Screen Life: Social Distancing as Norm

What happens in a world in which social distancing becomes the norm rather than the exception? J.G. Ballard in a comic venting once suggested there would come a time when,

“Every home will be transformed into its own TV studio. We’ll all be simultaneously actor, director and screenwriter in our own soap opera. People will start screening themselves. They will become their own TV programmes.”

In his short story Intensive Care Unit the protagonist describes growing up in isolation:

“As a child I had been brought up in the hospital crèche, and thus spared all the psychological dangers of a physically intimate family life (not to mention the hazards, aesthetic and otherwise, of a shared domestic hygiene). But far from being isolated I was surrounded by companions. On television I was never alone. In my nursery I played hours of happy games with my parents, who watched me from the comfort of their homes, feeding on to my screen a host of video-games, animated cartoons, wild-life films and family serials which together opened the world to me.”

In our age of mobile phones and laptops one imagines a Ballardian universe in which “social distancing” has become the new norm, and people carry on their lives in total isolation as if to meet in person was a terrible taboo never to be broken. Ballard describes this process too. Describing an abortive meeting between husband and wife after decades of separation (even their marriage had been performed via screen, etc.):

“After this first abortive meeting Margaret and I returned to the happy peace of our married life. So relieved was I to see her on the screen that I could hardly believe our meeting had ever taken place. Neither of us referred to the disaster, and to the unpleasant emotions which our brief encounter had prompted. During the next few days I reflected painfully on the experience. Far from bringing us together, the meeting had separated us. True closeness, I now knew, was television closeness – the intimacy of the zoom lens, the throat microphone, the close-up itself. On the television screen there were no body odours or strained breathing, no pupil contractions and facial reflexes, no mutual sizing up of emotions and advantage, no distrust and insecurity. Affection and compassion demanded distance. Only at a distance could one find that true closeness to another human being which, with grace, might transform itself into love.”

The notion of a world without contact, a world completely bound by closure, the enclosure of all society in isolated cells in which the screen, the virtual worlds of our mediated lives is carried on in purified environments for our own protection. A world of germ free intensive care units… a dystopian nightmare of absolute isolation.


  1. Ballard, J. G.. The Complete Stories of J. G. Ballard (p. 947). Norton. Kindle Edition.