It wasn’t really the start, but it felt like one. As I write this, we’ve been officially confined to our homes in Britain for several weeks: confined not only by caution for ourselves or others, as we began, but now by force of law. Not all of us, of course. There was a mist of uncertainty while office managers and pet store owners stretched the meaning of “essential workers” beyond its broadest plausible definition. Now, common sense has mostly prevailed: those heading out to work each morning are vital workers in healthcare, the emergency services, logistics, cleaning and caring roles. But for many of us, WFH (as it’s been instantly abbreviated) has become a reality and necessity.
Many of my colleagues are academics, and we joked that confinement wouldn’t make much difference to a schedule of solitary writing and research. A few weeks earlier, when the government started recommending social distancing, some mathematicians observed in all seriousness that their field had been practicing it for years. At the end of a semester of intensive teaching (in a profession that collects introverts) there was probably some truth in it. But joking aside, most people were glad for the new rules, and the increased seriousness they signaled. Just as there are no atheists in foxholes, there are no libertarians in pandemics—we hope. This time, at least, the doctors and planners won out against the laissez faire contingent in the group chats of power.
It didn’t take long for WFH to spawn a new genre of semi-serious advice columns, the digital media equivalent of a nervous laugh. There was an avalanche of pajama-and-slippers styling pieces (or grave assurances that the author is still wearing a three-piece and leather shoes at the kitchen table). It’s understandable to ponder the merely practical aspects of our situation as a defense against the confusion and horror presently unfolding. (And to be clear, I count myself among the ponderers.) But WFH has also become a fantasy of authenticity. You can teleconference in a collared shirt while wearing sweatpants—or less—out of sight of the webcam. And how we dress, or act, or organize our days when nobody’s watching feels like a form of truth. It’s no longer for the pleasure of strangers and colleagues. Whatever forms of humor, grace, and vanity remain are somehow ours alone.
Our solitude is double-edged. It’s both an unprecedented restriction on basic freedom, and a privilege to be in the group who can safely be confined. But the experience of separation is not totally new. Sherry Turkle has been arguing for years that we are more and more “alone together” through technology; for those of us who live and work so much through computers and phones, this is not a change in kind but in degree. And in some ways, we’re pushing back. This week I’ve been calling loved ones rather than leaving the odd text. And actually talking. We’ve been talking about mundane details of our WFH lives: coffee making techniques, tips for our solitary runs, and yes, what we’ve been wearing. But in sharing our apparently isolated lives, we’ve been talking implicitly about each other. Theorizing, in all our small worries and observations, long-unsaid ideas of community and of care.
These are strange times. It is, as many rightly point out, crucial to support performers, makers and vendors of everything good and fragile, especially those worst exposed to the crisis. It might also be our chance to rethink work and worth more generally: never before have I seen even “luxury” publications seriously acknowledge manual labor. Not just the sexy kind—hand-tuning motorbikes and hand-sewing suits—but the necessary, hourly, joint-swelling, back-aggravating kind. Cleaning, stacking shelves, delivering goods. Doctors and nurses, yes, but also hospital porters, chefs, and technicians. Maybe, like our musings on lattes and loungewear, it’s just talk, but right now talk is worth having.