Will this change our lives?

Some comments on pandemonium

Friends and colleagues have begun to ask me what I think the COVID-19 pandemic means for the future. Is this going to change us? Although I'm a bit taken aback by the sudden question, here are some moderate off-the-cuff remarks.

Forgetfulness is godliness

Disease is a great leveller. It doesn't care much for conventional rank or privilege, nor for categories or boundaries. It enters our homes, piercing through the television and smartphones, where we could perhaps denounce it as remote and abstract. Unlike many more localized catastrophes, it's not easily dismissed or passed over. That's the main difference facing us now.

In the 21st century, very few of us have ever faced lockdown or the need for sacrifice in our lifetimes. The sudden loss of the assumed laurels of lifestyles, handed down to us from a forgotten source, came likely as a shock. The world is made up of networks that ride upon networks, and when we try to shut them down, albeit selectively, we disrupt the very basis for living--`The Economy' if you like. Of course, this leads to outrage amongst those who are used to an illusory sense of self-sufficiency, who've had the good fortune to take basic services of modern civilization for granted during their lives.

Imagine my surprise, then, when smart people and well as journalists began to exclaim, within a few weeks of the pandemic: `Things can never be the same again -- it won't go back to how it was before!' Only a few weeks into a shelter at home order, even the brightest of friends were predicting this kind of end of days prophesy. "Don't you agree?" But, I don't really agree. I think it's premature at best, and the outcome will be more nuanced and complicated to be sure.

In a trite sense, things never go fully back to how they were before. The world is constantly changing, though we seldom notice it. Some companies will go bust, some colours will fade, but large and sudden shifts also don't happen too easily. Take something as monumentous as Internet adoption, for example, it took a couple of decades of sustained pushing to change our lives---and the changes, although pervasive, are more deep rooted than they are visible on the surface. We still drive cars, drink coffee, eat at restaurants, live in houses, etc. Smart phones, home delivery, and video chatting didn't change that.

Shocks are quickly forgotten. Pacific tsunamis, earthquakes, Icelandic volcanoes wreak devastation and bring fear, but they don't undermine culture. To begin with, we are social animals--and an invisible risk is not going to change that. To enact sudden changes in lifestyle is near impossible without sustained campaigns, incentives, and even legal consequences that motivate behavioural change. Climate activists working over decades won't succeed in changing attitudes to climate change any more than nuclear disarmament protesters prevented nuclear weapons--we are anchored by complacent habit to powerful forces with vested interests. How then could this short term pandemic bring about change? A short term rally (months to a year) is unlikely to be anything more than an a temporary inconvenience, quickly forgotten--because we don't know any other way to run a society at scale than what we already have. And so it is with a pandemic, even one that leads to loss of life. Only when faced with sustained material costs do we change behaviours, so it's all in the long term incentives. Even two world wars did not change the economic basis of society much. I'd love to see changes, but they don't happen like this.

We find it hard to think and plan long term, so--for short term arm-twisting--people usually have to be threatened with fines and punishments, as well as long term propaganda campaigns, in order to reshape habits, e.g. think of recycling of waste. I recall these from the 1970s, when I was growing up:

`Look Left, Look Right, before crossing the road'.
`Stop, look, listen! Always follow the Green Cross Code!'
`Don't drop litter!'
`Clunk-click with every trip' (wear a seatbelt).
`Keep you happy smile sparkling clean and bright, brush after breakfast and last thing at night!'

We don't run these campaigns for public good anymore. Society has largely learnt these lessons, and we now take them for granted (so that they will decay from lack of maintenance) over time. They've been replaced by advertising to feed us commodities or to impugn political opponents. Short term fluctuations, knocks and bruises toll like a bell and then fade away. Long term societal change has a very high inertia. It isn't affected strongly by short shocks like financial crises, natural disasters, or outbreaks of disease.

