24 April 2020
Sophie Day and Celia Lury
We are all now familiar with what 2 metres looks like, as we go for solitary walks in parks or stand in queues to shop for family and friends. We draw lines, we stand aside or behind or in front of others; we walk around and in parallel to each other.
Improvising, trying out ways to be ‘close up, at a distance’ (Kurgan 2013), we leave food outside doors and put our hands to windows separating us from friends and relatives who cannot leave their homes. Participating in group chats, we appear to ourselves and others as one talking head among others. We sing across balconies, we mute ourselves in synchronized patterns. Our actions producing insides and outsides, we appear alone together.
In describing 2 metres as a social distance, we acknowledge that we are part of a bigger picture. But who is it a picture of and how does it come about? How is the compulsion of proximity (Boden and Molotch 1994) – the need to be close to others – being reconfigured as proximity at a (social) distance? And what kind of social is this? Does it add up to a society? Who is included and who is left outside? Are we all in this together?
In the 2 metre rule and the complicated guidance about who has to stay indoors and who can go out and why, we see grid reactions. This is a phrase used by Biao Xiang in his discussion of the management of the COVID-19 epidemic in China by already existing administrative units. He says, ‘Residential communities, districts, cities and even entire provinces act as grids to impose blanket surveillance over all residents, minimize mobilities, and isolate themselves. In the Chinese administrative system, a grid is a cluster of households, ranging from 50 in the countryside to 1000 in cities. Grid managers (normally volunteers) and grid heads (cadres who receive state salaries) make sure that rubbish is collected on time, cars are parked properly, and no political demonstration is possible. During an outbreak, grid managers visit door to door to check everyone’s temperature, hand out passes which allow one person per household to leave home twice a week, and in the case of collective quarantine, deliver food to the doorstep of all families three times a day.’
While gridding has long been a core technology of rule through centralised command and control according to the priorities of military, state and industrial logistics, the pandemic is leading to a multiplicity of grid reactions. In the UK, some grids are imposed, while others are improvised. We (variously) wear face masks, choreograph meetings in Zoom (faces within faces, faces on their own, face by face, just not face to face), and order goods on-line while governments refuse to let cruise ship passengers disembark, impose 2 metres outside care homes but not inside, divert PPE from one country to another, and close borders to people, but not to goods. There is no single grid in operation. We are all making neighbours differently.
As we do so, we learn about grids; they can be creative, they can be fun, but grid reactions also make visible the social of social distancing and the politics of proximity. For example, watch a man from Toronto wearing a so-called “social distancing machine” (a hoop with a 2 metre radius that a person can wear around their middle) while walking around the city.
The aim of this machine was to show that sidewalks (the North American word for pavements seems especially appropriate right now) are too narrow, particularly when people are being asked to socially distance. Its creator, Daniel Rotsztain, who is part of the Toronto Public Space Committee, a group that advocates for more “inclusive and creative” public spaces, said to Global News Radio AM 640, ‘I think even before COVID, you could say that pedestrians are jostling for space in Toronto, but COVID really exposed that’. He proposes that some streets should be closed to traffic to give pedestrians more room to maintain distance. In the grip of a pandemic, the grids of family, household, and district – the negotiation of which are so fundamental to social life – can no longer be taken for granted. Some grid reactions are described in terms of shielding the vulnerable, but who are they really shielding – those inside or those outside? For whom does a home become a prison, and when does a cruise ship become a floating container?
A grid seems to freeze time within spatial relations but it is a way of managing mobility. We move up the queue outside the supermarket in sequenced intervals rather than as and when we like. While the grid seems fixed, it calibrates movement – the transmission of a virus, for example – assigning spatial and metric values to this temporal process in an interplay of number based code and patterning (Kuchler 2017). In the UK, 2 metres is the measure that is being imposed to mediate the Ro or basic reproduction number, the number that indicates how many new cases one infected person generates. Recognizing 2 metres as a social distance acknowledges that transmission is not simply a matter of biology, but of how social life is gridded. But while the Ro conventionally takes the individual person as the unit of transmission, the examples above suggest that it is the operation of multiple grid reactions – and the failure or success of the interoperability of their metrics – which matters. We need to ask: what kinds of families fit into what kinds of households into what kinds of schools? how do they inter-connect? how differently permeable are private homes, second homes and social care homes? how will apps measure social distance? And perhaps most importantly, how do grid reactions change the ways in which the virus discriminates? In what has been described as a very large experiment, the interoperability of grids is being tested in real time across diverse informational surfaces – models, materials, walls, windows, screens, apps and borders – to create new grids with as yet unknown consequences.
Boden, D. and Molotch, H. L. (1994) The compulsion of proximity in R. Friedland and D. Boden (eds.) Now/Here: Space, Time and Modernity, University of California Press, pp. 257-286.
Jowett, Adam. (2020) Carrying out qualitative research under lockdown – Practical and ethical considerations. Athttps://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2020/04/20/carrying-out-qualitative-research-under-lockdown-practical-and-ethical-considerations/
Kuchler, S. (2017) Differential geometry, the informational surface and Oceanic art: The role of pattern in knowledge economies, Theory, Culture and Society, 34(7-8): 75-97.
Kurgan, L. (2013) Close Up at a Distance: Mapping, Technology, and Politics, The MIT Press.