Intimacy at a Distance

Writer and author Mark Hooper misses human touch… will technology bridge the gap? (Soho House House Notes) (Photo by Sam Gregg)

I remember when I last shook hands with someone. Every detail. As though it were five minutes ago. That’s a weird thing to say in itself. But what isn’t weird right now? I was in London, just north of Soho, rushing for a train, when I bumped into an old colleague. We greeted each other in what was, at that time, the most normal way we knew how: one hand shaking the other. We talked about the changing state of things that were then just starting to enter into our periphery. And then I ran across the Charing Cross platform to my train. That was the last train I sat in.

I’ve been thinking about those last moments of human touch a lot recently. Beyond my immediate family – with whom I’m isolating – there’s been nothing. It’s not so much the significant acts I think about, as the incidental. Sometimes it’s the everyday points of contact that you miss most. 

Thanks not solely but predominantly to social media, this generation has never been more prepared for a global lockdown. But, to be frank, we’d become spoilt, forgotten what its purpose was supposed to be. Social media had become anti-social. The connected world was making us feel disconnected. But now, in the face of a pandemic, the opposite is true.

Much has been made of the forced reboot that the entire world is going through right now; some of it devastating, but some of it recalibrating. The lack of travel, for example, means world pollution has been implicated and nature has seen something of a regeneration. Some might dismiss this as nothing but short-term platitudes (a ‘Patchouli Thanos’ attitude, as someone wittily remarked online), but it is worth noting. And, much like with the physical world around us, we are also seeing a digital reboot. ‘Like, share, connect’ – all those terms that had become such prevalent vernacular, to the point where we’d utter them without a second thought for their actual definitions, but suddenly they have more meaning to us.

Two children being served ice cream from a van.
A Very English Summer, Appleby, 2019 (Sam Gregg)

‘Social media had become anti-social. The connected world was making us feel disconnected. But now, in the face of a pandemic, the opposite is true’

The idea of digital technology as an enabler and a facilitator is never more apparent than now – whether it’s keeping us in touch with our friends and family, or helping us to ‘WFH’, FaceTime, Skype, Teams and Zoom – it’s been vital, imperative. These services are not without fault or flaw, but if they didn’t exist would the world stop?

Digital may have been synonymous with distance and isolation historically and traditionally, but that has been due to an essential (and often deliberate) misreading of its possibilities. Take gaming – the perennial whipping boy when it comes to the evils of modern technology. Justin Bovington is CMO of the company One Earth Rising, which has coined the phrase ‘social impact gaming’ to explain the positives that the industry can offer. ‘It is formed around three simple elements: storytelling, immersive gameplay and social impact,’ he says. This enables them to incorporate socially relevant gameplay within video games such as Paraiso Island, with its central theme of rebuilding an island after a devastating hurricane. In short, games don’t have to be about killing people and using up resources – it can equally be about saving both. The common, narrow view of gaming is one that Bovington believes shows a misunderstanding of its scope and mainstream position within culture. ‘The video game industry is three times larger than the film and music industry combined,’ he says. ‘It is the storyteller of the 21st century.’

An old man walking down a street.
Walthamstow, London, 2018 (Sam Gregg)

Who cares how the human touch is delivered, as long as we get to speak to and see each other? The supposed technology generation gap is also a non- starter. My family has got the hang of each and every app much faster than I have, with my parents self-isolating in the West Country taking part in virtual choirs, while my daughter engages in endless group chats with her classmates.

A street sign casting a shadow on a wall.

Through all of this, the hope is that we might see a gentler, more caring society emerge. Witness the neighbourhood WhatsApp groups springing up to keep an eye out for each other and make sure everyone’s OK regarding toilet roll, pasta and other essentials. Neighbours are printing off slips with their contact details to aid in an emergency – whether that be medical assistance, shopping companionship (albeit at a safe two-metre distance) or even just to talk, which in itself can be the greatest medicine right now. It’s even encouraged us to get to know each other better. 

Many of my friends couldn’t have even told me the name of their immediate neighbours. Now, they know their ailments and preference of grocery, because they were compelled to ask in order to help. This all struck me hard when, during an exchange over a group chat, someone I’d only really known well enough to say hello to on the street in passing had written, ‘Just jumping in on the last message – I’ll buy you the supplies you need and drop them off at around 5pm today.’ ‘So, so kind’, came the reply, ‘We’re at No.72.’ ‘Oh, I’m your neighbour’, came the response, ‘Nice to meet you.’ 

Mark Hooper is a writer and author. His latest book, The Great British Tree Biography, will be released by Pavilion/Penguin Random House

Photography by Sam Gregg, using images from his 
Blighty series