Covid and the rise of the Zoom class

The pandemic has both revealed and accelerated class differences that have been decades in the making

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On November 6, 2021, the California petroleum heiress Ivy Getty married the photographer Tobias Engel at San Francisco City Hall. The venue is in the Tenderloin district, and the Tenderloin is at the heart of the city’s drug and homelessness crises. Drug abuse is rife in San Francisco, which the SF Chronicle reported in 2019 has more drug addicts than high school students. According to city statisticians, the 300 block on Tenderloin’s Hyde Street has received more complaints over the last decade about cleanliness than any other: City Journal recently described its sidewalk as a…

On November 6, 2021, the California petroleum heiress Ivy Getty married the photographer Tobias Engel at San Francisco City Hall. The venue is in the Tenderloin district, and the Tenderloin is at the heart of the city’s drug and homelessness crises. Drug abuse is rife in San Francisco, which the SF Chronicle reported in 2019 has more drug addicts than high school students. According to city statisticians, the 300 block on Tenderloin’s Hyde Street has received more complaints over the last decade about cleanliness than any other: City Journal recently described its sidewalk as a carpet of “syringes, excrement, and half-alive bodies.”

Despite (or possibly because of) the density of billionaires in the city, homelessness in San Francisco is also acute and rising. A 2019 study recorded more than 8,000 unhoused individuals, a rise of 17 percent over the 2017 count — despite officials spending more than $300 million on the issue. After the Covid pandemic began, the number of tents in the Tenderloin surged by 278 percent, according to the Guardian. In May 2020, this prompted officials to open the city’s first socially-distanced homeless camp in the shadow of City Hall itself, on a square between the Asian Art Museum and the San Francisco Public Library. You can see it now on Google Maps. Each tent is in its allotted white-painted square, the whole surrounded by a chain-link fence.

On the day of Ivy Getty’s wedding, though, City Hall was adorned not with prone bodies but a red carpet. Police stopped traffic. When Speaker Nancy Pelosi arrived to officiate the wedding, the guests were asked to mask up. But it’s clear from shots of the ceremony that the bridal party, and Pelosi too, did not follow suit. And the same freedom was in evidence at the wedding pre-party, according to Vogue. Here, guests were required to show certificates proving their vaccination status, but photos make it clear that the guests then mingled unmasked. The staff, though, kept their masks on.

This isn’t the first high-profile instance of coronavirus hygiene rituals converging with an increasingly stark social stratification. Early in the pandemic, Kim Kardashian triggered widespread anger when she flew her entire family to a private island for a mask-free get-together. In the photos Kardashian tweeted from the event, unmasked Kardashian clan members cuddle one another while masked staff clear empty glasses in the background. And in September last year, photographs taken at New York City’s $30,000-a-ticket Met Gala showed that the uniformed staff were masked, while the high-spending, quirkily costumed guests were not. But this Covid-era hierarchy is not new. The pandemic has both revealed and accelerated class differences that have been decades in the making.

In November, I went to Orlando, Florida for the 2021 National Conservatism conference. The morning after my arrival, I took a jetlagged dawn run through the district around the conference hotel. My route took me along the perimeter of the SeaWorld amusement park, and for a few minutes I flanked a colossal, quiescent rollercoaster, tinged orange in the early-morning sun. The steel struts and huge drive trains recalled the gantries in a shipyard, or some other immense structure from the world of heavy industry. In a way, this is accurate: a theme park is an open-air plant for the manufacture of industrialized, affordable, democratic excitement.

The industrial-democratic mindset dreamed of “a chicken for every pot” and “a car in every backyard,” as Herbert Hoover’s famous ad put it in 1928. The same Republican ad boasted of having “made telephone, radio and sanitary plumbing standard household equipment,” bumping all of America into “the silk stocking class.” The vision of industrial prosperity for all also prompted a vision of consumer fun on the same template: mass-produced at a scale that made it accessible to all. Make the factory big; make lots of what you’re making; sell it cheap. This kind of thrill is not meant to be subtle. It’s meant to be popular, efficient and fun — and it was, while it lasted.