Kinship and tribe

People have short memories for strife, and long memories for grudges. We don't like to dwell on the unpleasant, so ordinary folks will be happy to fall back into the trance of business as usual as quickly as possible. But our tribal instincts survive across generations and when faced with uncertainty, we tend to retreat back to exclusionary thinking.

Signs of this trend began with the financial crises of past decades, ushering countries away from globalization towards a tendency for nationalism and tribal shrink wrapping. The part that worries me the most is the politicization of the crisis, and the ready surge of blame-seeking instinct. Those accusations can cause lasting damage not just to countries, but to communities across the world who may feud over grudges for generations.

For example, in 2007-2008 the financial system almost came to a crashing end, according to the papers, yet basically nothing changed, except for some legislation to push responsibility onto consumers away from banks. No lessons were learnt. Promised regulations were not really effected. What survived was a distrust of bankers.

After the 9/11 attacks in New York, aviation stuttered, and recovered quickly thanks to some security theatre at airports to boost consumer confidence, and some behind the scenes intelligence activity--but no lifestyle changes. One reason for that is that the human world is dominated now by economic forces, and those forces are sustained by gross privileges and power structures that seek to maintain them. The elites, economical and political, who profit most from that system will not let go of their position so easily. They will always seek to paper over rather than repair faults and cracks to maintain their status quo privilege. As Machiavelli pointed out

"There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct or more uncertain of its success than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things, because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old scheme and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new..." (Machiavelli, The Prince)

For most of us, the idea that we are being told by government to go to the shelters is surreal. There are no explosions, air raids, or collapsing buildings--only the invisible enemy that brought down H.G. Wells martians. Those who can't see a bigger picture, quickly decried the `violation of civil liberties', and `affront to human rights'. We have become pampered by our luck in avoiding significant crisis since World War II. Our living generations (Boom,X,Y,Z, etc) have basically never before had to sacrifice their individual freedoms for the greater good, not within their lifetimes--and so never really understood the difference between a `right' promised as a nice-to-have service and an entitlement demanded as a universal and fundamental need. The memory of world wars is basically forgotten. As we've seen, during the lockdowns, voices of dissent and refusal were quick to say: `Why should I?'


Those who have found it straightforward to work from home, thanks to advances in information technology and a penchant for introversion, have been the least affected. Adjusting to working from home is surely the least of our worries -- and yet it will not re-engineer the structure of society. Not everyone's home is suitable for work. Until now, most business leaders have rejected the idea of working from home --- because the society we at work is basically authoritarian, and most leaders don't trust their workers. It's a hangover from industrialization, when work was something we did in factories. Western countries might rattle on about freedom and democracy, but that phantom of freedom rarely impinges on our normal lives, except perhaps for half a day every few years in an a highly propagandized election. We have to go to a specific work location, where we are monitored, and we are told what to do--all pretty authoritarian.

The brief Work From Home stint will help to underline the value of social media as an antidote to loneliness, but it will also emphasize that extroverts are poorly suited to this kind of captivity. Even introverts need background humanity to feel comfortably alone. Isolation is quite different from loneliness. So, I think we've now tasted a deeper dose of what social media had already given us. Its prior existence has been a helpful analgesic for a much more serious situation that could have arisen had it not existed. That and paracetamol. It might encourage minor revisions in how much we use it, but to suggest that we'll carry on like this, and ditch cars and aircraft is absurd. Those things will survive as long as individual freedoms are sought. It's the same reason why cars won't become mainly self-driving any time soon, and we won't all be replaced by robots any time soon. Those suggestions grossly `misunderestimate' society and the human condition.

In short, changes, which seem germane to the current state of affairs, will not be the changes that prepare us for the next unexpected crisis--by definition of unexpected.

