Artillery Row

Touch of dystopia

Are we facing a Ballardian dystopian future of waning human touch?

Previously it’s been the stuff of dystopian futures imagined by science fictions writers, but the COVID-19 outbreak has brought us closer to such warped realities by threatening our faith in one of the lynchpins of human interaction: physical touch.

In his 1977 short story “The Intensive Care Unit”, the prescient and mischievous writer J.G. Ballard describes a world that is uncomfortably close to our present reality. Humans live their entire lives in comfortable isolation: all interaction with others, even their own immediate families, is done via cameras and screens.

Handshakes could be just the tip of the iceberg of any touch rationing that has to happen as we come out of lockdown

“My own upbringing, my education and medical practice, my courtship of Margaret and our happy marriage, all occurred within the generous rectangle of the television screen,” the narrator contentedly tells us.

Although Ballard was content himself to live most of his life among the innocuous confines of the middle-class London suburb of Shepperton in Surrey, when it came to writing, and especially his science fiction stories, he often let his imagination loose in America. There he found the most appropriate setting in which the darker elements of the Western mindset could emerge as he explored those themes close to his heart: environmental destruction, mass media, emergent technologies and the intersection of Eros and perverse sexuality.

In the COVID-19-riddled American landscape of today, Anthony Fauci, director of the US National Institute of Allergy & Infectious Diseases, who has emerged as the voice of America’s response to the outbreak, has even suggested that handshakes should not occur in a post-coronavirus world.

But handshakes could be just the tip of the iceberg of any touch rationing that has to happen as we come out of lockdown. What about hugs, especially hugs of elderly relatives who will remain vulnerable until there is a vaccination. Is a child’s kiss on a grandparent’s cheek now endangered?

“Touch is a critical part of how humans communicate with each other, it is how we affiliate with, greet, comfort, care for, and support others,” says Cristine Legare, a psychology professor at The University of Texas at Austin. “The lack of touch has a variety of negative psychological and physiological consequences.”

The prominence of the humble handshake illustrates how humans have evolved as “deeply social animals” who are therefore “very tactile-orientated organisms,” Legare says. “[The handshake] is a mode of affiliation, a literal gesture of social connectedness.”

And therein lies the problem, she explains. The effectiveness of hands in establishing connectivity means they are wonderful transmitters of viruses that have evolved alongside us to exploit our habits. Legare notes that one of COVID-19’s cruel ironies is that it is precisely when humans are faced with stressful circumstances that they depend on human touch.

“Think of the ways we respond when people are grieving after death or something bad that’s happened, it is with a hug, or it could just be sitting beside a person and touching a shoulder,” Legare says.

Faced with potentially seismic changes to how we interact—and touch each other—might those traditionally less tactile and more reserved societies, such as our beloved UK, or our Teutonic cousins in Germany, find restrictions on physical touch easier to tolerate, and thereby experience less psychologically negative effects, than those Mediterranean societies, for example, that traditionally tend to be more ebullient and tactile.

“It’s true the British engage in less casual touching than the Spanish, for example, but they compensate in other ways,” says Legare, noting the UK’s vibrant pub culture. “Social gatherings can serve a similar function to touch.”

As a result, she says, it could be argued such proximity options are even more critical for the likes of Brits to compensate for COVID-19-related reductions in touch and the psychological discombobulation that comes with it.

“It shouldn’t be underestimated how desperate others are for proximity,” says Legare, adding how she has been struck by the instances of indignant rage, especially on social media, directed at people for flaunting social distancing rules. She says she find these illustrative that people—those doing the lambasting—don’t fully appreciate how being alone can generate so much suffering for others.

“There’s a big difference between people who are socially distancing with a family and a partner, when you can hold your children, or go to sleep at night next to someone, and those socially distancing alone,” Legare says. “It’s not natural to have no physical contact, humans are deeply social animals. She adds how solitary confinement can be worse than physical torture.

Physical touch has not always been deemed so critical. During the first half of the 20th century, many psychologists believed that showing affection to children was simply a sentimental gesture that served no real purpose—even cautioning that displays of affection risked spreading diseases and contributing to adult psychological problems.

But in a series of controversial experiments during the 1960s on young rhesus monkeys, American psychologist Harry Harlow demonstrated the powerful effects of love, especially the absence of love, as well as the important role physical touch played.

Now, all across the world, people face scaling back this basic human need in order to keep a lid on COVID-19.

