Hestiation. Our Life After CoronavirusJan/07/2022
Hestia, goddess of the hearth
For some time I’d been meditating to sketch a text of a prophetic nature on the way we will be living in the not too distant future: most of the activities we still conduct in public today will be carried out from home. I’d even found a “scientific” name for this mutation of our lifestyles, naturally taken from ancient Greek: hestiation, from Hestia, the goddess of the hearth (the Roman Vesta). But the measures imposed in Italy and elsewhere to curb the spread of coronavirus have suddenly made my “futuristic” hypotheses as topical as ever. I think that even after we’ve defeated Covid-19 (if we manage to), our life will never be quite the same again. Processes that were already gradually taking place will see a huge acceleration.
The larger Italian companies have established what in the bizarre imaginary English used in Italy has been called smart working (i.e. working remotely). A work arrangement Italy was remarkably behind on: working at home on your computer instead of travelling to the office. Today Italy will be on the forefront. The emergency will teach companies and businesses, even the smaller ones, that letting their employees telework from home will be far more cost-effective for them and less stressful for their workers. The rite of clocking in and out of an office will be considered awfully old-fashioned: the time spent at the workplace will no longer count, what will be important is what you produce at home or elsewhere. A generalization of piecework. One result: there’ll be less and less traffic jams at peak hours. In addition, employees will no longer be forced to see colleagues they loathe every single weekday. Everyone will get through their work when and where they can during the 24 hours. Even late at night.
And this “hestiation” will also take place in domains that haven’t as yet been affected, for example teaching, from junior high all the way to university: more and more teachers and lecturers will hold their courses via Skype for students who will follow them from home. A Skype group today can have over 50 people communicating at the same time, but soon technology will allow 100, 150 or more people to connect… Online lectures have been adopted by many Anglophone universities recently, with a proud reaction by many lecturers and professors, as we shall see further down. An awareness will grow of how cost-effective and time-saving online courses can be: there will be no need to carry teaching staff and pupils and janitors back and forth every day (the end of the school bus era), no need for the maintenance of classrooms. A teacher from Los Angeles will be able to teach in a school in Massachusetts and vice versa, without having to move and rent accommodation in the city where he’s found a job.
The Skype revolution has gone hand in hand with the Amazon and Netflix revolutions and they’re all leading us in the same direction. We’ll no longer need to go to stores to purchase anything (from bed pillows to computers), everyone will buy everything online on Amazon or– I hope – on other rival sites. Those who deliver the products to our homes will become – alas, they already are – the new proletariat.
We’ll no longer go out to the movies, we’ll just buy films online to watch on huge screens in our living rooms, occasionally inviting relatives and friends.
The progressive disappearance of movie theatres – already well underway in big cities – is agonizing for a cinephile like me. I know I’ll never be able to experience again my charming strolls as a young man from one cinema to the other in Paris. Movie theatres that would screen old, rare, exotic and precious films… Small, extremely comfortable and plush spaces usually shared with a few mainly silent spectators where we would feel transported to an at once collective and very private world. All that will end.
Paradoxically, there will be a resurgence of the theatre. While films will be available everywhere, even on our smartphones, live theatre will on the other hand offer an experience no video reproduction can give us: direct contact with a star, with the actors, with something happening here and now in a place I’m physically attending too. We go to the theatre or to a concert rather than watching a film or a listening to a record, because of this close, tangible, relationship with the artists. At one point, the audience may even talk to them, touch them… This will change the architecture of theatres: the stage will be more and more set within the parterre, as it was, in a way, in ancient Greek theatres.
No one will buy paper books anymore – they’ll only be kept as precious objects – all formerly printed matter will be downloaded on e-Readers or tablets. Bookshops and newspaper stands will completely disappear. And that will put an end to the long reading sessions of freeloaders in big chain stores like Barnes & Noble.
Equally agonizing – for people of my venerable age – will be the disappearance of all those small charming sundry shops, typical of Italy still today, where you can search for whatever you prefer: from cured hams to books, from clothes to DVDs, from scissors to medicines (pharmacies will also disappear and drugs will be bought online). The historical centres of the big European cities would gleam with the discreet twinkle of the many small shops with their more or less eye-catching signs. They will be replaced by restaurants, cafés, pubs and nightclubs.