The theme parks of Orlando were constructed for a world in which rising mass prosperity was a given, and the right to democratic leisure self-evident. But macroeconomic changes have halted that rise and curtailed that right for many. Since 1980, anti-union policies, financial deregulation and industrial offshoring have shrunk the relative spending power of post-industrial workers. According to 2020 Economic Policy Institute data, wages for Americans at the bottom have stagnated for some forty years. Inequality has hardened into the social and physical landscapes.

In his 2019 book Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America, the writer and photographer Chris Arnade describes walking across some of these landscapes to explore what he calls “back row America”: the parts of the country that have been left behind by these changes, and now languish as economically segregated hinterlands, forgotten by coastal elites and their political priorities.

At the Orlando conference, Arnade tells me the whole city came into being around Disney World. As he sees it, all of Orlando is built on a similar blueprint: themed zones connected by transit networks. But where Disney World had themes such as Tomorrowland, the conurbation that grew up around it has zones Arnade calls “Convention-center-land,” “Rich-people-land” and “Poor-people-land,” all connected and separated by “brutal eight-lane roads.” Here, back-row America exists just the other side of the fence or the highway.

Convention-center-land, where I stayed, is staffed by people who live on the other side of the fence. They go about their work of serving, cleaning and maintenance masked at all times. Their guests come from front-row America, especially a few rungs below the rarefied world of Ivy Getty. These are the Zoom classes: the post-industrial bourgeoisie’s hypermobile middle tier.

With tastes formed by proximity to the super-rich at college, this group may hanker for private-island exclusivity, but they lack the means to actually own such boltholes. For strivers with elevated tastes, straitened pockets and work commitments, Airbnb is the accommodation concierge of choice. In the company’s 2021 winter ad, a single guy with just a shoulder bag enters his chichi Airbnb in a scenic, remote location – only he doesn’t kick back, throw a party or relax. Rather, like the striver he is, he checks the wifi, finds a comfortable spot and opens his laptop.

Since the pandemic, in Airbnb’s words, the laptop class can now “go anywhere, and work anywhere,” and attain “a sense of freedom that people never had before.” For the Zoom classes, Covid was paradoxically liberating. For Airbnb, this has created an exciting post-pandemic opportunity profit by merging middle-class work and leisure. But it’s a wholly different demographic from that of the consumer of industrial fun, twentieth-century style, the Average Joe for whom Disney World was constructed. And it’s a class with its own distinctive relationship to Covid hygiene rituals.

Midway through the Orlando conference, Arnade took me for tacos in a lowrise strip mall in Poor-people-land. It was a sharp contrast to the glossy district in which the conference was held. The food was good. Neither servers nor diners wore masks. But while the individuals who work cash registers and clean rooms in Convention-center-land may prefer to go unmasked in their free time, the Zoom classes that use Orlando’s convention hotels are far keener on hygiene theater. The mid-tier providers of travel services to the Zoom classes, such as Airbnb and Uber, emphasize their devotion to rituals that seem designed to reproduce a Getty-like, effortless immunity on a more modest budget. Even if you’re only renting exclusivity, the implication is that everything has been so thoroughly sterilized that it might as well be privately owned.

This rented exclusivity includes the enjoyable experience of being temporarily at the top of the masking hierarchy. As a Zoom-class traveler in Orlando, a guest in a mid-tier hotel for a conference, I was permitted to circulate unmasked – unlike hotel staff. But once I left the Hilton for the airport, this ended and I was back in the middle ranks, amid a thicket of mask mandates and vaccine bureaucracy.

Fortunately, the typical mid-ranking member of the Zoom classes doesn’t mind. He or she has grown accustomed to a low-touch world of remote work. The upshot is a mindset that conflates freedom from Covid infection with freedom from moral taint.

