How will society change post-Covid?

Many have just noticed that the digital and the “real world” are not as separable as they may have thought. For large sections of society, this is new. But we already lived in a world where people interact on social media and find relationships on apps like Bumble and Grindr. Online dating has changed dramatically over even the last decade. LGBTQ+ people rely heavily on online worlds to meet each other and build communities – especially important for trans people given the hostile media environment.

Up until recently, these digital worlds were frowned upon by mainstream cishet society. Research frequently appeared in the media claiming that digital life was harmful (correlational research). That has collapsed. It has become the norm for people to work and socialise only online now. People go on Zoom to work and to play.

Rather than thinking in terms of what (implicitly, detrimental) “impact” relying more on digital ways of living has had, let’s ponder how society has developed. What does social connection really mean? What is sexuality like now and how do people cope without physical contact? How many people have chosen to move in together because of lockdown who might not have done otherwise and what is that like? How many covertly use Uber?

With a standard couple-focused and monogamous model, lovers either live together (sex as usual) or apart (break lockdown rules or engage in what used to be called “cyber”). But there are also couples living together who meet other couples and singles online; see Zoom banned virtual orgies. Here’s how sex parties and orgy-seekers are getting around it. This is another way the digital/”real” boundaries merge.

Glitch Feminism by Legacy Russell is a thought-provoking book, written pre-pandemic, on how online and offline worlds are interwoven. The author introduces the term “AFK” – away from keyboard – to work towards “undermining the fetishisation of ‘real life,’ helping us to see that because realities in the digital are echoed offline, and vice versa, our gestures, expressions, actions online can inform and even deepen our offline, or AFK, existence.”

In other words, for some, the heavy reliance on online worlds is new – maybe even surprising in how it works. But there are others for whom this is not at all new – who skipped merrily between IRC and pub. There are already experts out there from whom the dominant digitally-naive majority can learn.

There is another digital divide of sorts, which is most apparent when we enter lockdowns. There are people who must still physically travel to work – supermarket workers, cleaners. There are others who are furloughed, so highly dependent on what the Treasury can offer. There are others who can work as before, their means of income hardly affected, many of whom were already working from home and online.

Finally, another phenomena which has become more apparent in recent months is the variety of closed yet huge online worlds – private Facebook and WhatsApp groups, Telegram channels – where people can support each other,  live and even love, but where in some cases conspiracy theories can thrive, such as the bizarre claim that 5G causes Covid. Again these “online” worlds impact life AFK – leading to protests and people refusing to wear masks. But how can we understand these communities? Do any existing theories of AFK society help? What do people get from being in these groups? (See also Escape the echo chamber, by C. Thi Nguyen.)

Why can psychological therapy be helpful?

Research explaining how therapy might help is saturated with pretentious jargon, e.g., invoking “transference”, “extinction”, heightening access to “cognitive–emotional structures and processes”, “reconfiguring intersubjective relationship networks” (see over here for more).

Could simpler explanations be provided? Here are some quick thoughts, inspired by literature, discussing with people, and engaging myself as a client in therapy:

  • You know the therapist is there to listen to you – they’re paid to do so – so there’s less need to worry about their thoughts and feelings. One can and is encouraged to talk at length about oneself. This can feel liberating whereas in other settings it might feel selfish or self-indulgent.
  • The therapist keeps track of topics within and across sessions. This can be important for recognising patterns and maintaining focus, whilst allowing time to tell stories, meandering around past experiences, to see where they lead.
  • The therapist has knowledge (e.g., through literature, supervisory meetings, and conversations with other clients) of a range of people who may have had similar feelings and experiences. So although we’re all unique, it can also be helpful to know that others have faced and survived similar struggles – especially if we learn what they tried and what helped.
  • Drawing on this knowledge, the therapist can conjecture what might be going on. This, perhaps, works best if the conjectures are courageous (so a step or two away from what the clients says) – and tentative, so it’s possible to disagree.
  • There can be an opportunity for practice, for instance of activities or conversations which are distressing. Practicing is a good way to learn.
  • Related, there’s a regular structure and progress monitoring (verbally, with a diary, or using questionnaires). Self-reflection becomes routine and constrained in time, like (this might be a bit crude but bear with me) a psychological analogue of flossing one’s teeth.
  • (Idea from Clare) “… daring to talk about things never spoken of before with someone who demonstrates compassion and acceptance; helpful because allows us to face things in ourselves that scare us and develop less harsh ways of responding to ourselves”
  • The therapist has more distance from situations having an impact on someone than friends might have so, e.g., alternative explanations for interpersonal disputes can more easily be provided.
  • It’s easier for a therapist to be courageous in interactions and suggestions than for a friend as – if all goes wrong – it’s easier for the client to drop out of the therapeutic relationship without long-term consequences (e.g., there’s no loss of friendship).
  • Telling your story to a therapist gives you an audience who is missing all of the context of your life. Most of the context can feel obvious, until you start to tell your story. Storytelling requires explaining the context, making it explicit. For instance who are the people in your life? Why did you and others say and do the things they did? Perhaps this act of storytelling and making the context explicit also makes it easier to become aware of and find solutions.

