The new coronavirus epidemic is having a noteworthy effect: more and more people in cities like Wuhan are simply staying at home. In part this is because the civil authorities are telling them to stay home, and even locking them in their homes. But it seems also to be the choice of many people to stay at home rather than risk infection outside. And this is also happening in Italy, where several football matches have been played in empty stadiums.
What we’re seeing are societies that are becoming completely atomised: Everyone stays is their own home, separately compartmented from everyone else. And the effect of this atomisation of society is that the numbers of direct interactions between people falls to near zero, with the result (hopefully) that the coronavirus ceases to be transmitted between people, and the growth of the epidemic is halted.
What are the economic effects of this? The people who are staying at home will still be cooking and eating and drinking. They’ll still be consuming food and water and gas and electricity much at the rate they did before (or slightly more so). What they will have completely stopped doing will be going to pubs and restaurants and cafes, or to sports stadiums and theatres and cinemas and art galleries and museums and churches and shops, or travelling anywhere, or going on holiday.
Won’t this mean that all the empty pubs and shops and theatres will be bankrupted, because they suddenly have no customers? Won’t they have to lay off all their staff (if the staff weren’t already staying home)? Won’t they have to lock their doors? And won’t they stop paying rent for their premises, with no income for that purpose? Will they all magically re-open when the epidemic is over?
In this atomised society, with people staying at home all the time, many of them will get bored, because they actually want to spend their time in shops and restaurants and theatres. They will see themselves living minimal lives, devoid of all the luxuries and amusements that are found in shops and restaurants and theatres. All they’ll have is their idle time, as they sit at home doing nothing.
But I won’t mind. I love idle time. Idle time is time in which I can think and write and dream and calculate. Since I was expelled from society by the smoking ban 12 years ago, I’ve been living an isolated life anyway. So I’ve long been used to living in an atomised society, and have depicted it as a shattered, fragmented world (right). But now everybody will experience that atomised society. Everybody will experience complete isolation for the duration of the epidemic. Instead of just smokers being exiled, everybody will be exiled from society.
My Smoky Drinky Bar offers one way round this social exclusion. There people meet up online rather than face to face in person. The Smoky Drinky Bar is a virtual pub rather than a real one. It’s also one in which you can smoke as well as eat and drink. The Smoky Drinky Bar abolishes smoking bans.
If you can have virtual pubs like the Smoky Drinky Bar, why not virtual offices, in which people meet and talk online? And why not virtual doctors’ surgeries, where doctors meet patients online? And why not virtual art galleries? And virtual museums? And even a virtual House of Commons in which 650 MPs talk to each other and vote, while they’re all actually sitting at home? What if all the theatres and art galleries and shops and offices became redundant, and instead fell vacant or became people’s homes? I already do most of my shopping online now in places like Amazon, but now also at supermarkets and stores. Does there need to be a physical shop called Amazon? Does there need to be a physical supermarket? Why not deliver everything by drone?
One effect of a global coronavirus pandemic would be to provide a very powerful incentive for people to do as much in an online virtual world as in a physical place. A great many offices might well become virtual offices, with their staff scattered all over the world, working from home. And once companies became successful virtual offices, would they bother to rent real physical offices once the crisis was over? Once the House of Commons became empty, because all the MPs were making speeches and voting from the comfort of their own homes in their own constituencies, would there be any need to ever go back to the physical House?
We might be about to witness a step change in human society. Once atomised, it might stay atomised. And in that atomised world, there would be no smoking bans. And that would mean that when from time to time people actually met up face to face in each other’s real homes, they would smoke just like they did in the Smoky Drinky Bar.
Social pressures would fall to zero in such a world, because society would have ceased to exist. After all, most rules and regulations are concerned with how people behave in each others’ company (e.g. no smoking), not how they behave on their own (smoke as much as you like). Atomic individuals will behave as they please, making their own rules for themselves, and maybe even completely ignoring rules and regulations enacted in a House of Commons. In an atomised society, in which there is no chain of command, there can be no top-down control either. So the political world would vanish as well, along with the mainstream media. Because you won’t be watching well-dressed presenters in glossy studios, but unkempt people sitting in their own homes – like Scott Adams:
They’re a lot more interesting.