The Changing Meanings of Luxury and Privacy During COVID

Perspective shifts.

Jianan Liu / This art work is copyrighted and may not be reproduced or distrubuted without consent of the author. Notice: Remvoing copyright notice is a crime

In late February, we planned on publishing a story about privacy as a desired item—something purchasable and plannable, as the last true refuge of luxury. We focused on technology, children, and all the other things that limit privacy or the uninterrupted enjoyment of oneself, which, it turns out, is a usable and non-materialistic definition of luxury, as well.

That essay, which already reads like a relic, focused on being annoyed at the always full hotels and the barrage of internet media. It extolled the value of hotels off the beaten path, of tech retreats, and of nostalgia for secret gems in places less trodden. It placed experience untouched by tourists and tech as the height of luxury, one that could be had without spending much money at all.

All these things still have appeal, but the stakes of privacy have risen. The bubbles remain out there, but for many, they are impossible to reach. No longer is the isolated retreat under palms and sky just about tranquility—the parameters of privacy are now defined just as much by the shoring up of life against disease and sickness, against death in uncertain terms. Privacy as avoiding literal physical proximity with other people has started to replace in importance privacy as a high hedge or a VPN.

One luxury gleaned from travel and privacy—a luxury of life—is perspective. The closing of borders and the cancellation of plans has produced perspectives as well, and these perspectives need to be utilized as we try and figure out what lays ahead. Already, there are conversations about travel habits as causes of global warming, and the unfit living conditions of marginalized people are in even starker relief. For the first time in years, people are able to step outside their busy lives and see the faults the virus has left like artificial light coming in through previously hidden cracks.

But the tendency to rush towards oases in our desert of bleak news remains. News outlets all over North America are reporting the intensification of the drive for privacy. Purveyors of bunkers and private islands have seen sales increase dramatically, 25 per cent of travellers actively try to avoid commercial flights, and vacationers are renting whole floors—if not the entirety—of hotels and retreats. People are staying closer to home, and the planning required of travellers and hospitality professionals alike is much more complicated as masks, fancy air filters, testing, and other devices that seemed unthinkable just a year ago become necessities. Now, it seems as if these ultra-private modes of travel might be one of the only ways to travel at all. Our need to get away remains, and it’s understandable. But can we keep relying on old ideas of travel and retreat right now?

One luxury gleaned from travel and privacy—a luxury of life—is perspective.

The best places to go haven’t really changed, only the stakes, and the simple possession of a space to isolate and work in is becoming even more of a luxury as homelessness and the dangers of multi-family living proliferate. Where previously privacy was an escape from the masses or the clamouring postmodern city, it is now an escape from the sub-apocalyptic realities of COVID time.

If shelter itself becomes luxury, what of the bunkers and boats? And will the drive for secluded travel and retreats hold water after a year of distancing? One thing is for sure: privacy is never a stable concept. It depends on the times or place, like a European’s horror at the public stalls in the United States. And now, again, the need for privacy is changing how we think about our day-to-day lives. It now means having a table six feet away from someone else at a restaurant with the coveted space. Will we get sick of such separation? And will hearing the laughter of children or being in a crowded place become a luxury worth striving for in the decade to come?

Privacy may well become more and more coveted, but its connotations will change, as things often do in dire times. While we may all still aspire to private islands, safety will stay paramount and desirable. Many small places of congregation will likely replace the boisterous markets, malls, and theatres of before. That means we have to change how we view our lived environment.

Even if there is a vaccine that eradicates the virus altogether, it is unlikely that phrases like “social distancing” will leave the lexicon. COVID will haunt our stories just like other traumatic historical events. Just as the designs of sanitariums affected the idioms of modern architecture, COVID will leave traces everywhere, perhaps nowhere as strongly as travel, dining, and shopping.

Privacy may well become more and more coveted, but its connotations will change, as things often do in dire times.

Our daily interactions with others might well become works of profound creativity as evidenced by the ways people are expanding restaurant spaces, utilizing masks to move around, creating solutions with limited space and resources, and rethinking supply chains.

Rethinking public places to take into account the privacy we need is one way forward. Green space has proven invaluable to our mental and physical health. Public spaces where friends and families can congregate—so long taken for granted—have become paramount and privileged. This is hardly private, but we’ve all seen what being at home without our pre-COVID social groups means. Perhaps more intimate learning experiences, akin to apprenticeships and mentorships, will replace the factory model of schooling. Perhaps we will learn to live online apart from the massive data companies. Perhaps we will rethink the way we travel based on the need for individualized transport coupled with the growing apparence of problems with our current transportation systems. Perhaps.

It may turn out that, while our ideas are in flux, that an emphasis on these other things to come more into view. The goods and locations will remain, but what we covet may change. After all, isn’t luxury, in some ways, a break from the everyday? And if the everyday now is a world more and more shut in on itself and compartmentalized, what will become—or stay—rare?

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