Alone Together in an Age of Social Distancing
The coronavirus pandemic dramatically accelerated an epochal transition in human culture that was already well under way. Human association, from the elaborate ceremonies of flirtation, though religious observance, to mundane work and arcane legal proceedings--conducted exclusively in face-to-face, in person settings for most of the history of the species--is migrating into virtual environs opened up by digital media. We were already navigating a brave new world with an enormous increase in the availability and sophistication of personal computing devices and the integration of connectivity into more and more everyday objects: a world where technological change occurs so fast that it is often hard to even keep track of what the latest applications do—and do to us. Then the pandemic hit, and self-preservation directed that we shelter in place and practice the art of social isolation. To maintain the vestiges of social connectivity, we have been forced to rely on Facebook, Zoom, email, and text messages. Now as never before, technology touches almost everyone and modifies nearly every aspect of human life. In this course we will focus on recent technological innovations, especially social media, the internet of things, the sharing economy, and the management of many activities of everyday life by programs and applications. We will evaluate their implications for some of the most durable and precious aspects of human life, including our identities and social relations, privacy and politics, work and equality, always focusing not only on technology but also its evaluation. Ultimately, we will aim to ascertain whether we can use the possibilities this technology contains to make ourselves and our world better—and, if so, how? This course does not assume a technical background: new technologies are explained as they are introduced, and the focus is on the lasting ethical and philosophical issues these technologies raise.