Last year, without meaning to, I predicted the future. That was less strange than it seems, since I am a futurist. You could say I was expected to.
However, most postmodern futurists these days speak in scenarios of possibilities and not in terms of prophecies. It is both safer for job security, since the future will prove itself soon enough, more realistic, and as a bonus, even a bit more fun. So, I restrained myself for almost 300 pages, but in the last chapter I relented. What I said was this: the pandemic will last for a decade, but its ultimate consequences will last forever. That was almost true. It might.
At the time, most people assumed the pandemic would go away by the end of the year. At the very least, many experts assumed it would go away the second we got a vaccine out, although many were surprised at the speed in which it was developed, and then surprised at the slow rollout.
Neither was particularly surprising to me. Not because we were not prepared, because contrary to what the media repeatedly claims, there have been many pandemic exercises. Leaving aside the fact that these pandemic exercises were poorly executed and often limited to small groups of experts, I’d rather dwell on the fact that, in a certain sense, we were too prepared. We thought a lot about it and were pretty certain what would happen, or so we thought. Each of us had become so insular in our thinking that we failed to consider those outside our own line of thinking. That’s actually more dangerous than thinking about the wrong things. As a result:
The media thought they had the tools to shame the politicians to transparently shepherd us out of any predicament, but found that politicians are no match for decisions whose consequences will outlast their tenure. You can criticize all you want but if nobody has the solution, it doesn’t help.
The journalistic profession can be an empty shell, too, because they either speak from an obviously biased position or to the degree they have no discernible bias, seem to have no ethical fibre to back them up at all. That’s perhaps what fake news really is: hiding behind a position as opposed to taking a position and defending it or indeed hiding your true position.
The business leaders thought they could trade on the crisis, hedge, and balance interests, only to discover that where there previously were winners, there were none. The reason is that contrary to what capitalism’s early proponents claimed, markets are created and often enabled more by inefficiencies than by efficiencies. Once efficiency occurs, or becomes the main obsession, markets cease to be particularly interesting. Many healthcare markets suffer from that reality.
The people thought they could decide for themselves which facts mattered, only to discover that some facts, such as vaccine and mask science, do matter more than others. Those who, on the other hand, were too convinced of facts, discovered that they were more totalitarian than they thought, and now have to live with that realization. In fact, the pandemic has been the death of closet libertarians. That’s actually a great loss and will take time to recover from.
The scientists thought they could engineer our way out of this, without being sufficiently aware that engineering takes time and must consider design constraints inherent to safeguarding life, ensuring natural variation, but also maintaining human freedoms of choice. Those boundary conditions are not controlled by the field of science nor by the field of engineering.
As I write these words, despite the looming Delta variant, and others, it may seem like science has won. However, this is just the first battle. I think we have too much confidence in science right now. Unless we have too little, of course, and some of us do. Both might lead to our downfall.
When we exercise our craft within too constrained boundaries, we don’t improve, we only get more convinced we are right. So let’s expand the scope.
The pandemic was not just an event
At first, my book was censored by the distributor who must have thought publishing it was too risky. When I pointed out that censorship was even riskier, they relented. Then, I was ignored by the mainstream media, who must have thought I was a nut, but not a big enough nut to feature, and there were many candidates. I actually agree with that choice. Last year, my book Pandemic Aftermath was kind of weird. This year, however, is different, but I digress.
Lastly, I was ignored even by my own tribe, my friends and even some of my family, who thought I was exaggerating the impact of this one event. I understand. My reasoning was counter-intuitive. I was thinking in terms of decades, generations, and centuries. I was considering the past, present, and future. Perhaps my luck, but the broad sweeping nature of covid-19 prevailed, and so did a lot of the structure of my argument. That should scare all of us.
However, in my defense, I have never analysed this, or any pandemic as a singular event. As a macro level thinker, I see it as the start of a chain of connected events where the futurist’s challenge simply is to time the most important intersections with history, in the hope of determining where we could attempt to redirect it ever so slightly.
My perspective is steeped in technology, particularly in the recent advances in digitalization. I have developed an acute awareness that the consequences of digital shifts are difficult to comprehend, even for experts, perhaps particularly for experts, in fact. What it clearly does is add velocity to the process, which is dangerous because velocity limits simultaneous comprehension. Technological progress, if it is true progress, can only be determined after the fact, and does not fix everything. Many times, it creates another problem. My other predisposition is a solid dose of skepticism towards easy and early results from scientific endeavors, an activity I both immensely respect and fear for its hyperbole.
Seven claims and one solution
I wrote the first in-depth work on the Covid-19 pandemic and published it in May 2020, well over fifteen months ago. In the 433-page book, a careful mix of facts and fiction, where part one was non-fiction and part two were fictional scenarios, with a normative conclusion, written over a five-week seclusion in my attic during the lockdown, I make a set of claims, not all equally successful, but let me here focus on the ones I think still have some validity.
