Suddenly going viral does not sound as sexy as it used to any more.
In recent times the phrase had come to mean an unexpected explosion of digital popularity. The virtual world of social media had become so enmeshed with our lives that saying something has ‘gone viral’ has become synonymous with being the talk of the town or an overnight success.
Ten years ago we used to say it with a hint of contempt – it wasn’t real fame or wealth, it was online – but as the economic realities of replacing real things with digital ones became clear ‘going viral’ gradually emerged as a desirable thing.
Let’s face it, if something is digital it is imaginary. In the real world it is just a pattern of numbers being squirted about between machines that turn it into a pattern of light and colour on a screen. The novel, movie, photo or message is only real when a pair of human eyes is looking at it and recognising it.
In that context ‘going viral’ did not seem to be a bad thing. If anything it showed us the amazing potential of digital. A few years ago a mysterious clown appeared on the streets of Northampton and people all over the world went batshit crazy. The press of a button here resonated everywhere. There have been countless other examples: cats stuck in wheelie bins, conspiracy theories, diatribes and any flavour of weird you can dream up.
The effect of a virus in the digital world was to expose a truth – not so much about the topic in question but more about the real reach and influence of this virtual world we were building.
Now that Covid-19 has ‘gone viral’ the phrase has reacquired some of its old notoriety but the coronavirus has also been exposing some uncomfortable truths about the way the real world really works.
It’s been a cold shower moment. The virus has exposed hypocrisy and delusion. It’s cut through some political debates that have raged for decades.
On a personal level number three son Billy was due to take his GCSEs this year. For the past three years (nearly 20 per cent of his life) he has had nothing but grief about his GCSEs. He has been roasted after bad parents’ evenings and praised after good ones. They have been a factor in nearly all the big decisions that have been taken in his life recently, even down to whether he can go out to see his mates. Homework needs doing? No chance.
And then about a month ago that was all over in the space of 48 hours. Yes exams do matter but apparently not that much.
On a different level, the political theory of austerity (if not doing something can really be called a theory) was already making a shamefaced retreat from the political stage like a villain that could see the tables turning. Based on the flawed notion that the economy operates like a household budget we found ourselves taking services and resources away from the vulnerable and the needy to impress I’m not quite sure who. Every politician has been promising to spend more but the virus has kind of overtaken that somewhat.
A couple of years ago the poor were losing their homes, now they are being paid to stay in them.
The ‘wisdom’ of inflicting austerity on the health service has been laid bare for all to see.
The virus has reminded us also of our mortality, which is another way of us saying it has reminded us of the value of life. It’s too short for political games and getting things wrong.
Britain has experienced this like it has experienced every crisis. We have been unready and we have fallen back to something that feels like core values: it’s not little boats sailing across the channel this time, it’s the traditional British Sunday from the 1970s. That is the weapon we have deployed against the virus while we wait in vain for news of a cure from the boffins. Everything is closed. The sun is shining on an uneasy, stranded sense of uneventfulness.
Being in lockdown has shown us that we are perhaps less digital creatures than we thought we were. It’s an inadequate way of existing. We need to be together. And a society that was destroying itself with its addiction to travelling by car has been able to dramatically step back from it at the snap of a finger.
Truths that we have based our lives around have been swept away and the virus is showing us the world as it really is – irresistibly connected, easily distracted, too dangerous not to take seriously and too big to be fixed by anyone acting alone.