How 2020 shattered shared reality

There is no going back to the 1950s. We will never again be enfolded by those bespoke mid-century circumstances, the scarce broadcasts and broadsheets. The dividing forces are too strong and too many. The film experience pushed out across millions of flatscreens; the live-television networks splintering into millions of digital entertainment queues; the news dissolving into innumerable political realities: One by one, these are not evil trends. But they add up. Or, more aptly, they divide. They individuate.

People ask me if I’m optimistic about 2021, and the answer is that, in a way, I’m ecstatically optimistic. The economy will reopen, and life will reopen. People will come out of their homes; they will send their kids to school; they will hug and kiss and live. But underneath the high tide of economic growth and social normalization, I think we’ll feel something else, an eerie undertow of isolation and anxiety.

“The definition of community is ‘where you keep showing up,’” said someone I met, whose name I’ve forgotten, back in the days when it was normal to meet new people whose names you could forget. I haven’t forgotten that line, though: Community is where you keep showing up. What a lovely idea. But where do people keep showing up, these days? Nowhere. Not the office, not the COVID-aerosolized bars and gyms. A lot of people have spent a year finding community via a glowing screen in a room they never leave.

The empty bowling alleys and movie theaters; the infinity buffet of entertainment and partisan media; the dissolution of a shared American reality—these are distinct yet connected phenomena. Digital technology has spawned a choose-your-own-adventure mediascape, which has flooded the electorate with alternate realities, at the same time that its community ties wither. America is coming apart, and these pieces will not be easily reassembled.