Human history has seen three major pandemics
First, I claim that this pandemic is only comparable in history to the Black Death and the 1918 Spanish flu. The first remains to be seen but the Spanish flu is already eclipsed, at least in one geography. Today marks Covid-19 becoming the deadliest disease event in American history, surpassing the 1918 Spanish flu, and it’s only just beginning. I feel no particular pleasure at this milestone, but I do want to point out the things that I wrote about that are yet to unfold which are directly related to this first juxtaposition.
Variation is what kills us and yet also what keeps us alive
The main reason for my fear that Covid-19 would become so significant was a calculation based on the probability that variants of the virus could get out of control combined with my analysis of the (lack) of a cohesive global public health approach to contain it. To make matters worse, there has not been even one effective national health strategy that others could safely mirror if it proved successful.
Explanation one, that didn’t work because people and places are too different. Islands (the UK, New Zealand) are different from landlocked territories (Uganda, Switzerland). Superpowers are different and antagonistic, China is not the US, and few approaches work across the two.
That holds for small states, too. Trusty Scandinavians cannot be handled the way rule-abiding Singaporeans are.
Explanation two, that didn’t work because we haven’t yet found a public health strategy that works for covid-19. Perhaps not, but it does not seem like we have really tried. Scientists are doing their experiments but societies are not systematically experimenting or learning much from policy choices. The two spheres don’t coincide much and that’s an issue.
Although I made my reasoning slightly more complicated in the book, we now know nearly for certain that the rest is largely derived from those two factors alone, variants and culture.
Ironically, of course, variation is also what keeps us alive. The next virus variant might become the next cure for a different disease.
Cultural variability ensures future innovation. Cultivate sameness, and society crumbles over time.
We mess too much with either of those two at our peril. Conversely, we leave them alone, and they could become incommensurable with life itself or at least with togetherness.
You would be shocked to realize how few people sit up at night thinking of the post-Covid-world (we will soon be there, because the next decade is not far away) as an emerging system you can plan for and soon learn from. Or, at least, they are not sharing the results of their thinking in digestible form. Sorry, syndicated columnists, apologies bloggers, it’s simply not happening.
The poor and the misinformed die young
Second, I point out that most of the people who will die are poor and their only mistake is that they live in the wrong place at the wrong time. What I don’t say, but now can point out because it is glaringly obvious, is that people seduced by anti-science also disproportionately are dying, regardless where they live or what they earn. You could say they are dying because of extraordinarily poor leadership or followership skills, both can be detrimental. That’s in and of itself a set of contradictions we should stop and reflect around. It goes counter to most established ethical frameworks and common-sense understandings of how things work. In some societies, saying the above is some sort of cultural treason and certainly amounts to social suicide. Well, I’m past that.
Democracy is supposed to be fair to all. Opinions shouldn’t kill. There are laws against that. Values should be discussed not felt in lifespan results.
In a very real sense, the pandemic was simultaneously a devastating physiological disease and an unfortunate social construction. I can now go as far as to say that the rise in misinformation was what created the pandemic, not the zoonotic spillover. The latter we might have been able to take care of, short term at least.
But pandemic paranoia can also kill because it creates resentment. Too many complex and ever changing rules create friction. Why did we forget the basic lessons of public health communication during this pandemic?
Megacities destruct and renew us
Third, I mention that megacities will be difficult to live in for quite a while. I even point out which cities will be hit hardest, based on their relative lack of health governance and population density. Why people did not immediately move out of megacities was indeed initially a mystery to me, although some did. New York, at least temporarily, lost some wealthy commuters, and upstate gained some long-term renters. Most of them, however, moved to climate-challenged Texas or California, another seemingly meaningless choice.
It only makes sense when you consider that humans are social beings, even when we make the choice to exit from our own circumstances. We thrive on being together. We crave the opportunities that togetherness fosters: community, markets, and paradoxically, individuality based on a rehearsed awareness of what truly stands out from the crowd.
We seek our own destruction because it is there that we can be reminded of who we truly wish to become. Schumpeter called it creative destruction. But gathering millions in cities, hundreds of thousands in stadiums, or even hundreds in densely packed basement night clubs feels wrong. I wonder for how long? And will the feeling change anything? I think not.
On the other hand, when some things change, they change for real.
There is no new normal since the nation state no longer protects us
Fourth, I counter the notion that things will ever return to normal, because there are path dependencies that will lead us down certain avenues based on mistrust and self-isolation that affect certain nations or particular socio-economic groups more than others. Cultural resistance occurs as ingrained habits cannot always be backtracked or reversed. The only silver lining would be to embrace the global social conscience, but even that mentality is fraught with pitfalls unless it is approached with a mindset that nothing will ever be the same.
The days of the nation state are perhaps now counted. Why? First off, because they no longer keep us safe. If they did, we would not yet object. But they didn’t, and so, we should.
