“The Solarians have given up something mankind has had for a million years; something worth more than atomic power, cities, agriculture, tools, fire, everything; because it’s something that made everything possible . . . . The tribe, sir. Cooperation between individuals.”
― Isaac Asimov, The Naked Sun
I was 15 years old the first time that I read Isaac Asimov’s novel The Naked Sun, the sequel to The Caves of Steel and the second of his science-fiction/mystery novels designed to prove that the two genres could co-exist comfortably in the same book.
At 15 I didn’t much like The Naked Sun. It seemed too far-fetched, even for a science fiction novel. The Caves of Steel — with its human beings living in massive, overpopulated underground cities that they never left — seemed plausible to me. I could imagine our world ending up that way, and it struck me as a logical continuation of the urbanization that started 5,000 years ago and has continued ever since.
But The Naked Sun takes civilization in the opposite direction. It supposes a colony of earth people who live on huge estates in near-total isolation from each other. They never talk to each other in person, but they communicate frequently through video devices. Husbands and wives tolerate each other’s presence for very brief times when reproduction is required but otherwise live in separate parts of their huge mansions without ever encountering each other face to face. They have a pathological fear of contamination from other people, and even the thought of an actual visit produces incapacitating anxiety. Their entire society is built around never needing to have physical encounters.
It is, in other words, a society very much like the one that we have all been living in for the last few weeks.
When I re-read The Naked Sun yesterday, almost 40 years after encountering it in high school, the world it described no longer seemed impossible. After just a few weeks of isolation, I find myself reacting reflexively to the thought of actually meeting another person not part of my immediate family. And even with family we generally stay in our own parts of the house. About a week ago, I went outside to check the mail and almost shrank in fear when a neighbor two doors down waived at me. And that was after only a few days of quarantine.
That level of extreme response probably won’t last longer than a few weeks after the quarantine ends. But we really don’t know what kinds of effects might linger. This is the first time in human history that the entire world has been under quarantine. We have never shut the whole world down before. Or limited travel and human contact on the scale that we are trying to do right now.
The Naked Sun gives us a picture of what a society could look like if the assumptions of the present quarantine become normal. CS Lewis gives a similar picture in The Great Divorce when he describes Hell as a huge city where everybody builds a huge house far away from anybody else in order to avoid the unpleasantness of other people.
As soon as anyone arrives he settles in some street. Before he’s been there twenty-four hours he quarrels with his neighbour. Before the week is over he’s quarrelled so badly that he decides to move. Very like he finds the next street empty because all the people there have quarrelled with their neighbours-and moved. So he settles in. If by any chance the street is full, he goes further. But even if he stays, it makes no odds. He’s sure to have another quarrel pretty soon and then he’ll move on again. Finally he’ll move right out to the edge of the town and build a new house.
Both Asimov and Lewis are trying, in different ways, to describe what happens when the human mind allow the assumptions of a quarantine (that other people are dangerous and that human contact is scary) to override our social nature — the human traits that allow us to form friendships and alliances and to marshal the resources of the tribe to a common cause. The social instinct is strong in human beings, but, like nearly every other instinct, it can be preempted by our concern for our immediate safety. Fear can make hermits of us all.
Unfortunately, human societies and governments are very good at solving the last big problem that faced. We always know how to prepare for the last war, the last stock market crash, and the last major pandemic. Depending on how long the shutdown lasts, we may see some dramatic changes in our society as a result of this latest plague. Not only will we have a worldwide memory of a screeching halt. We will always know that such a thing is possible, and that the kind interconnected global village we have created to make our lives better also has the potential to kill us.
And this will be good, to a point. We need to have stronger societal responses to pandemic threats. When one appears, we need to be able to identify cases quickly and isolate them effectively. Novel diseases can be contained, but it doesn’t happen by accident. We have to be prepared and vigilant.
But we don’t have to become afraid. Specifically, we don’t have to internalize the assumptions of the quarantine, which are appropriate for the time but will prove disastrous if they shape our societies permanently or accelerate existing trends towards replacing personal contact with online interactions. Human beings can live like this. We can stay home all day and work, socialize, and worship in increasingly sophisticated techno chambers. But, when we do so, we risk losing the power of the tribe — and we risk turning our beautiful world into a lonely hell in which we are always lonely and never alone.