YOU flit from screen to screen –in your hand, on your lap, fixed to the wall – and a tableaux of rich humanity passes before you, interacts with you.

The virtual day so far has involved a daughter check, a productive business call, a thoughtful muse with scores of serious faces, many YouTubes of beloved artists, writers, thinkers. Right now, we’re encouched and peering through the murk of the first episode of Wolf Hall, downloaded and beamed out from the smartphone.

But actuality calls: there’s no milk in the house for tea tomorrow morning. So you actually fold a paper towel into its thin concertina, actually staple in the hair grips and loop them round your ears and actually venture out, self-masked, into the suburban eeriness.

You elaborately steer round alarmed pedestrians, you conduct a hand-minuet with an equally muffled shopkeeper, and then you scuttle back to your refuge. As you come in, your stepson is guffawing with pals on his nightly Facebook footy quiz. You’re home.

Really, though: how long can this virtual reality, as my primary reality, go on?

Till coronavirus, I never properly understood how deeply I had chosen to conduct my life in the streets. As soon as the mobile tech allowed, in the late 90s, I regarded the city streets as both my offices and my inspirational landscape.

To work alone, but in public: to enjoy the propinquity, the nearness of others and their evidently complex lives, to people-watch the theatre of the pavements, all their busyness and signifying.

And then to be diverted by a grand city, say Glasgow or London, into sampling its many public and private wares – silly shops, grand libraries, insufferable art galleries, ineffable pubs and cafes.

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Oh my, I’m missing it all. And it troubles me (much more than I anticipated) that this publicness, the promiscuous freedom of citizens in their cities, might have to fundamentally change in the light of the threat of contagion.

Be careful what you wish for, too (even as you’ve been drifting pleasantly through non-toxic public space).

I’m sure I have a few early 1993 copies of the American tech bible Wired mouldering somewhere in my archives. Checking up on them online, they never stop hymning the glories of “online community”, the “digital netizen”, “game space”, “virtual reality”… There could have been no greater evangel for this shimmering future than your humble scribe. I’d exult in the sheer thrill of shrinking the planet in a video call. Or bliss out to the waking dream of a Second Life – a living game world where you appear as you wish, in environments that change on a whim.

Or more politically, I’d support the ambition that people acting via powerful communication networks might indeed be a match for corporate power – if not quite a “dot-communism”, then some amplification of common dreams.

And in truth, each of these futures has arrived – indeed, they are about to flower into a new wave of relevance. But remember the Old Man’s phrase – about humans “making their own history, but not as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past”? It was never more pungent.

Did we ever think digital culture would become centre stage because we were harried out of our public lives by tireless, relentless, inhuman bugs – one of our species’ oldest and most permanent enemies? “Transmitted from the past,” indeed.

Of course, I am happy to see “Zoomcracy” and “Skypetopia” burgeon everywhere, in my own circles and communities. As they grapple with these tools, people are learning and practising a new etiquette of co-operation, and it’s often beautiful to watch.

I am also eager to observe whether real-time synthetic worlds like Minecraft or Fortnite or Grand Theft Auto become more than just fantastic diversions for isolated players. Could they be spaces in which we might simulate and prototype better societies, economies and behaviours?

Anticipating all this, my old cyber-pompoms are aloft and ready to be shaken.

But coronavirus represents such a return of the actual (and biological), as opposed to the virtual (and digital), that I’m having to restrain my usual tech optimism. It’s very important that we strike the right balance between these realms.

The National:

A FEW weeks ago, I mentioned the work of the US microbiologist Rob Wallace. For years now he’s been warning how our current agri-business models – and a globalisation based on long supply chains and unconsidered freedom to travel – has laid us wide open to coronavirus, and potentially much worse to come.

With colleagues, Wallace has just written an essay in the US publication Monthly Review titled Covid-19 and Circuits of Capital. Densely argued though stunningly well referenced, it’s a deepening and reinforcement of Wallace’s points. Which is essentially that “deforestation leads to the emergence of deadly diseases” and that our rapacious modern food-industrial model drives that process, even (and especially) in China.

But Wallace and co also very helpfully lay out the scale of the changes we need to make, in order to minimize the possibilities of such an outbreak again. Let’s say they’re not in the mood to tinker.

They first reach for a creaky old term here: alienation. We currently imagine that every surface – whether plastic or fleshly – is a carrier for a potentially deadly bug. If that isn’t feeling “alienated” from the world you live in, what would be?

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But then the scholars ask: what would it mean to be disalienated? In the midst of this messy, self-injuring modernity that we’ve made, how could we properly return home?

They suggest no less than the “next great human transition”. How do we get out of our “settler ideologies”, regarding the forests and ecosystems of the world as resources to despoil and disrupt? How can we “reintroduce humanity into the Earth’s cycles of regeneration”?

And relatedly, how do we get our heads out of a mentality that assumes everything can be, must be, commodified? “Mars exploration here, sleep there, lithium lagoons, ventilator repair, even sustainability itself, and on and on … these many permutations are found well beyond the factory and farm.”

They finish both starkly and with an ultimate idealism: “A successful intervention – keeping any one of the many pathogens, queuing up across the agroeconomic circuit, from killing a billion people – must walk through the door of a global clash with capital and its local representatives … however much any individual foot soldier of the bourgeoisie attempts to mitigate the damage.”

“The way out,” conclude Wallace and co, “is nothing short of birthing a world (or perhaps more along the lines of returning back to Earth).”

So at the very last gasp (apologies), we find that our virtual tools and digital enthusiasms might be exactly what is required. Isn’t “birthing worlds” precisely what they’re good at? And not just with aliens and cyborgs, but with realities just a little twisted from the present (hello, Grand Theft Auto’s San Andreas, or even The Sims)?

Super-smart technologists, content-makers and platform-builders are currently readying themselves for a corona-boom. They aim to amuse (and considerably profit from) these vast, anxious and newly-captive audiences.

What I would enjoin them to do is to open up some bandwidth and share some means to enable collective dreaming, at the scale Wallace and his colleagues envisage. And if they don’t do it, we should bend and hack the tools already available to us.

If we must live in these new realms of virtuality, then we don’t need to just waste our time – our precious time, in terms of the wider climate crisis – when we are there. We can use this realm to help us imagine, and get prepared for, an actual new world – one that properly works, sustains us and our fellow species, and creatively flourishes.

And in which there will be (inarguably, and if I have anything to do with it) much dancing in the city streets.

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