Life After Social Distancing

As the COVID-19 pandemic causes us to cease and alter all manner of social activity, I am genuinely looking forward to finding out all of the things we, as a society, realize were totally unnecessary. Things that existed because advertising convinced us that we wanted them. Things that inertia and social pressure, genuine or otherwise, convinced us we needed but which, in reality, we do not.

It could be small things and it will likely be unexpected things.

I read recently about how the O.J. Simpson trial in 1995, which was available live, on TV, in real time, basically ended the primacy of soap operas on network television. People preferred real life drama — or an approximation of it — to scripted drama, and since then judge shows, talk shows, and the like have come to dominate daytime TV. Like anything else there were other factors at play, but O.J.’s trial was at least part of something that made people reassess whether they wanted a thing they had simply taken for granted and, really, wasn’t missed after it was gone.

To be sure, I do not know what those things will be in the post-social distancing age. This is not one of those “Ah ha! Now all of the stupid shit I hated beforehand shall be revealed to be superfluous!” kinds of sentiments. I’m not taking joy in people no longer doing things I didn’t care about or going to parties I wasn’t invited to or anything like that. It’s a genuine curiosity about what we are about to discover we actually didn’t need or was actually undesirable even if we never questioned it otherwise.

I was musing about this on Twitter this morning, and someone — knowing that I write about baseball for a living — shot back with “maybe we’ll realize we don’t need sports.” I’ve actually thought about that a lot in the days since baseball and other sports went on hiatus. Many of my friends have asked me about this since then too.

No, I don’t think sports being gone for a couple of months is going to make people believe they did not need sports in their lives. I think the entertainment sports provides is, generally speaking, a societal good. Some have argued that sports channel aggression once more commonly channeled into tribal war into something with much lower stakes. I don’t know if that’s true or not — it seems to me to be a bit of of an overstatement — but it does foster some sense of collective interest and identity and, again, constitutes entertainment.

That said, it’s quite possible that the temporary cessation of sports will reveal the larger sports-entertainment-media-retail-industrial complex to be oversized and largely unnecessary. Baseball games are good. Baseball on TV is good. Some reporting and commentary about baseball — which is what I do — is good. We could probably stand to dial back, however, on “The SuperFanExperienceZone, brought to you by StarCorp in conjunction with ShoeCompany and broadcast live on MegaSportsNet 24/7.” The corporate tie-ins, the gambling industry and the cultural forces which have made sports into an all-encompassing lifestyle and identity for people, which is a pretty new phenomenon, is probably something which would be better if it went away.

Beyond my little corner of the culture, Dan Kois wrote an article at Slate yesterday which talks about how security theater and rent-seeking behavior by greedy corporations are being shown to be absurd and unnecessary in the wake of COVID-19. The argument, generally, being that if TSA can immediately lift the ban on bottles of hand sanitizer bigger than four ounces and if AT&T can lift broadband data limits at the drop of a hat, they probably weren’t all that critical to begin with. He argues that, “once a policy is revealed as bullshit, it gets a lot harder to convince smart, engaged citizens to capitulate to it.” He thinks that the post-pandemic world will be a better one because people won’t stand for the reimplementation of bullshit policies. I’m less optimistic than he is — I tend to think that power does what power wants — but the observations he makes about all of that seem otherwise on-point.

Maybe I’m not the best person be musing about this. I already work at home. I have for over a decade. I already eat out and go out less than a lot of people because I have kids, because I am home more, which makes it easier to cook, because I’m trying to budget and because, let’s face it, I’m getting older. A lot of people are talking about how social distancing is forcing them live more of their lives online. I’ve been living my life online in many important ways for a very long time.

But I do think we’ll see some changes to society when we get to the other side of this. I can’t begin to guess what they are. Maybe they’re wholly unpredictable by their very nature. Maybe we won’t even realize what has changed for some time. Maybe we’ll look back at some behavior that was common in February 2020 and realize that, after May 2020, it simply was no longer a thing.

Something akin to the way you might look at a photo of you and your friends smoking in a bar in 1994 or remember a kiss goodbye you gave at an airport boarding gate in 1999. Things that were commonplace one day and then impossible the next.

Craig Calcaterra

Craig is the national baseball writer for NBCSports.com. He writes about things other than sports at Craigcalcaterra.com. He lives in New Albany, Ohio with his wife, two kids, and many cats.