Everyone’s world got a little bit smaller during the pandemic. For many, it became a lot smaller.
Out of necessity, our varied definitions of what constituted community underwent a rapid revision. Office life disaggregated beyond the point of recognition. Children’s only window to the outside world quickly proved an insufficient replacement for the psychological reinforcements associated with human contact. Suddenly, they demanded much more of our attention. The banal duties of maintaining a household grew more intense as increased stresses were placed on home life. Digitally maintaining relationships with family and friends transformed from a pleasure into an obligation and, eventually, a chore. The outside world had become much scarier almost overnight. So, perhaps naturally, we retreated into ourselves.
But a combination of exhaustion with pandemic-related restrictions and near-miraculous medical innovation are pointing us toward the way out. The end is near, loath as some are to admit it. Many have speculated about whether the conditions we lived through during the plague year will persist after the threat has receded. Some will. Others won’t. But COVID has surely intensified one condition that was with us before the virus, and that is unlikely to disappear: the atomization of everything.
Even before 2020, we were already getting a sense that global interconnectivity is not something the mind finds especially gratifying. When the oxymoronic idea of a “global community” entered the lexicon, the very tools that gave rise to such a concept were steadily pulverizing our shared cultural touchstones into dust. Ratings for live sporting events or entertainment spectacles were collapsing well before the pandemic. Audiences were shrinking, and “influence” had become a derivative of a congregation’s commitment—not its size. The allure of big cities had waned along with the economic incentives for relocating. Enrollment in public schools and institutions of higher learning were declining precipitously. The pandemic didn’t bring about these conditions. It only accelerated existing trends.
According to an ABC News investigative report released on Tuesday, approximately 3 million K-12 students across all 50 states “have simply fallen off the grid, not showing up for online or in-person instruction, their whereabouts unknown by school officials.” And those numbers are gleaned from states that keep track of enrollment and attendance numbers in aggregate. The burden of school closures or hybridization has fallen hardest on families without adequate access to the technologies that were meant to replace in-person education, of course. But this is not merely a problem of means.
An untold number of students have simply “logged off,” educational reform advocate Mike Magee told ABC. “They don’t feel connected enough to their own learning to log on every day.” Of course, these children haven’t simply disappeared, nor have they become a collection of ungoverned street urchins. Most are surely pursuing their education in other, smaller, ways.
Enrollments in private schools have increased precipitously, but so, too, have the number of families who have decided to homeschool their children. The numbers are difficult to track, and we don’t know how stable this trend could be. But the results of such a trend are predictable: Smaller communities and more granular associations, such as a child’s friend group—and, by extension, a child’s parents’ friends and acquaintances—will continue to become a function of choice and not simply geographic proximity.
The cities in which many of these institutions are situated are also shrinking. By examining the ratio of workers moving into major metropolitan areas of the country against those moving out, the consulting agency McKinsey & Company quantified the declining attachment people have to cities such as New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, San Francisco, and Seattle. And the numbers are staggering. The pandemic’s downward pressure on economic activity, new anxieties associated with density, and increasing rates of violent crime in America’s cities have made them increasingly unattractive. And many have left their embrace for smaller but still urban settings around the country. Many more have made shorter moves to their nearest suburb or exurb, where they will set down roots that won’t be so easily severed.
Just as cities and schools are shrinking, the same phenomenon is at work dismantling our shared cultural events. The term “narrowcasting” entered the lexicon well before the pandemic. Purveyors of cultural products have long known that the “panoply of screens” and the multiplicity of venues providing content have nebulized audiences, making them harder to measure. And the market is also fracturing. The proliferation of social, streaming, and traditional media venues has contributed to the scrambling of both information and cultural benchmarks.
Diminished by the pandemic, live events are taking to the Internet. They are becoming more interactive and raising substantial amounts of cash behind the notion that you’d rather attend a concert from the comfort of your couch. On top of the ponderous decision by major league sports to transform themselves into yet another tiresome extension of the political news cycle in 2020, these pressures are contributing to a precipitous decline in viewership for professional athletics, too. “If the Super Bowl’s audience continues to dwindle, the most obvious centralized American TV replacement event is … nothing, CNBC’s Alex Sherman speculated. “It’s easier to imagine that the shared American television experience will slowly die out.”
The demise of the common cultural experience exerts a nostalgic pull on us all. And yet, the mushrooming of venues tailored to diverse sets of interests doesn’t have to be a net negative. A sentimental pessimism might lead some observers to mourn these developments as the onset of an “age of instant gratification.” But the new era could just as easily be described as a period that puts a premium on choice and the freedom to choose.
In 2014, the columnist E.J. Dionne wondered whether the small, tight-knit American community was becoming a thing of the past. “These days, we spend less time with neighbors and more with groups closely tethered to our own interests,” he wrote. That trend hasn’t abated in the last year, but the newfound smallness of our lives has blurred the divides that distinguished our neighbors and our interests. And that might not be such a bad thing.