Personal ownership of cars will become increasingly rare. We’re seeing it already with the popularity of carpooling, car hiring and other forms of vehicle sharing. Twenty years ago I may have chosen, for example, to drive from Rome to Spain, today it would be unthinkable. Today you fly to, say, Barcelona and then you hire a car to drive around the country. The narcissistic possession of a car – which forces us to waste our time with road tax, vehicle tests, insurance, maintenance and repairs – will be replaced by the thriftier economy of car hiring. Avis and Hertz will become very powerful multinationals. Owning a car will increasingly be considered a luxury, as it was one hundred years ago, at the beginning of the motorisation era.
In a world where home will be at once the place where we live, our office and our movie theatre, domestic architecture will change radically. The home will tend to be a closed, autarchic and independent universe, on the Californian model: with a swimming pool, however small, and a family garden. Today people who go to work don’t really spend much time at home, but in a very near future they will spend most of their time there: the parents will work on their computers in two separate offices within the house, the children will attend their classes via Skype in their bedrooms, which will also become their classrooms. Even religious services will be made available to follow from home, just as Pope Francis is doing now because of the quanrantine.
I feel like I can already hear the various Cassandras who will read the end of community life in this withdrawal to a miserable domestic ghetto. In fact, humans will carry on loving social contact, except that in this hestiazed society it will take on different forms. In short, we will meet other people not because we’re forced to (at the office, at the cinema, at the shops), but because we want to. Possibly in a public place, like a restaurant, a club or dance hall… Personal meetings will be more and more recreational events, like parties and games, and no longer part of the daily routine. Social life will be more and a more a theatre and less and less a factory workshop. And I say so not to exalt this form of life: for some (the elderly) it will be awful, for others (the young) it will simply be their reality, their natural landscape, the way life has always been.
That’s why cities will be full of restaurants and cafés instead of stores and movie theatres: because “dining out” is something telematics cannot replace. We go to a restaurant because we don’t want to eat at home, we go to a café to give a setting to our friendly meetings, the feel the other’s breath on our faces or to court someone eye to eye. This dimension of personal, almost physical, contact between people will persist. We will meet up with others to touch them, not just to talk to them (we can simply do that via smartphones).
In other words, if I were to give advice to an ambitious young man who wants to start up a business, I’d suggest opening a restaurant, a large bar, or a delivery service, a rent-a-car company, a theatre, or a Skype assistance service. I would eagerly advise him against opening a shop of any kind, even in the centre of a town, nor a movie theatre, car showroom or travel agency.
I mentioned the deep aversion this envisioned (but highly likely) world causes in many, especially among the not so young.
For example, most school teachers abhor doing classes via Skype, saying that physical contact with students is essential, and so on. The truth is simply that it’s hard for everyone to change their habits, even if they vote for Bernie Sanders or an EXTREMIST BRITISH LEFT-WINGER. It’s a little like the passage from silent cinema to the talkies: many of the stars of silent movies disappeared because they couldn’t adapt to talking, and even the great Chaplin had many resistance before eventually doing so. One of the greatest cinema theorists, Rudolph Arnheim, wrote a book to argue that true art cinema was silent black and white cinema, whilst spoken cinema and especially (how horrific!) colour cinema could not be art, only commercial entertainment.
Every technological innovation regularly excites the same reaction: an aversion, which even some great intellectuals endorse with sophisticated arguments. As Roy Lewis wrote, “even in Palaeolithic times there must have been ageing conservatives who execrated the innovative frenzies of those who tried to rebel against nature by inventing fire, arrows, spears, matrimony, exploration and such devilish ideas. ‘We would have been better off remaining trees!’ they would probably say when the world around them had already changed, yet again” (Telmo Pievani, Imperfezione. Una storia naturale, Raffaello Cortina, Milan 2019).