A recent Atlantic article by Alexis C. Madrigal conveys this convergence of spiritual and immunological purity. Madrigal is invited to a wedding in New Orleans, a city whose center is now riddled with Airbnbs. When he hears that the pre-wedding drinks are – like Ivy Getty’s party – maskless, he is afraid: “I almost turned around and begged off the night of drinks, figuring that the next day would be less risky.” He attends the maskless wedding, where, despite being double-vaccinated with “two shots of Pfizer,” he worries some more: “It seemed not unlikely that I’d get exposed to COVID. Had we really been thinking clearly? Had we really wanted to take on that level of risk?”

When it transpires that Madrigal has indeed contracted Covid, he rents an apartment down the street from his wife and kids. And he’s evidently transmitted his own fear of contamination to his family: “My 8-year-old could barely look at me — maybe out of anger, maybe out of fear. My 5-year-old daughter proved her status as the ultimate ride-or-die kid. She brought a chair down the street so she could sit 20 feet away from me outside in her mask, as I sat on the porch in an N95.”

The laptop class is correspondingly nervous about mass leisure and the sheer unsanitized publicness of once-popular attractions such as the Magic Kingdom. Insider describes a summer visit in 2020, in which the packed crowds in Adventureland drive one woman to shriek “Get me out of here! This is crazier than a frat party!” By contrast, Airbnb boasts Covid-safe, deep-cleaned “off-grid,” “quirky” or “exclusive” rentals, all with great wifi. Out goes the twentieth-century fun factory. In comes aspirational escape from cramped urban apartments.

What will the serfs do for fun in this new normal? Many are still into industrial amusements: Insider polling suggests that it’s Americans earning under $75,000 who are most keen to visit Disney World. But for this group such experiences are now all but unaffordable. In 1971, when Florida’s Walt Disney World Resort opened, the cost of a ticket was $3.50 (around $22 today). In May 2021, Insider assessed the average cost of a family trip to Disney World at over $6,000.

Squeezed between wage stagnation, middle-class Covid anxiety and rising ticket prices, what will replace populist peak experiences like Adventureland and Seaworld? Perhaps one clue lies in an epidemic that, according to the Economist, has killed more San Franciscans than Covid-19: fentanyl. Studies show that renters, the poor and the unemployed — in other words, the new underclass — are most at risk from fentanyl abuse. But San Francisco’s fentanyl deaths have triggered no intrusive public-health mandates, just billboards advising addicts not to use alone.

Perhaps the Ivy Getty aristocracy and its Zoom-class cheerleaders view these casualties as an acceptable cost, a way of ensuring that at least some thrills remain affordable for all. But if you’re reluctant to get your kicks through a needle, and excluded by taste or pocket from renting a simulacrum of deep-cleaned billionaire life on Airbnb, the most appealing and democratic peak experiences on offer are now virtual-only.

By 2009, computer gaming was already a bigger business than Hollywood. By 2016, it was bigger than Hollywood and the music industry combined. The pandemic boosted video games by a further 20 percent. Computer gaming, according to IDC Data, is now worth $180 billion a year and outstrips the combined revenues of Hollywood, music and American sports.

The move toward mass-market virtual worlds took another step in November, when Mark Zuckerberg announced Facebook’s transformation into Meta. In the Metaverse, Zuckerberg promises, “you’re going to be able to do almost anything you can imagine.” Between fentanyl and Meta, who would even bother to visit a grubby, expensive, potentially Covid-riddled Magic Kingdom?

In Florida, I met a number of Republicans incensed by mask mandates. A remnant, perhaps, of an older American bourgeoisie: one wedded to something like Herbert Hoover’s vision of opportunity, and suspicious of visible privileges of rank. But there’s also something poignant about their resistance to this most potent symbol of twenty-first-century class hierarchy. After all, many of the same people once supported the deindustrialization that helped bring this brave new world about. And it’s not the masks that entrench the new class order. Rather, the new conventions of asymmetrical masking merely unmask it as a social and economic fact. Resistance now may be too little, too late.

This article was originally published in The Spectator’s January 2022 World edition.