“I don’t think people are overreacting at this point, quite the opposite,” Elke Weber, a professor of psychology and public affairs at Princeton University, who specialises in types of risk, says about social distancing measures including not touching.

“Survival or trying to stay alive is another important basic human drive. The alternative is to go back to life as we knew it and ignore the fact that large numbers of elderly, overweight and people with co-morbidities will die until we establish herd immunity, which will take considerable time.”

She notes how this approach initially informed the UK government’s response until judged unacceptable.

“Knowing that one is loved and cared for, even without physical contact, is worth a lot,” says Weber. She advises people to “express our love and affection to each other and especially to the vulnerable among our loved ones in ways that minimize risks.”

Hence, for now, we are increasingly a Zoom Nation in a Videotelephony World as we digitally broadcast and stream—à la “The Intensive Care Unit”—our lives away.

“We are connecting in ways we didn’t take advantage of before,” says 70-year-old Maria Murphy, whose parents came to the UK from Poland after World War II, before she emigrated to Austin, Texas, in the 1970s. “On Easter Sunday we chatted and laughed through an hour on Zoom with my sister and her husband in my old family home in Surrey, with my nephew and godson in Katowice, Poland, and our daughter and her fiancé in Colorado.”

But Murphy notes how this opening of “a whole new world of possibilities” can never replace “the need for sitting face-to-face, sharing intimately, expressing reactions through touch and comforting with human warmth.”

Which is where the rub will come in when the COVID-19 lockdown is eased.

“If we rejoice in coming together again under one roof, will we expose each other again to this incredibly communicable virus,” says Murphy, who worries most about her asthmatic husband. “Here lies its insidiousness: until a remedy is found, we dare not expose others, so we are condemned out of love to take strict cautions that with other virus threats would seem over the top.”

People face scaling back this basic human need in order to keep a lid on COVID-19

A common theme among various lockdown easing programs being proposed around the world is that vulnerable people—the elderly and those with medical co-morbidities such as lung disease, obesity and diabetes—should remain socially distanced while younger and healthier people resume a more normal exitance.

“We already place such a premium on youth and vigour in society, and this forced artificial distinction between the old and infirmed and the young and heathy probably will hit some folks very hard,” says Stuart Wolf, associate chair for Clinical Integration and Operations at Dell Medical School in Austin, Texas. “I would not be surprised if some grandparents chose to break the rules.”

The problem with this, he says, is it could place parents and grandchildren in a conundrum which could even risk a so-called moral injury, an agony of inner judgement against oneself that often results from a forced action that caused a negative consequence.

“Do they hug grandma to soothe her soul but put her body at risk, or do they hold back which protects her physical health but twists the emotional dagger more deeply?” Wolf says.

At the same time, there are some who note how some reduced touching in the public realm wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing.

“People with disabilities experience a lot of unwanted touch,” says Sarah Neilson, who was born with cerebral palsy and has to use forearm crutches. “If this means people are going to strop grabbing my arm on the subway, bus and train, that’s great.”

She also notes how in American society there is a lot of pressure—especially among female groups—to hug as a form of greeting, even with “people you don’t particularly like or who you know don’t particularly like you.”

“I feel strongly about not hugging someone unless I truly want to,” Neilson says.

As societies try to determine the new normal in relation to human touch, Wolf remains hopeful that “even if we can’t be as touchy as before, we will find a way to adapt.” But he notes how even the positive development of discovering anti-bodies relating to potential COVID-19 immunity could further extenuate the emerging divide between the healthy and youthful and the older, more vulnerable sections of society.

“You could eventually see a scenario out of some science fiction dystopia where citizens with antibodies are allowed to walk around unimpeded as long as they carry their papers or maybe a microchip,” Wolf says.

Such potentialities reflect the degree of ambiguity in governmental approaches—on both sides of the Atlantic—to opening societies back up, especially regarding the degree to which vulnerable individuals continue practising physical distancing. It is a logistical and medical riddle that all countries face and that until solved could keep tearing at human hearts everywhere.

At the end of “The Intensive Care Unit,” the narrator’s family is brought together to meet in the flesh for the first time. It does not go well. An orgy of psychopathic violence ensues. Despite that grim warning, I remain hopeful that things will go better for ourselves as the lockdown is eased and we all meet once again. Bring on a return of Eros, maybe even with a Ballardian dash of perverse sexuality just to make up for lost time, and lost touch.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover