a week that shook Britain’, and we feel no sense of urgency when every day we move towards an inevitable peak. We tune in nightly to virtual press conferences that were previously unprecedented in times of peace. Government channels stoically state death tolls in social media posts, as if they were no more than standard citizens’ advice, and both patriotism and disaffection are readily found with equal ease. There is no distinction between fact and opinion; in this time of uncertainty, Twitter can feel a more reliable news source than the state-absorbed 5pm information slot. Similarly, too, there is no real distinction between work and rest, if we are fortunate enough to be able to work from home.

Institutions that once refused to keep up with advances in technology have been thrust into the future, Oxford University included. Despite being one of the world’s most acclaimed educators, Oxford has lagged behind competitors in providing students with lecture capture and other online resources for the sake of closely-guarded tradition. Change in this respect is a good thing; we can hope that once this crisis passes, society at large remembers that technology can provide educational and career opportunities to those housebound because of disability or chronic illness. But it is crucial that we remain alert to the impact this shift could have on our privacy. Popular video call provider Houseparty initially took off when social distancing measures came into force, but allegations that the app had been harvesting users’ information have led to its rapid decline. Concerns around the more professionally-orientated platform Zoom are abound, but despite this its software has been used to discuss sensitive professional matters and even to host digital meetings of the cabinet.

In the coming weeks and months, we will inevitably give up even more of our personal data to social media giants like Facebook and Instagram, who have divulged our information before to nefarious political collectives. We have probably given up even more than we would willingly admit to already. When we lean on these platforms and allow them to stand in for face-to-face interaction, we slowly feed them interpersonal tidbits: what we’re attracted to, what makes us laugh, what we’d spend our money on if we had more of it. This kind of revelation seems innocuous, but in reality, it is just as dangerous as leaving our credit card details or physical addresses with social media platforms. The content displayed to us as a direct result of profile-building is shown only momentarily, in a vacuum, and then it disappears; once we scroll past advertisements tailored to us, they’re gone forever, and only social media companies can be sure of exactly what we have seen.

Facebook was fined £500,000 by the Information Commissioner’s Office in 2018 for its role in the Cambridge Analytica scandal, which unearthed the tactics employed by Leave.EU amongst others in a kind of psychological warfare on the Brexit vote. But still, Facebook has withheld information on what exactly its users have been shown as a result of campaign targeting. Models used to influence us become increasingly dangerous as we willingly feed them, and we will most likely never understand the exact ways in which the information stored on us is used, much less by whom. Until such transparencies are provided, we cannot allow digital communication to absorb the functions of personal interaction, even in a crisis such as this. And for the handling of our information to change, a reckoning must come – and it must be even bigger than the one felt in 2018, which feels forgotten when the Prime Minister will discuss state secrets on a platform no more secure than Facebook itself.

It seems already that respect for our privacy in extraordinary times is an illusion. Documents seen by The Guardian on Easter Sunday revealed that technology firms contracted by the government have had unprecedented access to large volumes of confidential patient information, as part of Number 10’s attempt to tackle the coronavirus pandemic. One NHS document suggests that a fortnight ago, a data firm contracted had planned a computer simulation meant to assess the impact of a ‘targeted herd immunity’ policy. Coming on March 23rd, such a plan was laid a week following assurances from the Prime Minister and his staff that no such approach would be adopted. The government had previously stated its plans to develop data projects as one element of its ‘battle plan’, but the sensitivity and availability of information it has provided to private companies was previously unknown. And while such data will have been anonymised, the amount of confidential information being used in this project is completely without precedent and is neither ethical nor in line with standard data protection practice. Officially, data firms involved in this modelling do not have permission to share information given to them by the government with others, or to use it for their own purposes. In reality, it is theirs to do with as they please. This is part of the trade-off. Who knows who they will sell it to? Combined with the personal information we have freely given up through our use of social media, government-aligned firms now know more about us than we can ever understand.

Unlike Michel Siffre or Albert Woodfox, we’re free to go outside – to communicate with others, and to hang onto normal life through some sort of time-cued routine. It’s important to remember that we’re all entitled to deal with crisis in our own ways: some might be hyper-productive, some lethargic; digital communication is an absolute essential to some, and others might prefer to tune out other people completely. But for us to come out of quarantine reliant on technology in the same ways would be a disaster, when we are only just beginning to understand how communicative media is impacting us psychologically and how our information is being used. The best-case scenario is that we remember the ways in which technology can provide opportunities to disadvantaged people that were previously withheld, while keeping a distance from adopting technological alternatives completely for the sake of convenience. Hopefully we will all understand loneliness a little better, too. But recent events have made it clear that dependency on communication technology is not in our best interests – in fact, it benefits those who would take advantage of the trust we have in the government at least to store our data safely.

There is a fine line between desire for and dependence on information technology, especially where government initiatives are concerned, and this dynamic itself provides the opportunity for data misuse. It’s crucial to strike a balance between facilitating meaningful interaction with others and preventing our complete reliance on digital measures when they are no longer needed. Interactive technology in a time of social distancing is a godsend – but this cannot become our new way of life. 

Image credit: Phoebe White

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