April 27, 2020

How Coronavirus Could Change Things for Good

I’m no trend analyst. For example, I did not predict the rise of astrology in the wake of Donald Trump’s presidency. I did not expect sourdough starters to become a cultural touchstone of 2020. But I recently read Touch, by Courtney Maum, a fictional book about a professional trend forecaster who argues that basically, culture swings one way, and then swings hard the other.

A more academic framework for that is the Hegelian dialectic, which posits that culture moves like a pendulum, from a thesis to an antithesis as opposing sides battle it out, before settling into a more sophisticated synthesis. So for example, we might say … Thesis: Progressive politics are going to shape the 21st century. Antithesis: 2016-2020. Synthesis: A global pandemic leads conservatives to consider a universal basic income. A simpler example: Thesis: A paleo diet is good for you. Antithesis: A vegan diet is better for you. Synthesis: Packaged foods make a resurgence during a pandemic.

As you can see, a global pandemic renders the “synthesis” phase a bit wacky, as we move from sophistication to survival mode. It just proves that no prediction tool is perfect. Seeing fashion ads pop up for spring is particularly uncanny, because the fashion world, so intertwined with trend-watching, clearly did not see any of this coming.

As impossible as the modern world seems to be to predict, here are a couple lingering phenomena that I expect to last past COVID-19.

Baby Boomers Will Enjoy a Tech Renaissance: Just like when everybody’s mom got on Facebook a few years ago, the baby boomers are coming for more corners of the Internet. They’ve already conquered Zoom and Google Hangouts. Soon they’ll be all over DoorDash, Amazon Prime, Drizly and maybe even Houseparty. As more and more of life happens online, they might get comfortable with Twitter, TikTok or even Reddit. Boomers on Facebook changed the outcome of the 2016 election. Their increased presence in the digital sphere will ultimately shape it in new ways, and forces of power will use new channels to connect once again with this voting powerhouse.

America Will Look Outward for Leadership: This New York Times article, via Berlin, very eloquently states why the era of American global leadership is coming to a close. While this was already in play before coronavirus, our catastrophic fallout in the face of the pandemic has only cemented this as truth. In the article, political scientist Dominique Moïsi says, “Sometime in 2021 we come out of this crisis and we will be in 2030. There will be more Asia in the world and less West.” It’s already apparent that the U.S. is looking to Asia for answers for how to defeat the pandemic. But marry that with an increasingly global pop culture landscape, where Americans are importing food, television and music from abroad, and it becomes even more clear that American culture will no longer be the main global export. This episode of Fresh Air further explores how China is poised to lead in the next few years.

Creativity Will Become Bespoke: The pandemic has been catastrophic for all musicians, who count on live music for their livelihoods. It’s likely that live music shows and music festivals will be among the last cultural events to be restored coming out of this. As someone who lives with a musician, I’ve seen the rapid shift from live shows to creating custom videos for fans on Zoom and other platforms like Cameo. We may be looking at a world where art becomes less targeted to mass audiences and more to niche pockets of people, or even individuals.

Beyond music, most TV and film production has been totally shut down. I’m curious to see what happens when Netflix runs out of the pipeline of content they promise they have stocked up. Will they start reaching into the bottom of the barrel a bit more, taking bets on wildcard ideas that they would have rejected before? Will creators start embracing distance to invent new forms of TV and film, like live TV did in the first week of this phenomenon? What if a comedian makes their own lo-fi speculative season of a too-soon canceled show like Party Down? Is that the kind of thing we’ll all be watching in three months? I could very well see celebrities doing goofy table reads at home of unfinished screenplays, and turning that into content we all rapidly consume. 3D and animated content will probably flourish as well. Whatever happens, creativity is about to get even more creative.

