City City Bang Bang, Columns

When the world stops flowing

The lockdown is an altogether novel experience for the world, something that no one has any preparation for. It is a frontal attack on notions of mobility and connectivity, which form the foundation of our lives today. In a pandemic which would have exploded exponentially if we did nothing, early sweeping action was what was needed most. The spread of the virus has a highly disproportionate stacking of consequences with every increment in time; it is only by controlling the nodes of transmission, that we have some hope of slowing it down. Which is why the focus on isolation and immobility. 

That such a move causes dislocation is not surprising. After all, more than ever before, today’s world is premised on the idea of flow. The world is intricately connected and is increasingly premised on seamlessness, easy instant access and speed. Money flows, goods move, we are in a constant state of motion. The digital is nothing but the ceaseless flow of electronic bits of information. In a larger sense, we have been moving from a world premised on stock, on accumulation to one based on flow, getting things on demand, when we need them. Uber, Airbnb, the rise of the ‘gig’ economy all point to a world where the fixed gives way to the fluid and ownership gets overtaken by the idea of ‘usership’- in effect, a place of dwelling or an automobile is stripped of its utilitarian label and has functional fluidity flowing through it. 

We also increasingly visualise our world as a flow. The GPS gives us an out-of-body experience of locating ourselves on a moving map. Deliveries are tracked, vehicles are tracked, in a surveillance economy our actions and movements are relentlessly tracked. Every motion becomes significant, every key stroke revelatory. If earlier we revealed ourselves to the outside through discretionary and discrete actions, for example when we bought something, complained about something or applied for something official, today, we are a continuous stream of information that keeps flowing out involuntarily. This is what allows the business of modern life to function.

The Covid-19 is a disruption thus, of a fundamental kind. We can’t move, not across countries, nor domestically, not even in our neighbourhoods. The goods we need don’t move, our work has come to a standstill, our leisure hours are spent cooped up indoors. The flow of our salaries has become uncertain, the rhythm of daily labour is disrupted. A world dependent on the idea of flow, finds itself locked down, frozen in several forms of immobility. Incomes for many have stopped flowing, revenues for businesses have dried up, supply chains have stopped moving- Even digital commerce, which needs the flow of the physical world, finds itself hamstrung when things stop flowing.

We are forced to go back to the older idea of stocking up, of using resources frugally, of making do with what we have at home, including people. We need to value owning things again, of using what we really need and doing so frugally. We learn to covet experiences over possessions, and find to our surprise that scarcity multiplies rather than diminishes meaning. 

The pandemic, on the other hand, is a flow. It moves rapidly from person to person, colonising clusters, and spreading at speeds not usually seen in the physical world Not only does it flow, it multiplies exponentially, mocking our newfound obsession with making things go viral. Everything that we find valuable about the seamless flow of our lives is negated by the ease with which the virus flows. It streams itself naturally from one host to another, hitching a ride in our bodies, feasting on it. 

The other flow that continues to thrive is that of information. The digital marketplace needs the physical world as its back-end, so we find it spluttering at a time like this. But pure information is flowing seamlessly. We are besieged by it, as we look hard at it, hoping to find some answers. It is our tormentor and our saviour, for we cannot escape it just as we can escape only because of it. Without the ceaseless flow of social media and the entertainment provided by the streaming sites, we would have struggled to cope with the lockdown. At the same time, we are locked inside this torrent of information about the pandemic from where even momentary escape is difficult.

Information itself is a pandemic of sorts as it gallops ahead of reality. We are infected by doubt, by fear, by crippling anxiety, even if the virus has not harmed us. It colonises our waking hours, making us die a little in anticipation. We devour information and are in turn devoured by it. It keeps us alive while killing us a little every day. 

So here we are, trapped between the two flows that makes us shrink even more into ourselves. The disease is invisibly snaking its way towards us, and the swirls of information are surrounding us with dread and a sense of imminent foreboding. We are now afraid of everything that we were meant to trust. Friends, public facilities, even hospitals. Not only people, we fear residues left by people. Things that were designed to be touched are now potential enemies; otherwise a doorknob lives to be gripped and turned and a lift button‘s only purpose in life is to be pressed. 

What happens when this is all over, assuming that such finality will ever be possible. Do we go back to a world premised on the idea of flow, or do we now view notions of seamlessness and perpetual motion with some apprehension? Will we hedge our bets, and find ways of balancing the old with the new? Will we challenge the apparent inevitability of hyperconnectivity, perpetual motion, and ceaseless growth or will we modify our behaviour a little but lapse into the comfort of a familiar world? For now, the world may have stopped flowing, but the state of flux will endure.

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