What if Covid doesn’t change us?
I reject the prophecy of a post-Covid society locked up in small-town homes watching the world via Zoom. I hope the effect will only persist for another couple of years, then evaporate.
A disturbing fact is that due to “our imperfect knowledge about the imperfect coronavirus immune landscape” we still do not know for sure how long the pandemic will last in its current form.
And we do not know what consequences it will have in the various countries.
And due to global interdependence we cannot calculate the effects of such consequences.
Despite such looming uncertainty, I still think that by 2025 a sense of liberation and of being born again will repopulate cities and make us forget what happened, as our ancestors did exactly a century ago.
Today’s vision, prevailing in the tech sector, that post-Covid offices and cities alike will never be the same again relies on a few unproven assumptions and on a conviction that the pandemic has taught us a lot and once we get past it we will better the world.
Do we always learn from mistakes?
However, mankind does not learn easily from mistakes. For example:
- Systemic financial risk, a worldwide refrain for five years after Lehman Brothers’ collapse in 2008, is at about the same level as then;
- We did not believe that SARS (2002-2004) could repeat itself in a much worse guise: just a handful of countries out of 200 did show some preparation in 2020;
- In January 2020 we did not believe that what we were viewing via tv in China was going to soon replicate in the West.
Sometimes we humans learn collectively. Most of the time, we don’t.
Likewise, I believe (hope?) that
Covid19 will not change office work radically in the long term. However, it will inject some robustness thanks to more flexibility due to work-from-anywhere.
At least in the affluent world, Covid19 will not transform cities or society for longer than 5 years. (And almost two have elapsed).
Food for thought
In addition to getting to know if the new coronavirus is really manageable without more catastrophic societal consequences, over the next two or three years we will get a better grasp of issues like the following:
- Is work-from-anywhere really more productive than the office? We do not know. In today’s economy, knowledge worker’s productivity, especially at the small-cohort level, is a term as easily uttered as it is arduous to define and measure;
- Worse yet, there is no proof that technically-mediated remote cooperation is a quality substitute for live cooperation, other than in special situations. Nobody knows which is better for many specific jobs, let alone in general. We hear (mostly-biased) anecdotes but we lack scientific accounts and there surely is no consensus, which will take years to develop;
I am also unaware of a consensus among either psychologists or psychiatrists or neuroscientists or sociologists on what motivates people to leave home and go to work, or stay. ‘Quality of life’ is a more complex function than being flexible in doing the laundry or walking the dog. There are more psychological factors at play, in terms of family and social relations.
(If the example means anything, the remote/flexible schooling year that just went by is considered a disaster by students worldwide);
- Hopes of lowering pollution via telecommuting may be simplistic. There is debate as to whether work-from-home or remote schooling actually reduces pollution and/or greenhouse gas emissions. Many if not most urban planners consider cities as more energetically and ecologically efficient than a dispersed population of the same magnitude and wealth;
- Above a certain threshold (say, >15% of employees spending more time away than in the office), work-from-home/anywhere would initiate a tertiarization of employment, with unforeseeable consequences on the fabric of the economy, where firms exist to minimize costs. This is another subject needing deeper analysis than rushed and monotonous coronavirus instant books.
Death of Manhattan, San Francisco, etc.
Can the internet modify geography? Plausibly, it will. To degrees unimaginable today. But not in a mere quarter-century, the time that people have been using the web and other internet applications so far.
Most of the roads in Europe are still the same web developed during the Roman Empire. And “a person can navigate New York City almost perfectly with a fifty-year-old map”: read The Commuting Principle That Shaped Urban History, on Bloomberg.
Having worked-from-anywhere since 1991 does not make me a subject matter expert: as I think I showed you, the spectrum of the required competencies is vast.
I just have a feeling that for a couple more years we will act as if the world had forever changed, only to find out by 2024 that we want the older version back. The rebirth of less fortunate countries could take a longer time.
I may be wrong, especially due to that disturbing uncertainty of which above. But
If you are about to bet money or your personal well-being on how society will look like in 2025, think twice. And only do act if you are used to the trade-offs between risk and reward.