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How Covid-19 has upended our understanding of time and space

Existential crises — as Covid-19 surely is — however call into question basic dimensions of our existence. In this essay, I will explore how Covid-19 has disrupted and reconfigured our notions of time and space.

Existential crises — as Covid-19 surely is — call into question basic dimensions of our existence.

Existential crises — as Covid-19 surely is — call into question basic dimensions of our existence.

At a recent conference, Minister for Education Lawrence Wong spoke of how Covid-19 was an occasion for Singapore to “reset” itself in terms of fighting inequality, building environmental sustainability, and renewing our sense of solidarity. 

These are important issues to tackle, to be sure. In recent months, there have been various discussions on how Singapore can emerge stronger from Covid-19. 

Much ink has been spilled on how digital technology can transform work and education. 

The pandemic has also made us rethink how we do urban planning and manage our supply chains.

Existential crises — as Covid-19 surely is — however call into question basic dimensions of our existence. In this essay, I will explore how Covid-19 has disrupted and reconfigured our notions of time and space.

SPACE

Covid-19 constitutes the revenge of space. It hit hardest the places that are most densely populated, most connected, and where the flows of people have been the most unfettered.

In particular, Covid-19 and the policy responses to it have reinforced the importance of home.

In recent times, we talked about global cities and revelled in being global citizens (or even city-zens).

We talked about going virtual and going to the cloud. We talked about e-residency, hyper-mobility, and flows.

We lauded the de-territorialisation of the human condition. For all our talk about the “global city”, Covid-19 reminds us starkly that this is still physically embedded in the territorial nation-state.

Real estate matters.

Covid-19, and the pandemics to come, forces us to rethink how we plan our spaces.

There is a limit to the substitutability of the real by the virtual and how far we can go in transcending our spatial constraints. We can go to the “virtual”, but only ever from somewhere real.

Take safe distancing, as another example. If this is to be a defining feature of our new social norms, what are the implications for our national-level urban concept and master plans?

Open spaces, far from being luxuries, may be de riguer from a public health standpoint.

And how will the prolonged physical dispersion of everyday life affect our human relationships?

In a world where cinemas, restaurants, pubs, malls and other social touchpoints are closed off, how will friendships form and be maintained?

How will we “pak-tor” (local slang for going on dates) in such a world? In this past year, I have heard from students from different levels who mourned the friendships that were never formed.

Finally, the meanings that we tag to places will change. The single meaning we assign to a particular space will give way to multiple and contested meanings.

The bedroom is now a place to sleep and to work as a home office, the living room is now used as a classroom as well as for family time, and so forth.

Work and learning can be done anywhere and nowhere. And some particular spaces that used to be important might no longer be, and other particular spaces that were not now are.

The neat compartmentalisation of life will erode even more, causing different aspects of life to bleed into one another. This will dissolve the rituals that organise our lives: There is potentially no more separation between work and non-work.

Going to work, for many, may no longer entail a commute. The places we held to be sacred are now also profane, and vice versa; and the places that provided solace are now places that cause stress, and vice versa.

For example, how many of us cleave to the home as a sanctuary from a toxic workplace? That ritual of leaving the office to go home is rendered empty when the two places are one and the same. 

Or, how many of us treat the office as an escape from a harmful home environment, only to have work-from-home arrangements close off that avenue?

TIME

Covid-19 has also upended our notions of time. In fast-paced Singapore, the psychological dislocation we are experiencing is caused not by acceleration but by the massive deceleration especially of socio-economic life.

We can deal with fast; it is being forced to slow down that is discombobulating us, as a nation and as individuals.

Covid-19 is a harbinger of what happens when “fast time” – the world of continuous flows and accelerations that we are accustomed to, sometimes resentfully – is thwarted by “slow time” that is enforced as a result of lock-downs, quarantines, closures and so forth.

There are sociological and mental health dimensions to consider in the longer term. Are we equipped to deal with prolonged “slow time”?

The patterns of time, much like the patterns of space, will blur: For many of us, it is no longer clear when you start work and when you go off work.

While problematic in itself, the bigger problem arises when those who live in a structured temporal order (say, those who still have regular hours) have to work and collaborate with those with unstructured temporal orders (say, those who work from home).

Our expectations of how long events last have also been disrupted.

We need look no further than Covid-19 itself: Much of the uncertainty is about how long the pandemic will last.

Indeed, we implicitly assume that there will be a relatively clean break in time such that we can announce the end of Covid-19.

We need to contemplate the possibility that there can be no such thing as “a post-Covid-19 world”, but that we are living perpetually in an age of frequent pandemics.

We cannot, in our complacency, assume that the world will get back to “normal”, because Covid-19 has shattered our established notions of what normal is.

Nor should we get back to normal, since the present crisis is partly a result of the world that used to be.

Finally, our modern fast-paced and results-oriented societies function well when the spaces and times we occupy are measurable, well-demarcated, and discrete.

Covid-19 reminds us that we live in a world characterised by persistent and radical uncertainty.

More than that, it reveals the inadequacy of our planning systems that continue to treat crises as perturbations around some equilibrium normal state.

We need to invert our assumption that we live in a world of certainty punctuated by moments of uncertainty. 

Rather, we spend our time in a space of uncertainty, and the moments of certainty are fleeting, increasingly rare, and perhaps even illusory.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Dr Adrian W J Kuah is director of the futures office at the National University of Singapore. These are his own views.

Related topics

Covid-19 time work city urban planning

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