Someone paid me for an hour of my opinions about what’s happening and what might happen next. I’m not supposed to say who or why, but I can share what I think. These thoughts are distilled from that conversation, yours for free, courtesy of someone richer than both of us, with a few links and figures.
Pandemic path dependence
One way to think about what the pandemic will change is path dependence. Things we invest in now, the momentum we get now in all the changes we make, are likely to continue. The idea of going back is always a myth, but I think it’s especially the case with such a big change, so fast. For example, look what I did. They moved my classes online. I looked at the different video platforms that my university had subscribed to at that point – WebEx, Zoom, Google – I decided I liked Zoom the best. Zoom had the green screen option, so I invested in this green screen, which was only 20 dollars, but I rearranged this room and set it up – so now my first choice is Zoom for meetings. That’s not likely to change right away. So you think of all the changes we’re making like that, in terms of our consumer choices, or communicating with our family members, or other investments, and whatever we’re doing now is likely to continue.
On the path dependence idea, we’re in the process of finding out right now a lot of people who are redundant at work. When organizations start losing all this money, and they have to make drastic cuts that might become permanent, their choices will have to do with what everybody’s contributing right now. We’re going to discover that we do without what a lot of people are doing. So a lot of people are going to be restructured out of their jobs. There will be lot of turnover and change and uncertainty, and that wreaks havoc on people’s personal lives. People aren’t good at making long-term decisions under conditions of existential uncertainty. So if you don’t know where you’re going to be in the big picture in five or ten years – including career, family, and so on – it’s hard to make decisions like, Let’s get married, Let’s have children.
The US birthrate has been falling since the last recession, and hasn’t been coming back. I think that may be accelerated. I don’t think people will be rushing to have children, which involves a long-term, permanent, future orientation. In the US we have a lot of unplanned births, so those may still happen, but I don’t think more people are going to decide to have children and make other long-term decisions like marriage.
People are asking, Will there be a baby boom? People are stuck together, they’ll have sex more and have children. That’s not really how it happens. Most people are planning. We have modern contraception. People don’t just have more children because they spend more time together. Long-term commitments may be undermined, and people making long-term decisions may be less common, up to and including marriage and childbearing.
Divorce, on the other hand, may be different. We were seeing a decline in divorce before this. Now there may be more people who want to get divorced right now, because of COVID, but fewer people who can. Divorce is logistically difficult. They may stay together because they can’t separate. That also means we are at risk of increased family violence and abuse. For some people, their families are happy and they’re doing well and they enjoy being locked up together, and it’s rejuvenating and so on – and for the people for whom family is not safe or comfortable, that could be getting worse and worse.
We already see the job loss and economic insecurity is divided by race, gender, and class. You can look right now at the people who compelled to keep working at personal risk – people in services, grocery stores, delivery people, medical providers, versus people like me, who can work from home. That makes me safer and that’s stratifying. We’ll have relatively more stability and security on the professional/managerial side of the occupational divide.
There is also the issue of trust. Some of us are feeling like we must trust the government and scientists for our survival. And some of us are thinking, The government and scientists are terrible and we can’t believe anything they say. That divide was already happening, and I think it’s going to widen. That division is partly on education but also very partisan.
We have a principle of fractal polarization, where if you take any group of people, no matter how small, we have the social dynamics in place to generate polarization among them. In politics, the division between Republican and Democrat, then within the Democrats, then within the Bernie movement, etc. And that’s partly social media and the way we communicate, where in order to get noticed you have to say something outside the margins, and that pushes the margins further and further apart.
On the other hand, some things could be unifying. Not just trust in science and the government, but also things like investment in public health and infrastructure. If you look at past crises, there are precedents for coming out of this with a unifying policy agenda, like investing in the healthcare system. We could end up with an even great majority for universal healthcare, and the expenses may not seem so large compared to what we’re going through now. The role of youth is important. We have seen big movements of young people, for example on climate change and gun control. Those things are still important, but we may see some of that energy swing to more health issues. We could have a unifying swing toward collective orientation on issues like that.
