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The Year of Living Distantly: The Empty Hours

Chris Keulemans reflects on what living with the Coronavirus might teach us about the kind of life we really want.

An empty Amsterdam city centre
The Year of Living Distantly
The Empty Hours

Chris Keulemans reflects on what living with the Coronavirus might teach us about the kind of life we really want.

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The view from my window has hardly changed. This quiet neighbourhood in Amsterdam is even quieter now. A few cars, some pedestrians, a bike or two. The döner shop has switched from takeaway to delivery. Down the road, workers are renovating the 100-year-old social housing. They have not been sent home just yet.

Across the street, six teenagers huddle together. They look more serious than usual. They might be discussing new rules for contact-free home drugs delivery. How to avoid cash changing hands? Recently, the neighbourhood has seen the rise of a new and very young generation of dealers. After dark, they are practically the only human beings in the street.

Amsterdam is not formally in lockdown, but the streets and squares are empty. A local boxing school, now closed, has installed its punching bags in parks across the city, for anyone to vent their frustration. The only people officially forced outside are the homeless, including undocumented migrants. This is not a city where people sleep in the streets. The municipality has arranged a number of night shelters, but in daytime, the shelters remain open only for the obviously vulnerable. Turns out it’s not easy to find a place to wash your hands regularly, when all free public spaces, such as libraries, are closed. 

Almost everybody else stays at home. Only to discover how many extra hours a day count once you have to spend it inside. We have forgotten what to do with empty time. People start sharing playlists, podcasts and book titles on social media. There is all the content that film festivals, concert halls and theatre companies are suddenly putting online for free. But, do people actually sit down, read Camus and watch Shakespeare? Boredom doesn’t equal patience and concentration. This nerve-wrecking 2020 boredom certainly doesn’t.

The gig economy has shut down. Freelancers working in bars, restaurants, hotels, media, arts and culture are seeing their income evaporate. Most of them have no savings and paying the rent has suddenly become a real problem. A new campaign is trying to convince housing corporations to offer three months rent-leave (and to renegotiate the losses with the Government at the end of the year). It’s impossible to say if such measures, in hindsight, will prove to have been life-savers or hopelessly naive.

Boredom can easily turn into something aggressive. I’m on the board of a small community centre around the corner and we have decided to close it for the time being. But, every night, the men who are used to spending their evenings there enter anyway. They’re going crazy in their small, noisy apartments – better to have a drink with the other guys than to quarrel with the wife and kids. Same goes for the teenagers still hanging out and playing football in the courts. Unwise, risky – but better than spending endless evenings in cramped living rooms with jittery parents.

It’s been like this for a week now. How is this going to develop?

Boredom can blossom into the appreciation of small pleasures. It can mutate into rebellion and civil disobedience. It can become deadly serious once the number of casualties starts rising. It can wreck the economy in ways we cannot even begin to comprehend. It can also provide cover for new ways of thinking about society.

Under the cover of boredom, utilising these empty hours, we might start to reinvent ourselves. To develop new patterns of reciprocity, no money involved. To ease up on the planet by doing our meetings online. To resist policies of even more surveillance and securitisation. To bring this experience of something resembling post-capitalist life into practice once we’ve become resilient to this virus – and to the structures of global inequality that brought us here in the first place.

We couldn’t afford to spend hours on such imagination before. We may not be able to afford them for very long. So we have to think fast. 

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