What we need to practice as a human race, under any conditions, is compassion. What we now can expect, at best, is a compassionate dismantling of the rules that have governed capitalist society since we created territories based on a notion that where you live should matter to what resources you can choose to delegate to an elected class.
But, alas, people in power seldom freely give it away. Establishing even ever slightly altered notions of what democracy or empowerment might mean in the pandemic aftermath is fraught with danger. Is this person or group threatening us? Are they a destabilizing force? The new normal is likely not all that new and not that normal. Instead, it will be a mix of new and old, and it will be a hybrid reality, not just an adjustment. As a result, the powers that be will feel pressure to assert themselves. This won’t be pretty.
Experts don’t have the answer to meaning and governance
Fifth, I argue that misinformation will often prevail and make matters worse, but that the alternative, to leave everything to the experts, also has a significant downside in terms of the democratic deficit. The hardest thing to tackle in this pandemic is to grasp the meaning of what’s happening, not the facts, which soon enough become painfully apparent.
Human augmentation must safeguard touch
Sixth, I indicate that augmented reality technologies will be heavily invested in. Yet, I’m skeptical that remote work will completely take over, due to my PhD work two decades earlier, indicating that no matter how advanced the technology, human face-to-face relationships are likely to prevail in matters of life, death, and money. I believe that we need to safeguard the sense and value of human touch against all these changes, because the post-touch society would be abominable.
We are losing nature
Seventh, I argue that we eventually, within the next generation alone, will lose nature as we know it, and the natural world will, by itself, start to fade away. This will likely be the result of our virtual creations starting to dominate and the natural world deteriorating, becoming diseased, and dangerous to interact with or otherwise less desirable than virtual interaction by comparison.
Preventing pandemics is the easy part
Finally, I argue that the way to prevent such a pandemic having similarly devastating effects in the future is fairly simple. We need to either slow globalization or decide to accelerate it massively, or counter-intuitively, do both as an A/B test to see which works better.
Either way, we need to build health security more evenly across the globe. We need to deploy technology to monitor contagion. We also need to develop a strategy for intermittency, knowing how to both lock down and open up highly specific territories and to communicate clearly and fairly why and under which conditions each will happen–and with ways to voice concerns.
We also need to start mapping systemic risks to society in terms of probabilities that are openly communicated to people. The results of all this new activity will be liberating and will yield something new.
We are heading towards a renaissance
In fact, I am fairly certain that the pandemic will bring us towards a new Renaissance, just like the Black Death ushered us out of the Middle Ages and the frenzied 1920s brought us the blender, water skis, televisions, vacuum cleaners, cheese burger, and penicillin. For those who want to go back and read Pandemic Aftermath, I have a full 300 pages of scenarios and only 30 pages of predictions. Both will give you plenty to think about, guaranteed.
I’m afraid I was, initially, misconstrued as being hyperbolic. At the time, that would be a fair assessment. Nevertheless, given the particular tea leaves I was reading, which were all based on observations of the five forces of disruption in technology, government, business, and social dynamics, and the signs were all around us, I was fairly sure I was not hyperbolic. In fact, I provided five scenarios as to how the pandemic would unfold.
I’m not going to cover all these five scenarios. They can be found in the book and elsewhere. Instead, let me point out the scary part:
We are heading straight towards the worst case scenario
Initially, we were heading for one of the intermediate scenarios, where there were good and bad baked in. Now, things are different. Depending which country you look at it from, it may not look like it at the moment, but in my estimation, we are now heading for the worst of the five scenarios I charted out—that of Hobbesian chaos, and I believe I should re-state why and what that means.
It does not, for example, mean that the world is going to end. We are not there yet. What it does mean is some sort of renewal through catharsis, where institutions will be challenged and new winners and losers will emerge. Not everywhere, not at the same time, and not the usual suspects. Prepare to be surprised.
In brief, due to having ignored even the most basic opportunities to collaborate, we are, yet again moving to a phase of extreme survival of the fittest in which the secondary, or derived events will become much more consequential than the pandemic itself. I’m thinking of wars, famines, hurricanes, and various man-made environmental disasters that will be far more devastating than they would have been had they occurred as standalone events. The ultimate consequence, in some places on the planet will, undoubtedly, we can say at this point, be the collapse of civil society, and most certainly, the collapse of the natural world.
The pandemic may only last for a decade, but its ultimate consequences will last forever—unless we take action, and even then, who knows if we can stop all of the downside. But we might want to try. What actions, you ask? I’ve written a new book, Health Tech, that hopefully contains part of the solution to the problem of the next decade not turning into forever, at least on the health side of the equation. The environmental part will be covered in one of my upcoming books.
Health systems across the world need to reboot, with private partnerships and new governance paradigms that have global reach but local legitimacy, but exactly how can this be done considering the collective action problem and complexity involved?
Health Tech: rebooting society’s software, hardware and mindset, will be published by Routledge on Nov 11, 2021, and is available in pre-order now.