Fine Walls

It’s been more than a month since my wife and I started working from home and about a month since our county placed the shelter-in-place in effect. Our outdoor trips are limited to walk in the evenings, and grocery shopping once a week. The rules and recommendations around the importance and usefulness of everybody wearing a mask are shifting by the day, from being useless one day to being essential the next. That, mixed with the concern of shortage of masks for healthcare workers has caused a surge in videos teaching people how to make DIY masks.

When we went grocery shopping today, the best we could do was use scarves as masks. I realized that there’s something about hiding my face in public that made me feel uncomfortable. Not that it’s a bad idea in these times, but it still feels weird nonetheless, especially the first few times. Maybe it’s a cultural thing or availability bias that has rooted this idea in our minds that bad guys do that - people looting a bank cover their faces, terrorists cover their faces. Sure, doctors and nurses wear masks too, but the human brain doesn’t surface such images when we think about people hiding behind masks. And since face is such a crucial part of our identity, hiding it equates to hiding one’s identity.

As I wore the scarf around my face, I also thought about how anti-social it makes us seem. Even in a country like the US, where people try to and encourage minding their business and where people try their best to avoid making accidental eye contact with strangers, wearing a mask seems especially anti-social in some way. It puts a physical boundary between two identities and hence makes the distance between us more real, one that already currently exists but is otherwise invisible. With a mask, you now don’t need to fear awkward eye contact with strangers or running into someone you know but don’t want to talk to.

I won’t be surprised if a majority of people here will continue to wear masks after this, not for the fear of infection, but for the liberty to be themselves in public. It’s ironic then that wearing a mask will give us the liberty to throw away the mask of social identity. It looks like a way to disable one of the primary ways we communicate with each other, a way to bring anonymity offered by the Internet out into the real world.

A similar boundary was drawn not too long ago, to block one of our other primary channels of communication. When I started my first job out of school a few years ago in India, every employee had their cubicle to work. It indicated a piece of space in a huge commercial floor plan which you could call your private little corner. When I got back into the workforce two years later, after attending graduate school, those boundaries were gone, or so I thought. While the idea of open office floor plans was to encourage people to be more social, I learned about the existence of a relatively new, unacknowledged, or rather differently advertised boundary, which wasn’t as far as the walls of cubicles but much closer to us - the headphones. Just like the walls of our homes which signal the borders separating our family from the outside world, headphones draw a boundary between the sounds and voices we choose to let in and everything else. With the introduction of designer and handy AirPods, that boundary has become more commonplace and prevalent and has jumped out of the confinement of the walls of office space. It’s now everywhere – on the trains, on a run, even while having lunch. I can’t help but think and feel bad about the fact that there’s tons of money to be made in the future from the fear we’re now living in and that those solutions will make us, incrementally and permanently, more distant.