I was working in New York in the mid-1990s when our boss brought a TV into the office and set it up on a bookshelf. We all gathered round and tuned into the news. About 20 minutes later O.J. Simpson was found not guilty of the murder of his ex-wife Nicole and her friend Ron Goldman. This is what is known as a collective experience. In an age before ubiquitous social media, on-demand internet access and handheld smart devices, half the US stopped what they were doing and watched television. In real time.
A year earlier, while I was still at university, half the country had watched the same man on the run from the police in a white Ford Bronco truck. Scenes that played out, in real-time, on live television. There have been many moments like this over the past 50-60 years. My mother talks about sitting in the living room for days with her family, “as if the world had stopped”, as the events following the assassination of President Kennedy played out, on TV, on the radio, in newspapers.
My own life has had many of these moments. Waking up before the sun rose to sit with my mother as we watched a 19-year-old girl, in a very puffy dress, marry a prince in St Paul’s Cathedral. Sitting in my Jr. High School cafeteria as students started to whisper that the Challenger Space Shuttle exploded high in the sky over Florida, killing everyone on board. Watching the Live Aid concert play out on MTV while munching on potato chips and Diet Coke sitting on my friend’s canopy bed. Sobbing on the floor of a ladies’ bathroom at Hong King airport as I read in the Financial Times that America the Beautiful was sung in a church in London on September 14th, 2001. My list is long and varied.
It is thought that all these experiences become collective experiences due to technology. Almost a billion people, on TV and radio, watched and listened to Lady Diana Spencer become the Princess of Wales in July of 1981. Supposedly, because of our hyper-connected, on demand, streaming, handheld world, those experiences don’t exist anymore. Why tune in, on a Monday night, to watch the finale of a TV show, as almost 122 million did in the US in 1983 to watch the last episode of M.A.S.H, when you can download or record the show to watch whenever you like?
But technology isn’t the enabler for the human experience, it is merely a tool for accessing, processing and collating information. The technology itself doesn’t create the collective experience. 1989 saw a wave of revolutions that saw the collapse of the Soviet Union, the unbundling of nations in Eastern Europe and the reunification of Germany. Even China experienced its own unrest, as students filled Tiananmen Square and faced off against government officials, the army and the Communist leadership. While most of these events were documented, they mostly exist in the memories of a woman who walked the street at night with her brother in Bucharest or a man who brought a hammer down to a wall in East Berlin.
Natural disasters, hurricanes, snowstorms or freak weather events will loom large in most people’s memories whether there were life-changing or merely serve as a memory. Almost everyone I know, who is my age and grew up where I did, has a picture of themselves with their siblings or neighbourhood friends, sitting up top of or next to a snow drift that looms tall over their heads. This strange, collective experience, of a thousand, separate, faded photographs, now sitting in dusty albums or gracing grandparents’ walls – of a time, long ago, we all experienced. A picture of a child in a red snow suit and a woolly hat, sitting on top of a mountain of snow with a small, black Scotty dog could be me, or it could be your brother or long-lost best friend. So ‘collective’ was the experience – that photo could be of anyone who was a young child in 1978 and lived in New England.
The world is going through a collective experience now in terrifying and sinister slow motion. A virus, with no vaccine, that kills the old, the vulnerable, and the compromised, is keeping us away from our offices, from gatherings, from meeting friends – asking us to ‘distance’ ourselves from our collective experience.
Who knows how we will remember this strange time, when countries closed their borders and a hashtag asked us all to #StayTheFuckHome. We all pray that the photos of empty shelves at supermarkets, jokes about hoarding toilet paper, and the smug feeling of a fully stocked wine fridge will be the worst of what gets replayed on Facebook memories for years to come.
For those of us lucky enough not to get sick, act sensibly, restrict their physical movements and contact (and wish everyone a Happy Birthday every time they wash their hands), technology is still here to ensure that the social distancing does not become total isolation.
Life and work do, indeed, need to go on. Let’s work so that our ‘collective experience’ during the first half of 2020 is not anxiety and fear over a spreading virus – but a pivot, a change, an adaptation of the ways in which we communicate and gather and share information, when we can no longer all share the same space.
The internet and the World Wide Web was launched with so much promise many years ago. A way to connect with each other and democratise information and power. The technology hasn’t quite lived up to that promise – as we humans tend to use tools in an ineffective and, sometimes, dangerous manner. Let’s change that.
We have the tools at our disposal. WiFi and telephone networks, video chats and conferences, social media and content delivery platforms. Let’s use them – whether it’s a book club that still wants to meet every month, or a FinTech conference that wants to share a panel on the future of Open Finance 😉.
This is an usual time. But it is a time, we are all experiencing collectively. Until we meet again, in a venue with warm white wine, and an inadequate number of canapes, let’s stay connected people. For the time being, the future is virtual and digital, but it is up to us to make it an experience to remember.