Prisons or domes? Notes on the role of the home under COVID-19.

I wrote a book on the history of technology in the home which came out in 2018 and six weeks into my government mandated self-isolation, I’m thinking about what I wrote.

Home as a space to return to, not exist in.

Pliny the Elder (A.D. 23–79) famously wrote

‘One prefers one’s home to all other places. Home is where one is most emotionally attached.’

which works if you have something else to compare it to, say the trenches of a Roman camp.

Home becomes a prison if you are in a relationship with a violent partner or one struggling with an addiction. Home can become a series of traps that open themselves up to you as you get older or develop a chronic illness, full of ‘architectural barriers’. Home can be an uncomfortable mirror on your existence if you’re isolated, no matter the age. It can be a place you literally crawl into to hide in. Home is the place you return to after a day of having fun, socialising. Home is full of memories of a loved one you lost, perhaps very recently.

 

Home is not a permanent place

We have no set geographical constraint for home. It could mean where you were born, where your family is, and where you live, all at once. So ‘stay home’ could evoke all sorts of images. I heard people flew to Australia at the beginning of the pandemic, because that’s where their parents lived. I know friends who took repatriation flights from much sunnier places so they could be surrounded by their things, or their parents. For some, home is where your medical needs are most likely to be catered to.

Home is a commercial dream

Staying in is supposed to be fun, relaxing, natural. The image of ‘Homo Ludens’ is linked to images of the home. On a couch, Netflix and chill. Or hovering in space doing the same.

 

For women the pressure is immense. No matter how many pets and other humans you’re living with, your home should be pristine. Your baking efforts award-worthy. The dishes always done after every meal. Your fashion choices casual even (pyjama) chic. The wine you’re having should be organic. Your larder, well-stocked .Your food box delivery, local. Your children should be fed home-made food, well-educated, paying attention to their teacher on Zoom. You should have the energy to give them what they need right now, even deny them what they want. You have an ironclad will to protect your family from what they want. You are a hero. You are managing to work from home too. You are productive. You are fine.

Home is a dome

Finally, maybe your home is the only protection again the invisible elements. The dirty masses. The horrors of communal experiences where filth, pestilence and madness happens. Your home is a capsule, is a dome, and you are covered. Covered against death, the death of others far away in a hospital with too little PPE. Far away from NHS staff dying. So you move away from the dirty city, order every single thing off the internet, even milk, eggs, newspapers. Like a storm, this will pass because you’re protected. Like the little piggy with the house made of bricks, COVID-19 is a wolf which will not blow your house down. You’ll clean your groceries and anything else that comes from the outside world, you’ll make Dettol rich, you’ll use bleach for the first time in years. You’ll forget about the single use plastic problem and you’ll use disposable gloves and dispose of them in the street. Because public space is dirty and doesn’t matter right now. Public space is the enemy, full of people you have to keep away from. A place to play the self-distancing dance in and judge people for their inability to measure 1.9m distances correctly. Home is where the only certitude lies, where you can twitch a curtain in comfort.

A Home in the near-future

All these concepts exist alongside each other, so the future is multiple. It’s as possible for single people to start a baby boom as a result of wild sex parties as it is for many to suffer from deep anguish about other people’s bodies.

It’s possible children will embrace social connections but then some might retreat into themselves and not cope.

It’s equally possible our work places will be 25% full at any given time for the next 2 years as it is for some to ignore any advice because they’ll make staff sign healthcare waivers.

It’s possible for ‘I’m staying home tonight’ to imply ‘I’m ill’.

It’s equally possible for public transport to be shunned by the paying middle class as it’s possible it will be embraced out of ‘all in this together’-ness leading to inevitable yearly surges in the disease.

Everything will be experienced by different countries and cities in different ways and rivers of digital ink like mine will attempt to tease out a more likely scenario. Because apart from the word ‘home’, there is nothing universal about our experience of staying in it, only the cause.

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