In 1866 the United States of America was connected to the rest of the world by an underwater cable that stretched from the wilds of Canada to the wilds of Ireland. Two ships met mid-Atlantic and then unspooled a cable that went from the town of Heart’s Content in Newfoundland all the way to Valentia Island in Kerry.
The cable was thousands of miles long and went three miles deep in places. Seven strands of copper lay at its core.
The first public message that pulsed transatlantically was a telegraph that went between President Buchanan and Queen Victoria. The New World and the Old World had been joined. It was considered one of the great undertakings of the 19th century, at the time near enough to the equivalent of putting a man on the moon. Nothing would be the same again: not the stock market, not business, not politics, not love, not war.
That particular cable didn’t last too long – within a couple of weeks the signals began to fade – but the gesture had been made and other underwater cables soon followed, echoing the routes that colonial ships had taken in previous centuries.
The favourite word of the entrepreneur behind the transatlantic cable, Cyrus West Field, was “faster.” In his eyes, time had been annihilated. Space had been shifted. He knew that information was the commodity of the future. This was Gates long before Gates. And Google long before Google. And Bezos long before Bezos.
And this, too, was Us long before the virus.
These days, 1.2 million kilometres of submarine cables lie under the sea. Despite the idea that we operate in a figurative cloud, the vast majority of the world’s information is carried not by satellite, but at the bottom of our oceans. The bulk of our communication – Internet, phone, massive packets of data – is carried by a set of wet, cold, fragile tubes, which can sometimes be ripped up by an errant ship anchor, or by fishing gear tangling with the wires, or by the force of a sudden underwater volcano altering the landscape of the seabed.
Here is where our fragile world meets: and yet even today, we probably know less about the bottom of the sea than we do about the galaxies above us.
And now our cables – our moral cables, our social cables, our political cables – have been ripped up cataclysmically
Covid-19 is, like most things, so much more than one thing: it is an annihilator of time, for sure, but it is also – bizarrely in our exponential age – a creator of time as well.
Yes, time is compressed and information comes at us with blinding, mind-numbing speed, albeit from the bottom of the sea. Everything is faster, smaller, cheaper, incomprehensibly reduced. A message bounces from Wuhan to San Francisco far quicker than a heartbeat (and far quicker than any virus.) We can zoom into a living room so that halfway-around-the-world is now no more than next-door. Nano-seconds are the new measure for the stock market: the whole world economy is dependent on our digital connections.
We are reminded constantly that we are incredibly tiny: it is as if we can look at ourselves from above and see the little molecules of our meaninglessness bounce. Who could have accounted for the massive new fear that pulses within us? Who would have thought that we would be voiceless while democracy is increasingly threatened? Who could have thought that the crusade against science by those in power would condemn so many to die? Who could have envisioned our dislocation? Who would have thought that governments worldwide would seize the chance to annex land, change voting rights, build walls, remove oversights to power?
At yet the same time – or even in between time – we have become so very huge in our tiny rooms. We realise that our lives actually matter, not only to ourselves but to others, too. Our breath matters. Our masks matter. Our hand-washing matters. We stay at home to save the world. Or we go out (as doctors, nurses, delivery drivers, police, marine cable repairers, fire-fighters, pharmacists) to save the world too. Who could have imagined that grocery store clerks could be our new heroes? Who could have thought that a movement would start among the zoomers to bring medicine to the boomers? Who could have foreseen that the sky over Beijing could be clear of its smog? Who could have believed that New York would ring out with applause at seven o’clock every night, not for Broadway, but for the hospitals on East End Avenue?
Suddenly time has a different complexion: it registers differently. Everything that once seemed so vital – the need to brush the teeth, the need to get the train on time, the need to get the essay done – seems insignificant. Only the truly significant is significant: the phone call to a loved one, the medicine that needs to be taken, the need to stay alive, and of course the need to keep others alive too.
“No history is mute,” says the late Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano. “No matter how much they own it, break it, and lie about it, human history refuses to shut its mouth. Despite deafness and ignorance, the time that was continues to tick inside the time that is.”
Some day – and please the gods, may it be soon – the coronavirus will belong to the time that was. But it will, as Galeano suggests, continue to tick inside the time that is. There is no escaping this one. It is a monumental human event. We will, of course, adapt to the virus eventually, but the question is, How will human history talk about it, and what will we have learned, and more importantly still, who will get to tell the story?
There is no doubt that we in the United States at least – if not all around the world – have come indoors in recent decades, clamped down on our desire to understand others, put the GPS systems on our imaginations. We live in our silos. We are either rural or urban. We are either red or blue. We refuse to embrace contradiction. We eschew the notion of nuance. We have been largely locked down. Others have not mattered so much to us. This is my room, this is my truth, this is my world — stay away!
But what if this virus, which makes us tiny and epic both, can teach us a little about holding contradictory ideas once again? What if it can allow us to see that we’re not as stupid as our political parties want us to be, nor as uni-directional as our TV channels seem to think we are, and not as cowed as our corporations seem to need us to be? A purple America is a far more interesting one than the red or blue one that some insist on, and certainly more harmonic than the disUnited States that many insist is on its way.
The Palestinian writer Edward Said, in his 1993 collection of essays, Culture and Imperialism, suggested that nobody today is purely one thing and he called upon us to recognise that, “It is more rewarding – and more difficult – to think concretely and sympathetically, contrapuntally, about others than only about ‘us.’”
What time demands now is a new form of contrapuntal listening: we are part of the larger music, and we need to take responsibility for the melodic lines around us. We do not need to simplify. We need to scuff things up. We need to be brave enough to reach across the aisle. This is difficult, yes. But that which is difficult is vital, too.
The voices that really matter will be the ones that come from underneath, not above: the vast swell of young people who have been warning us about our behaviour for the past couple of years. When we come out the other side we will need not just one Greta Thunberg, but one hundred thousand, one million. The new power will have to be carefully shepherded. Enough of the same ol’ same ol’ (mea culpa). It will be a pull rather than a push, a human earthquake that might dislocate our seabeds temporarily. We will need new voices to splice these shattered cables back together again.
The last line of T.S Eliot’s The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock suggests that human voices will wake us from our visions and we will drown. Let it not be. Let us look, instead, for those voices who will splice these shattered cables back together again.