Pandemic degrees of separation

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Being Right

Alienation may have begun as early as the Walkman. That portable cassette player of the 1980s freed teens from being stuck beside their parents’ radios. Now, the music moved with them. With school bags stocked with cassettes, favorite songs could be played whenever, wherever, desired and even repeatedly, albeit with a bit of rewind time wait. And just like that, the days of godlike DJs were numbered.

But it was 2001, with the creation of the iPod, that really launched people onto the road of self-isolation. Now, not only could anyone select preferred songs but even choose musical genres or different genres or even of mixed genres. The songs were playable on demand in any order or even “shuffled.” Finally, being in digital form, music could be downloaded (or uploaded) from any number of sources.

There were some unanticipated consequences: the death (or perhaps enforced hibernation) of CD and LPs, of music radio, and many an iconic music store went bankrupt. “Shuffle” did away with the artistry and thematic nature of album line-ups.

Then there are the unapparent losses: the tactile and visual joy of the covers, the LP record itself, of reading write-ups about the artists on the jacket sleeves.

But the most significant of all losses was the need to wait for the songs to come and the commonality all felt with that waiting.


Music has now become an impersonal commodity of instant gratification, playable whenever and wherever one wants. And with the disappearance of waiting is also the need to appreciate other music, to at least hear what songs other people listened to. Just put on earphones and you’re now enveloped in a musical cocoon of your design.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence the iPod came out in 2001, the year that supposedly “changed everything.” And the most significant change was the loss of that sense of unity, of belonging, and that to belong was fine.

9/11 and the iPod, of course, did not do all that. But they might well have been the harbingers of an alienation taking root.

In the Philippines, the 1990s and 2000s saw unprecedented rise in property development and with it the proliferation of gated communities and high rise condominiums. In a society already internally divided by 7,100 islands and eight major dialects, these walled-off communities inadvertently aggravated the distance between Filipinos.

Such gated communities essentially served one function: to keep out those not belonging. And who “belonged” is identified primarily on the basis of economic class. No longer were the value differences being only between city and provincial folk; now, within the cities themselves, class divisions became emphasized: rich, middle class, the poor.

Walled mansions have always existed but at least in the past rich and poor generally lived on the same streets and walked, if only occasionally, amongst each other, and may even have patronized the same sari-sari store.

That has all but disappeared.

Richard Schneider, who co-authored the UN-HABITAT’s 2007 Global Report on Human Settlements, wrote that gated communities merely abandoned “public streets to the vulnerable poor, to street children and families, and to the offenders who prey on them. Such results also tend to broaden gaps between classes insomuch as wealthier citizens living in relatively homogeneous urban enclaves protected by private security forces have less need or opportunity to interact with poorer counterparts.”

And “grandchildren, or great-grandchildren,” bemoaned The Guardian’s architecture correspondent Jonathan Glancey, “of those who once lived facing on to bustling city streets where gates, security cameras, security guards and other forms of surveillance were unknown are now herded into gated compounds.”

Highly regrettably, this China coronavirus — or rather the panic surrounding it — will likely make this separation between people all the worse: the dehumanizing need to wear masks, the insistence of disallowing communal religious worship, checkpoints, of government monitoring and regulating every aspect of our personal lives, from eating out to commuting to going for groceries or merely getting a haircut.

Even our young are not being spared this alienation: at a time it’s crucial they physically interact with society, with their peers and teachers, to learn what constitutes good relationships and have good role models, our youth are being isolated from each other and instead face an impersonal computer screen.

All this lessens the nature of society, our society. There was always the need, through a continual series of compromises formed by dissent and exercise of freedoms, to arrive at a shared set of beliefs, aspirations, values, and concerns between and amongst us. That we share is what enables and justifies our sacrificing and working for the good of each other. That has been damaged.

We are not, as Roger Scruton puts it, “built on the idea of homo oeconomicus — the rational chooser who always acts to maximize his own utility, at whatever cost to the rest of us.” Unfortunately, the late lamented lockdown and its aftereffects are pushing us to be exactly that.


Jemy Gatdula is a Senior Fellow of the Philippine Council for Foreign Relations and a Philippine Judicial Academy law lecturer for constitutional philosophy and jurisprudence.

Twitter @jemygatdula