After some limping, things will almost certainly slide back to the same basic patterns as before, tourism and air travel will recover, with cheaper meals and fewer frills, etc--unless large incentives are introduced to the contrary. During that time, some natural changes will also take place--as a forest clears room for new trees to take its place. Some of the less efficient cars and planes may be retired because we won't be able to afford to run them. There will be a push to focus more on sustainable technologies, and a brave few will venture to consider other potential failure modes for society. We might see a marginal increase in the use of video conferencing--but, that was already increasing. And hotels will suffer from fewer bookings for small meeting congregations, who could barely afford them in the past anyway---but, I think, there is no force of nature that could stop a major product and marketing convention. Advertising runs the world, and tourism is the very expression of personal freedom.

Blind eyes and boundaries

Not everyone can afford to ignore the lessons of sustained paralysis though. Businesses and government regulations that made it hard for businesses to function will come under scrutiny. The high security work, where policing and use of physical partitions play a role (banking, hospitals, laboratories, etc) have suddenly realized they had no backup plan. Those workers are not allowed, i.e. trusted to do their jobs from home. We've designed society according to a model where specialization means localization -- a centralized concentration, where we can be watched and monitored. Surveillance and supervision have been organized in a certain way. We have pervasive trust issues, and it used to be the only way to interact. That's hard to change, but it's certainly ripe for change, and it has already been changing slowly since the millennium.

Video meetings allow some things to be virtualized, but going virtual might help us today, it might not save us next time. Every catastrophe that can happen physically can also happen as a virtual catastrophe too. What if the next virus is a computer virus?

If you design living around a brittle model, patching one bug at a time, based on taking critical dependencies for granted, it will crack eventually. We might feel safer, in the current crisis, retreating behind a virtual boundary, but it can't protect us from a cyber attack, a banking or financial crisis, or a loss of power or water. Shoving our awareness of critical dependencies down into invisible infrastructure only kicks the can of vulnerability down the street. It won't help against climate change, a dinosaur killing asteroid, solar storm, or the explosion of new disease and weather changes that are likely to accompany them. `The more you take over the plumbing, the easier it is to stop up the drain.' Local changes are mere details, icing on the cake. Systems take longer to adapt.

Rather than building more layers of resilience and regulation onto the house of cards, we should be looking to flatten them and simplify our systems, if we want to control them -- thinking very carefully about which differences matter, and which are harmful. For example, is tribal segregation, nationalism, and racism a useful separation of concerns? Is local food, water, and power security a useful local separation? Should communication be limited to your local village? Should knowledge be limited? We are notoriously bad at having more than one approach to different problems.

What could I possibly have done?

What economists like to write off as `exogeneous shocks' (meaning, we won't bother to try to model them) are really intentionally overlooked possibilities, often right on our doorsteps. Economists like to assume fictitious equilibrium. It's called wishful thinking. We look to save potential costs of investing in protections by writing risk off as rare black swan events. Instead, we could be looking for ways to make those proactive mechanism pay their way.

The reality of the modern world is that we have plenty. If we organized ourselves better across the many scales of human interaction, no one would need to be too worried about survival. But survival is not enough. People also need purpose -- a meaning to their lives. Being consumers is not enough. What level of activity and development will keep us happy?

Different states of anxiety, within society, may bring a heightened state of alertness over the short term. We might fret over this and that, but there is a more serious side to the disarray that results. Society's immunity to ordinary pathogenic threats is weakened by a singular enemy: criminals, traffickers, and rentiers all see opportunities to exploit exceptional situations. Who is watching out for those victims? Those whose lives are already on the edge of stability, the weakest, the poor, the vulnerable, may see their marginal existence tip over the knife edge -- sex workers, taxi drivers, delivery men and women, transport workers, all who are strongly dependent on the good graces of others.

Moving together, moving independently

The difficulty of invoking national unity in a crisis has revealed itself to be an arguable weakness of Western society and its propagandized view of freedoms and expressions lumped under the banner of `democracy'. Did Eastern countries, with more collectivist traditions, fare better? I don't think there is any political lesson here, but there is a lesson about willingness to forego freedoms at the right moment. Countries who were late to prepare and impose controls got caught out with more cases of viral infection than they believed, but some countries were also just unlucky. It's not easy to tell the difference.

