Covid-19 Sped Things Up? Not So Fast

Change wasn't inevitable, isn't always good, and futurists seem a bit blithe

Covid-19 Sped Things Up? Not So Fast

I listen to a lot of people making predictions, and I’ve embraced some of these and elaborated on some in posts recently (here and here). It’s important to think about where the puck is going, so to speak, even as the evidence of its trajectory is unavailable, making future outcomes somewhat uncertain, forcing you to rely on some combination of experience, fundamental laws of nature or business, and hunches.

Done right, tentative predictions can be helpful. But there’s one recent lazy type of futurist insight I’ve heard multiple times from multiple angles — it’s that the Covid-19 pandemic is “speeding up” or “accelerating” the inevitable, from online groceries to home packaged food delivery to online court proceedings to distance learning to work-from-home.

The idea seems to be that we were going in these directions anyhow, and now — under pressure from a pandemic — we’re going to perfect the systems to make them the “new normal.”

Sure, some of the changes we’re experiencing may stick, or at least leave some new preferences and capabilities in their wake once we have a vaccine or treatment. But such grand futurist proclamations seem a bit “rinse and repeat” from my perspective, and overlook a lot of complexity, psychology, and uncomfortable phenomena about companies and people, most of which weren’t anywhere near the path they’re on now.

To me, Covid-19 hasn’t sped things up as much as thrown things into crisis mode. But when these futurists talk, it’s like they’re saying, “Using the life rafts on the Titanic was inevitable — that iceberg just sped things up. Oh, and the band was bound to stop playing at some point, too.”

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For example, it wasn’t inevitable that restaurants would close down, or that pubs and bars would shutter, or that toilet paper would become a hot commodity. It wasn’t inevitable that major professional sports would lose their playoffs, and possibly entire seasons, displacing thousands of workers. It wasn’t inevitable that food banks would be stretched to the limit by a tsunami of poverty. It wasn’t inevitable that parents would become teachers while trying to also work from home and keep their sanity.

If that’s your version of the future, you can have it.

As for blithe comments about things like legal proceedings, education, and gaming moving online at the expense of courts, schools, and stadiums, these just sound out of touch and insensitive to what’s really making people sleepless and anxious — jobs, human connection, and freedom. Most changes are not happening because people wanted these things to move online in a zero-sum manner, but because there are no alternatives currently.

When it comes to working from home, this was not inevitable, either. My wife has worked from home for a large software company for decades, so nothing changed for us. But if working from home was inevitable, why didn’t it happen decades ago, when it became entirely feasible? For many reasons, including the basic one that it’s nice to separate your work life from your personal life. A lot of people like to get out of the house and interact with colleagues on a regular basis, and companies rightly believe personal interactions create positive workplace dynamics. There was nothing inevitable about the past month of work style — it was done under duress.

It seems somewhat likely to me that once the all-clear is blown for people to go back to their offices, you’ll see highways filled with happy campers, escaping their domestic hovels for familiar commutes, favorite office chairs, and gossip over yogurts and bagels. And time away from their domestic selves.

The same for distance learning, especially for younger kids, who need to learn how to socialize as much as anything as they mature, while also benefiting from activities, concerts, sports, and dances.

Futurists are really out of touch if they think a large number of parents or children were looking forward to spending all day together on iPads and laptops taking stodgy online lessons sporting sweatpants and bedheads.

Covid-19 hasn’t sped things up. It’s made things crazy, unpredictable, and hard to manage. It has forced a lifestyle on us that most find frustrating, alienating, and marginal. It may have delivered death blows to many small businesses, including bars, restaurants, nail salons, and startups. It’s not speeding things up. It’s making things crazy.

Trying to force sense on this situation by applying tired old futurist tropes? Please stop. It’s too soon to know how this is going to turn out, and assuming acceleration as the primary effect of a pandemic strikes me as simplistic.

Besides, if you can’t differentiate between chaos and futurism, maybe you need to find a new line of work.


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