On the inseparability of intellect and emotion (from 1933)

“[…] Imagine that we are engaged in a friendly serious discussion with some one, and that we decide to enquire into the meanings of words. For this special experiment, it is not necessary to be very exacting, as this would enormously and unnecessarily complicate the experiment. It is useful to have a piece of paper and a pencil to keep a record of the progress.

“We begin by asking the ‘meaning’ of every word uttered, being satisfied for this purpose with the roughest definitions; then we ask the ‘meaning’ of the words used in the definitions, and this process is continued usually for no more than ten to fifteen minutes, until the victim begins to speak in circles—as, for instance, defining ‘space’ by ‘length’ and ‘length’ by ‘space’. When this stage is reached, we have come usually to the undefined terms of a given individual. If we still press, no matter how gently, for definitions, a most interesting fact occurs. Sooner or later, signs of affective disturbances appear. Often the face reddens; there is bodily restlessness; sweat appears—symptoms quite similar to those seen in a schoolboy who has forgotton his lesson, which he ‘knows but cannot tell’. […] Here we have reached the bottom and the foundation of all non-elementalistic meanings—the meanings of undefined terms, which we ‘know’ somehow, but cannot tell. In fact, we have reached the un-speakable level. This ‘knowledge’ is supplied by the lower nerve centres; it represents affective first order effects, and is interwoven and interlocked with other affective states, such as those called ‘wishes’, ‘intentions’, ‘intuitions’, ‘evalution’, and many others. […]

“The above explanation, as well as the neurological attitude towards ‘meaning’, as expressed by Head, is non-elementalistic. We have not illegitimately split organismal processes into ‘intellect’ and ’emotions’.”


Korzybski, A. (1933).  Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics Institute of General Semantics.

Competence vs. performance

It’s all Chomsky’s fault (Chomsky 1965, p. 4):

“We thus make a fundamental distinction between competence (the speaker-hearer’s knowledge of his language) and performance (the actual use of language in concrete situations). […] A record of natural speech will show numerous false starts, deviations from rules, changes of plan in mid-course, and so on. The problem for the linguist, as well as for the child learning the language, is to determine from the data of performance the underlying system of rules that have been mastered by the speaker-hearer and that he puts to use in actual performance.”

So the idea is that people are trying to do C but only manage to do P, because of various constraints. We (children, adults, theorists) see (imperfect) P, and want to infer C. We go to school and go through various rigmaroles to better approximate C. The same distinction is applied in reasoning. Various options: people are irrational (with respect to C); maybe C = P, if we look hard enough to see it. Or bright people have P = C. Or bright people want P = C.

What fascinates me in reasoning is the role played by small groups of experts who produce particular systems of reasoning—logical calculi, probabilistic machinery—along with proofs that they have properties which they argue are reasonable properties to have. Then others come along to use the systems. Hey, this looks like a good logic to know; maybe it’ll help make my arguments better if I use it. Maybe this probability calculus will make it easier to diagnose illness in my patients. And so forth. Then somebody else comes along and decides whether or not we’re consistent with a competence theory’s judgements, or whether we’re interpreting things a different way; whether another competence theory (application thereof) might be more appropriate for a given situation or a different psychological model of the situation.

Easy to get tied up in knots.


Chomsky, N. (1965). Aspects of the Theory of Syntax. MIT Press.