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This millennium has wired us into a pervasive system of individuated connection, making it a perfect precursor to the requisite high-tech sequestration at hand. (Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images)

This millennium has wired us into a pervasive system of individuated connection, making it a perfect precursor to the requisite high-tech sequestration at hand. (Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Apocalypse On-Demand

Is this societal demise, or technological ascent?

Randall Amster

It’s the end of the world, but you might hardly know it. Sure, there’s the inconvenience of being mostly stuck at home, making do with a bit less and rationing a bit more, and foregoing most of our exterior social interactions. But let’s face it: for many people right now, our streaming services are intact and just about anything still can be delivered to your doorstep. If this is the apocalypse, or even just a preview, then it’s a high-functioning one. So it’s fair to wonder: is this societal demise, or technological ascent?

For the so-called “middle class” (which by definition or perception incorporates a surprisingly large percentage of the population) this might feel like a moment of relative inconvenience wrapped around lives of on-demand convenience. Entertainment, communication, and myriad cultural diversions have already been thoroughly digitized by now, as have an expanding array of economic and work-related activities. Social engagement has lagged a bit, but rapidly is catching up in this time of imposed distance.

Yes, this is a catastrophic moment, but more so for those already vulnerable and marginalized.

All the while, the capacity to realize “social distancing” (bound up with notions of doing one’s civic duty) remains a function of power and privilege. Isolation isn’t much of an option for people experiencing homelessness, incarcerated populations, or communities marked by concentrated poverty. Endemic conditions of structural violence, obscured by the “bootstraps” mythology of free-market meritocracy, have yielded starkly disparate lives for people coexisting within proximity but often living worlds apart.

Despite the disparities, there’s a tendency (especially in times of crisis) to seek bonds of connection and solidarity with a sense that “we’re all in this together.” On many levels this is indeed true, and always has been: our lives are intertwined and mutually interdependent in ways that are rarely acknowledged. But that organic realization doesn’t account for a constructed reality in which benefits and burdens skew heavily based on demographic factors, and disasters notoriously exacerbate those preexisting inequities.

Yes, this is a catastrophic moment, but more so for those already vulnerable and marginalized. Frontline workers, people with underlying medical conditions and limited access to good healthcare, communities suffering long-term exposure to environmental toxins, those on the other side of the “digital divide,” and more are disproportionately reflected in the infection and casualty rates accruing in this pandemic. The correlates of race and class reveal themselves starkly in crisis, belying axioms of equal opportunity.

Whether through a stratified lens or taken in the aggregate, this is a calamitous time. But catastrophe is only half of the definition of apocalypse, deriving from a Greek word meaning uncovering or disclosure. This revelatory aspect of apocalypse is palpable right now, laying bare our utter dependence on digital modalities and remote fulfillment centers to meet basic needs. Perhaps this reliance gives us a modicum of pause—but the larger mindset is one of reveling in the values and virtues of a technotopian promise.

Education at all levels? They’ve got platforms in place. Consumer goods, from apples to automobiles? Delivered right to your door (and you don’t even have to see the deliverer). Cultural engagement? Now available via livestream. Exercise, intimacy, investments, spirituality? There’s an app for that. Work? Zoom it. Media? Binge it. Politics? Tweet it. This millennium has wired us into a pervasive system of individuated connection, making it a perfect precursor to the requisite high-tech sequestration at hand.

And perhaps, after all, this has always been the ultimate demand of an on-demand society: catastrophic convenience, filling the experiential void with ostensible plenty. Maybe seeing it unvarnished and living with its implications can be a wake-up call? If so, the lingering effects might yield more sustainable and scalable lives, reclaiming lost skills and abilities, appreciating nature, and embracing community. If not, then the realization of marked digital dependency might be the fulfillment of our unnatural social order.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Randall Amster

Randall Amster

Randall Amster, J.D., Ph.D., is co-director and teaching professor of environmental studies at Georgetown University. His books include "Peace Ecology" (2015), "Anarchism Today" ( 2012), and "Lost in Space: The Criminalization, Globalization, and Urban Ecology of Homelessness" (2008).

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