Does that mean more authoritarian systems are better than democracy? First of all, those are not opposite poles. The US has always been a relatively authoritarian democracy, for instance. Of course, in some cases aspects of each system might be an advantage--but these are temporary and local effects, not long term benefits. We find both kinds of governance in the world at large. Over-politicization of permanent ideological doctrine ignores the capacity for natural short term adaptation. Brittle ideology helps no one. No top-down company would tolerate time-critical decisions being put to a grass roots discussion or a vote. When an collective needs to move quickly, it needs to be guided by a central brain. That doesn't mean that the central brain is better in other instances. For one thing, it's a single point of failure, easily assassinated.

In the information society, the new disease that lurks in plain sight is propaganda (see my book Slogans). We are more susceptible to it than ever. We used to think of propaganda as something driven by big evil governments. Today propaganda has moved from government directly into largely to NGOs and the private sector. We do ourselves a disservice by invoking political fear-mongering and ideological stubbornness, when cool headed pragmatism is required on an appropriate timescale. The ability to increase centralization of control--to calibrate a singular unity of purpose, and shrink-wrap our opinionated diversity enough to focus, is a lesson to learn, but without putting all eggs in one basket for ever. In a crisis, move the eggs quickly with the basket you have, and then reorganize them later. These shifting strategies are common in biological systems (slime moulds, herds, and flocks etc). But in human societies, politics and slogans like "authoritarianism" and "freedom and democracy" generally foment ideological histrionics ahead of practical matters. We need to be righteous more than we need to be secure.

Con trails and money

Climate measurements after the suspension of flights in the wake of the 9/11 attacks showed a one degree rise in temperatures due to reduced reflection by con trails and particulates. This time, we've already seen large improvements in particulate air quality. I wonder what lessons and policy shifts might be ushered along from these effects. Surely everyone will be completely convinced now to retire fossil fuels and go electric? Unlikely, but it will certainly inspire some entrepreneurs to forge ahead with alternatives.

Finally, we might want to look at the future of money again, and plan new wearable but contactless technologies for keeping our stash alive, so that when the power goes out, or the banks collapse, we can still buy and sell. As I pointed out in my book on money, money forms one of the most important networks we rely on in society. Physical cash is therefore a perfect vector for disease transmission. The transformation to cashless money has been a helpful preventer of transmission in the current crisis, but the next crisis might be one that disables our payment systems, meaning that we have no access to money because we have no network or no power. Forget blockchain -- which only make this issue worse. We need systems to keep fair trade in place when we face a new kind of shock.

A financial system based on the continuous time-based charging of interest, or repayment of debt, becomes dangerously unstable in times of catastrophe. Debt needn't be a problem over time, but cancerous debt is a ticking time bomb--a Red Queen race to extinction. It was a relief to hear of banks suspending interest payments. What about rentiers on property? Offering bailout loans to tide people over the crisis is a terrible idea for ordinary players. Loan risk is calculated so precisely, with no margin for error that it makes little sense in times of great uncertainty. Only the largest could stand a chance of repaying or outlasting them. Indeed, most of those larger companies would be helped out of their debt eventually by governments or private money redistributors, so the deck is stacked against ordinary people in such times. Neither economists nor politicians have any incentive to care about this problem.

Societal change means hard work, many iterations, and thus a faster pace of life. It happens in cities, not in sleepy villages. The concept of the smart city, smart country, and smart workplace of the future has yet to be defined. We don't really know what we want from life in the future--but handling some of these issues would be smarter than collecting data from arbitrary sensors. Usually, we take what we get. But we are always afraid of major disruption. We've grown comfortable and complacent. The major challenges facing the world are not the same as they were in past centuries. That too is something we'll need to deal with. Society is vulnerable, and its time for governance (not only technology) to move into the 21st century.

I follow with fascination the way different governments try to mitigate the symptoms of present disarray, without really addressing causes. I fear for what will happen once the blame game begins. That's par for the course, and perhaps the greatest lesson of all.

M.B. 19th April 2020