Perhaps my easy, though at times painful, acceptance of technological innovation – despite being born in faraway 1948 – derives from the fact that my philosopher father, “the professor”, when I was sick one time (I must have been around five) didn’t buy me a book, but a comic, which my mother believed to be damaging. The fact that a philosophy professor would give me a comic was for me the definitive authorisation not only to accept the new media, but also to harbour a certain respect for popular art forms, “commercial” ones, as they’re referred to derogatively. I would also add the influence of my paternal grandfather, a Neapolitan lawyer, a socialist since his early youth, who died in his late eighties in the seventies. In his affable elegant style he would say: “I cannot understand my peers, always nostalgic about the old days, always complaining about the present time, saying that young people today are too rude… I personally think life is far better today, in Naples too, than it was when I was young. You no longer see slobbering old men, cripples, hunchbacks, barefoot street urchins…” At the time being a socialist, being left-wing, meant being fond of progress, even technological progress; today being left-wing means saying the world is getting worse, that everything is becoming degraded, that, as we Italians love to say, “we were better off when we were worse off”.
When television appeared people soon started saying that the rays emitted by the sets were bad for our eyes, especially for children (the younger generations always seem to become the elective victims of technological innovations, never the older ones). But today we spend the best part of the day in front of computers and no one says it damages our eyes. Later a very prestigious intellectual current affirmed itself and denounced television as extremely dangerous for the young because of the violent spectacles it subjected them to (as if the Iliad wasn’t full of violence…). A sacred philosopher like Karl Popper wrote an Anathema entitled Television: A Bad Teacher, in which he accused addiction to TV as a corruptor of our youth (the same accusation, note, that led the people of Athens to condemning Socrates to be executed by drinking hemlock). This attack against television makes us laugh; it’s like saying that print is a public danger because books like Hitler’s Mein Kampf have been published. The worst uses of a new medium are invoked to try to discredit that medium as a whole.
Then computers and the Internet came along. In this case too it was feared that young people would spend too much time surfing the web, where they may even come across proposals by paedophiles… (would it be preferable for young people to play at catching butterflies or to masturbate?). More recently it’s being said that young people risk becoming hikikomori, isolating themselves in the company only of the Web – but were things better when certain young people used to retire to convents or joined the French Foreign Legion?
And then smartphones, heaven forbid! It’s being said that “young people are looking at the world through a little rectangle”. Old age has only this one advantage: it knows that technologies change, but that the conservative answers are always the same. The Eternal Return of the Same Old Mantra.
Finally, I’ll dwell on a more specialistic issue: the growing tendency to hold psychoanalytic or psychotherapeutic sessions via Skype. Many important analysts claim that a Skype session can never be analytic. They back their claims with excellent theoretical arguments, perhaps taken from the more sophisticated psychoanalytic theory, that of Lacan. With merely theoretical arguments, that’s the point. But the telematics revolution will go ahead anyway, and more and more analysts will hold sessions via Skype. It’s true that Skype doesn’t work with all analysands, but the mobility of modern life will end up imposing it – and Theory will adapt. After all, Freud had theorised the impossibility of analysing children, psychotics and perverts… as for group analysis, Freud thought it was unimaginable. But, when Freud was still alive, his followers (including his daughter) began to analyse children, psychotics, perverts… and the necessities of war led to the discovery of group analysis (Bion’s small groups with “impossible” soldiers). Psychoanalysis is not like physics, for which it is impossible to go beyond the speed of light.
The arguments of analysts who reject Skype are basically the same used by teachers: the physical presence of the analyst is essential to the analytic relationship. Sacred words, but in a world that no longer possesses anything of the sacred, one where everything is fluid, liquid, ever mutating.
I have myself have yielded to Skype analysis, because more and more certain patients have become mobile for work reasons. Some want an analysis from abroad and more and more a linguistic distance is added to an abysmal geographic one: analysis between an analyst and a patient neither of whom is using their mother tongue.
Skype seminars and supervisions are also becoming increasingly common: sometimes clinical cases are discussed between analysts who are, for example in Novosibirsk (Siberia), Saint Petersburg, Vienna and the United States… Like it or not, this is today’s world.