The Seeds of Distrust Will Fully Sprout: Class-based dissatisfaction was already on the rise thanks to increasing income and wealth inequality, further stratified by factors like generation and race. The pandemic has only crystallized these issues, with Gal Godot and Ellen becoming the faces of the out-of-touch celebrities who think they’re going through the same problems as the furloughed workers unable to pay rent on cramped apartments. This has all taken place before we’ve even begun to experience the long-term financial fallout of this prolonged hiatus from life as usual. Thinkpieces about “yard privilege” are already popping up.

“I indulge in a soothing practice of something approaching anti-gratitude.

Sure, I have it good, but a nasty voice inside me asks, Don’t some people have it just a little better? Then I allow myself to be annoyed by them without self-judgment. Om.” – Evie Ebert in The Cut

Deep-seated resentment between people who come out of this unscathed and people who come out of it financially ruined will likely prevail for a long time. It seems inevitable that this staggering inequality will affect politics, potentially leading to redistributive measures, increased bargaining rights for essential workers, etc. Or hey, maybe it will just lead to even more tax cuts.

Beyond this, germaphobia is likely to maintain its hold over our psyches, which will probably further exacerbate the autoimmune conditions linked to overly sterile lifestyles. Avoiding physical contact with one another will shape behavior for longer than it needs to. It will take a long time before we’re comfortable getting close enough to smell someone else’s perfume.

A Distance-Based Infrastructure Will Solidify: One of the last things I did before heading home to shelter in place was shoot a documentary-style video about an e-learning platform. Hunting for quotes and insights into how teachers use these tools was fascinating. What I didn’t expect was that the entire country would become a live guinea pig for using these tools full-time, turning every call with my sisters and their kids into a chance to learn more about how they’re learning on their iPads.

This is just one example of how an emerging tool became mainstream overnight. Grocery and restaurant delivery, curbside pickup and e-commerce platforms also exploded. Friends started to talk about how their small business owning parents struggled to digitize their inventory overnight to stay in business. Thanks to these efforts, “the quar” has been more comfortable than I first anticipated. I imagined weeks of eating canned soup and being unable to get even essentials delivered. Instead, I can still order particular restaurant foods and have them delivered in minutes, shop online for things I don’t need and even have booze dropped off on my doorstep.

As we start to think of sheltering in place as not a weekly phenomenon, but one that could last months and even years, it’s likely that we won’t return to driving, traveling and flying for business the way we used to for a long time. The surprising environmental benefits of this may become even more prominent.

Meanwhile, businesses are going to further shape this new distance economy, which will inevitably include more automation and surveillance. Apple and Google have already teamed up to enforce contact tracing in the U.S. As more jobs open up in the tech-enabled distance economy, the economic value of hands-on, in-person work will (hopefully) increase, reframing in how these workers are prioritized and treated. Either way, technology will become a larger part of jobs we consider “essential.” Those who embrace it will succeed, and those who don’t will struggle.

A true trend watcher might wonder how things will ricochet in the other direction once this is all over. Will there be a hugging and handshake festival? Will people’s stomachs turn at the thought of Lysol wipes or a Zoom hangout?

Optimistically, will this era lead us to pay healthcare and food workers better and offer them better benefits? Will a distance-based infrastructure prolong the climate-friendly effect of the coronavirus crisis? Will we create a version of the New Deal that guarantees healthcare and economic relief to the masses? Will new levels of investment in medicine lead to a boom in healthcare innovation? Will increased adoption of technology by schools and the elderly lead to a more connected and educated society? Will we build a lasting infrastructure for scanning for, reacting to and shutting down future viruses?

Or more darkly, will increased surveillance of citizens be abused by tech companies, political parties and foreign adversaries? Will debt incurred during this time obliterate economic opportunity for young people? Will overuse of antibacterial products further the prevalence of allergies, sensitivities and autoimmune conditions, creating an even larger vulnerable population for the next epidemic? Will the financial blow to journalistic outlets further erode our ability to fight misinformation and fake news?

Nobody knows the future, and that is clearer than ever. But we do have an active role in shaping it.

-Becky Lang

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