When you’re living through a pandemic it’s hard to think about the future. A widespread, often deadly disease for which there’s no cure forces life into the now, requiring us all to think about those who we’re close to, their immediate needs and our current anxieties. The future, when we think about it at all, condenses to just a hazy, hopeful vision of what we’ll do “when this is all over.”
Crises can’t be put off or pushed aside because we’d like to think of something else or operate like the crisis doesn’t exist. The coronavirus exists and endangers all of us whether we want it to or not. Today matters. Tomorrow? Well, we’ll see.
But just because we find ourselves stuck firmly and painfully in the present throughout the crisis doesn’t mean that there won’t be a future. This crisis will be over and humanity will move on.
So what happens after we move on?
History shows us that every pandemic humanity has weathered has led to some fairly profound changes. The Black Death of the 14th century reduced the population so much that landowners were forced to give up the feudal system. The Spanish Flu of 1918, some have argued, contributed to the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, and Bulgaria) losing World War 1. The polio epidemic in the US during the 1950s led to accelerated research into vaccines and the development of life-saving respirators. For every major catastrophe, change followed.
There’s no reason to believe that this time will be different, but changes wrought by this pandemic may be the kind that profoundly effect our culture, moving us finally out of the Industrial Age and fully into the Digital Age.
“But,” you might be saying, “hasn’t that already occurred?” In some ways, Yes. There’s no denying that digital technology has altered the way we live. But for all the changes brought about by computer technology and the Internet over the past six or seven decades, much of how we learn, work, and live in the US has still been firmly rooted in the developments of the Industrial Revolution.
The Industrial Revolution
Beginning in the late 1700s, the Industrial Revolution transformed the world. The new manufacturing practices coupled with leaps in transportation and communication technologies moved the US and the western world from an agrarian society to an industrialized one, leading to the development of large cities, widespread prosperity (eventually), and greatly accelerated developments in science and technology.
But industrialization required two related things: centralization and control. Centralization was necessary in order to raise the capital investments required to build the factories and infrastructure of an industrialized society. These large factories were necessary to reap the benefits of the economies of scale that came from large, centralized manufacturing facilities. And large factories required large numbers of people, leading to the great migrations out of the agricultural areas and into the cities.
To make all this work, new systems of control had to be developed. Large numbers of workers toiling away on assembly lines needed to be supervised and their activities coordinated. Masses of people moving into cities and masses of resources moving to factories required transportation networks that needed to work reliably and on-time.
As transportation grew so did supply chains, and these supply chains required faster and more efficient communication networks in order to coordinate activities at the scale required by this new Industrial Age. Eventually, these combinations of better transportation and better communication meant that factories didn’t need to be located close to the resources they required and that the goods they produced could be moved anywhere in the world.
Outside of the realm of the factories, other institutions developed to serve the needs of the Industrial Age. Universal schooling, which started in the one-room schoolhouse, evolved into larger school systems operating on regular schedules and utilizing an assembly-line structure to provide students with the knowledge they needed to thrive in the new Industrial Age.
The Digital Age Emerges
Professional services from accounting to consulting to advertising arose to serve the needs of industry and drive the engine of consumer demand. Cities grew as centers of commerce and services and the modern 9-5 workplace evolved to serve industry and operated in the same way the factories did, employing large numbers of workers to create and distribute what they produced. Media — TV, radio, film, and publishing — also adopted a somewhat industrial model, mass-producing knowledge and entertainment for ever-growing audiences.
There’s no doubt that the coming of the Internet and the digital revolution disrupted many of these institutions, media in particular, along with the Internet and mobile technologies. But two institutions — the workplace and education — seemed to be particularly resistant to leave the Industrial Age.
Yes, there have been changes to both, but they’ve come slowly. Remote work and remote schooling have become commonplace enough that they’re not necessarily seen as novelties anymore.
But for every large online university, there are hundreds of brick and mortar schools still attracting thousands of students who live on campus and take classes in much the same way that students did hundreds of years ago. And while “virtual” companies do exist, most companies are very real, operating from a physical location. They might employ some remote workers and/or allow employees to work remotely from time to time, but even though the technology has existed to facilitate remote work, the workplace has stubbornly resisted going virtual.
And then along came the coronavirus to kick us in the pants.
Almost literally overnight both schools and workplaces were forced to change how they operated. Campuses and companies shut down when it became a matter of life and death. In what seems like an instant, “virtual” became the “new normal” and we were suddenly thrust into the Digital Age.
It’s obviously too early to predict the long-term effects of this pandemic. Making predictions while inside of a crisis is always an exercise in hubris. But it’s not too early to start thinking about what the future’s going to be like. We just need to look at the trend vectors to catch a glimpse into what may be a year or so from now.
The “trends” (if you can call them that) all seem to be pointing towards the current “new normal” that’s going to continue to be normal in the future. When Dr. Anthony Fauci, the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) director advises that we “don’t ever shake anybody’s hands again”, it’s hard to imagine that we’re going to go back to the way things were. Things rarely do.
The trends are pretty clear: living and working and learning “virtually” are going to become the new normal, even though we’ve had the capability to do so for a long time now. Futurists like Alvin Toffler, author of Future Shock predicted a future of “teleworking” way back in 1970, but before the coronavirus crisis, only about 18% of Americans worked remotely full-time. As of now, preliminary data show that nearly 70% of businesses have had to transition their workers to work from home.
Online education has been ascendant over the past couple of decades, but even so, the most recent (pre-coronavirus) statistics put the number of students studying online exclusively at less than 13% of the higher ed student population. Today, in the middle of the crisis, that number is probably closer to 100%.
Certainly, these trends will reverse themselves somewhat when the crisis passes, but it’s doubtful that things will go back to the way they were before coronavirus and “social distancing” made them mandatory. Businesses may have been reluctant to transition to remote work before, part of the Industrial Age’s love of control rather than technological or financial need.
Colleges and universities may be having a tough time transitioning to remote learning, but it seems doubtful that now that they’ve been forced to go remote, college presidents all over the country aren’t looking at their campuses and asking themselves “Do we really need all this stuff?”
One thing that the widespread resistance to social distancing shows us is that some people really do want to get together in person when they can. That’s just human nature and it’s not likely to change because of this crisis. But just because something may be against human nature doesn’t mean that it can’t become the norm…just ask any high schooler who has to wake up earlier than nature intended to get to school on time.
Societal norms are hard to change and so we resist changing them…until we get a kick in the pants that makes us change. Maybe COVID-19 is the catalyst we’ve been waiting for to finally move work and school into the Digital Age?