The organizations that have the resources now to innovate, that realize they have to in order to survive… for example, universities. They were already developing online education, and they just increased the speed of that greatly. So the investment is going to be there for that. And that may apply to other services, such as telemedicine. We’re going to continue having appointments with doctors online. A lot of them will continue providing those services even when it’s not necessary. And I think the same may also be true for social services, government services. There could be benefit for that, being able to drop services directly into people’s homes. That can help with people who are either socially or physically isolated, people with disabilities, people who can’t leave the house for whatever reasons. Things may end up getting better because we end up delivering services in those situations.
It’s hard to imagine that travel won’t be permanently reduced. Travel for work certainly will be, with all this investment in doing things remotely, in addition to the fear of traveling. We have, in academia, massive conferences multiple times per year, around the world. And in the next year or two we’re going to discover that we can have academia without those things. And those things are really expensive. And so it’s not clear, when we realize the budgets are permanently shrunk, that we’re going to spend money again on things that we did without for a couple of years.
The free moving upper classes that did work in different countries, that saw colleagues around the world, that vacationed in remote places – although that’s very unequal, it’s a positive influence on social life anyway. I’m afraid that will be reduced. That can contribute to nationalism and ethnocentrism.
On the one hand we’re realized our global interdependence in ways that are important. Ninety percent of ibuprofen in the U.S. comes from China. So if we all depend on China for our ibuprofen, we could learn from that that we’re all interdependent, or we could conclude, Wow, we need our own ibuprofen factories. Or the same with surgical masks. That can be bad in the sense of global divisions and isolation.
When staying in is prosocial
Trust in the government, or science, is not just about the faceless bureaucracy. It’s an investment in a kind of solidarity. If you follow a government directive, at your own expense, that is an expression of faith in humanity, to some degree (unless you’re acting out of fear of enforcement). It’s paradoxical that by isolating ourselves we’re contributing to the collective good. There is a group of sociologists who are trying to get us to use the term ‘physical distancing,’ partly because physical distancing is how we stick together, socially.
However, that might not be persistent. We will get used to the habits of staying home, and having services delivered, and entertainment delivered – not going to the movies, or go to bars to hear music. After we adapt (even more) to those things, so we are less inclined to pay more if we can do it at home, then when staying home isn’t for the collective good anymore, those habits may persist, and that could be bad.
This is all undermining privacy, especially digital privacy. For example, if we end up embracing the Google and Apple app for contact tracing, but not trusting the government to do that, that pushes us in the direction of surrendering more digital privacy to tech companies. That was already happening, but it’s likely to go further, if people see it as in their interest to surrender their privacy more explicitly. To the extent there was at least a cultural niche of people who object, I think that will be weakened. People won’t be as reluctant to give that up after they’ve been through a period when turning over their personal information was important to their survival.
Local versus online community
If we’re all stuck in our homes, then the neighborhood becomes a very different concept. I’m an academic, I’ve been a professor at three different universities. I always subscribe to the New York Times, so in a way I live in a suburb of New York no matter where I am. If everything’s inside the home, then your neighborhood is your Zoom background, and the things you get delivered, and there’s already no local news anymore – so there is a sense that the local matters less. But people still want it to matter. When you get out of the house and see the people in your actual neighborhood, that’s still something important. So there’s a paradox, a good and a bad side to that. The idea that I can be in the same virtual neighborhood as people who are thousands of miles away is socially good, but on the other hand if it undermines my relationship with my actual neighbors that’s bad. I don’t know how to bridge that.
What could get worse? War. It might seem crazy for countries to go to war at a time when national boundaries seem to matter less and less. But with the instability this has cause, and with our reliance on technology, a relatively small thing can set off huge cascading events, including flipping the switch on something like war. Even if that seems ridiculous. How could we go to war with China? Everyone would lose. But big things can go wrong, and our dependence on technology makes it more possible for those catastrophic events. I don’t think that’s that likely, but I didn’t think this was that likely.
We already had a history problem. Obama was part of this story of social progress. Trump undermined that drastically. The same with the threat of climate change versus technological advances. Maybe history doesn’t have a direction. Maybe there is no arc that bends toward justice. Maybe there’s just a series of random events. This pandemic feeds that sense. That creates anxiety, and dread, but also opens up a world of possibilities for directions to change. That means extremism becomes more enticing to some people, because they think they can change the direction of history. But it might also mean we have more imagination for positive developments as well.