Last Wednesday, I sat down in my office in midtown Atlanta to conduct a lunchtime writing seminar in Durham, North Carolina. I had considered flying in for the event, but my schedule was in flux, and the hassle of transit for a short meeting seemed excessive. At the suggestion of my hosts, I logged in to the videoconferencing program Zoom instead and led the event from my desk chair.
I hadn’t avoided the trip out of concern about the coronavirus; my plans had been set before cases really began to crop up in the U.S. But over the next day, Zoom’s stock rose more than 10 percent, shored up on the perverse hope that global disruption might increase demand for remote meetings. In Italy, whole towns had been locked down, tens of thousands of people immobilized at home. Zoom was a diamond in the rough; lockdowns such as Italy’s and general global tumult caused by the uncertainty of pandemic drove most stocks down precipitously as cases of the disease known as COVID-19 ticked up in the United States and proliferated internationally.
Ever in search of the upside of a downturn, financial analysts started looking for companies such as Zoom, whose business might remain stable or even thrive under mass-quarantine conditions. Netflix shares, for example, inched up last week while other tech issues reliant on disrupted Chinese supply chains, such as Apple, fell. The equity-research analyst J. C. O’Hara dubbed these “stay-at-home stocks,” adding Facebook, Amazon, the streaming-workout provider Peloton, and the workplace-chat platform Slack to the list. “What would people do if stuck inside all day?” O’Hara asked, consecrating quarantine as a market trend.
The answer is far more familiar than the fearful conjecture forebodes. Many Americans would do the same thing they do now, mostly. Netflix has already fused us to our couches. For years, contemporary society has been bracing, and even longing, for quarantine.
More than 100 cases of COVID-19 have been identified across 13 states, and the numbers have been quickly rising. Older people and health-care workers are at greater risk of danger from the virus, which also might have been spreading for weeks undetected in Washington State. Certain containment measures are already in place: Americans traveling from Italy and South Korea are being screened before boarding U.S.-bound flights. Public-health officials have started urging citizens to ponder self-quarantine in the event of illness, even though many workers don’t have the luxury of staying home sick anyway. Today, Los Angeles declared a health emergency.
A number of organizations have also started preventative action. Twitter has banned noncritical business travel for its workers and “strongly encouraged” all its employees to work from home if they could. Amazon introduced restrictions on company visitors after two employees in Europe contracted the virus. Large trade shows and conferences have started pulling the plug, among them Facebook’s annual event for its platform developers.
If conditions get truly bad, a serious public-health lockdown would indeed upend ordinary life. Barring that extreme, efforts such as the ones just mentioned extend a process that was under way long before a novel virus threatened to go pandemic. In a way, “quarantine” is just a raw, surprising name for the condition that computer technologies have brought about over the last two decades: making almost everything possible from the quiet isolation of a desk or a chair illuminated by an internet-connected laptop or tablet.
As Twitter’s new policy emphasizes, Americans whose jobs involve pressing buttons on keyboards to create or manipulate symbols into ideas might not really need to go to the office to do so. A laptop and an internet connection are sufficient. Then, when it’s time for a break, DoorDash or Grubhub hastens lunch to the work desk, helping you avoid the coughs and foreign doorknobs of eating out. Later, Instacart or Amazon Prime Now drops groceries on stoops. TaskRabbit lets you schedule assistance with errands, and Washio will pick up and deliver your laundry. Nowadays doing something for real, with your own body, sometimes feels stranger than summoning it by smartphone.
For an even broader demographic, entertainment has become shut-in, too. Cable and streaming have made cinema-going precious. Hanging out with friends is enjoyable, but Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Reddit, and others make socializing possible from anywhere.
Against the backdrop of coronavirus uncertainty, the banal normalcy of this reality finally hit me over the weekend: I live this way by default now. I ordered wallpaper online, so I can redecorate my home without even leaving it. A week earlier, Best Buy had already delivered my new television, an irresponsibly huge apparatus I mounted on the wall. I fired it up and loaded in all my accounts: Netflix, Hulu, Disney+, Amazon Prime—enough content for a lifetime of excellent, let alone compromised, respiratory health.
From the next room, I’ve uploaded this story to Google Docs, where my editor and I have revised it by wire, across whole states. I didn’t meet, or even talk on the phone, with any of my colleagues at The Atlantic who were involved in the process. Like the employees of many media companies, we communicate with one another on Slack, one of O’Hara’s stay-at-home stocks. Together, from afar, we quietly tap away at stories, which you can then read on a screen in any setting you wish—from atop a Peloton saddle, perhaps, or while Netflix streams on the television.
Not everyone gets to make that choice. As my colleague Alexis Madrigal noted last week, the gig workers who handle DoorDash or Amazon deliveries actually have to risk entry into the material world, putting them at far greater risk of contagion. Service-sector workers in retail, health-care, transit, teaching, and housekeeping have even less ability to choose when and where they do their jobs. From the beginning, the safety and security of service and flex workers has taken a back seat to that of the knowledge-economy elites who are their customers. A massive power imbalance is at work here.
There’s peril for white-collar workers, too. Homeboundedness risks becoming an excuse for further belt-tightening, a version of disaster capitalism inspired by contagion rather than economic crisis. If remote learning, work, and leisure prove more profitable or more easily controlled than their in-person equivalents, employers with the means to make temporary shifts permanent might attempt to do so. Eventually, an unseen worker might be seen as an unnecessary one.
Even so, the benefits of a life online have begun to outweigh the costs for some Americans. The flip side of quarantine’s threat is technology’s promise—we have been preparing for the end of in-person work for some time. As this week began, one of my Georgia Tech school chairs encouraged faculty to consider how we might conduct our classes remotely should the need arise. But that possibility is already daily practice. Canvas, an online courseware platform, powers our classes. We hold institutional licenses to videoconferencing services similar to Zoom. And we are invested in large-scale online education, including online degrees that enroll thousands of students all around the world.
Never before in human history has it been so easy to do so much without going anywhere. Cinema box-office receipts fell sharply in 2019, as streaming entertainment became more plentiful and high quality. Apps and games and podcasts and digitally delivered matter of all kinds have followed suit. Now, absolutely drowning in it, the last thing anyone might worry about is getting bored at home.
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