Tim O’Reilly is a funny character. Massively talented and influential, but his political views (broadly right libertarian) seem to mean he miss things when he’s neverththeless heading in the right direction.

In a long article published recently, O’Reilly introduces his readers to scenario planning from a very US-centric point of view. It’s also a position that, on first reading at least, is a bit techno-solutionist.

He starts by explaining that just because we date decades and centuries a particular way (“the 90s”, “the twentieth century”) it’s actually cataclysmic events that define the start and end of eras:

So, when you read stories—and there are many—speculating or predicting when and how we will return to “normal”, discount them heavily. The future will not be like the past. The comfortable Victorian and Georgian world complete with grand country houses, a globe-spanning British empire, and lords and commoners each knowing their place, was swept away by the events that began in the summer of 1914 (and that with Britain on the “winning” side of both world wars.) So too, our comfortable “American century” of conspicuous consumer consumption, global tourism, and ever-increasing stock and home prices may be gone forever.

Tim O’Reilly, Welcome to the 21st Century: How To Plan For The Post-Covid Future

For me, the 21st century began on September 11th, 2001 with the twin towers attack. The aftermath of that, including the curtailing of our civil liberties in the west, has been a defining feature of the century so far.

O’Reilly, however, points to the financial crisis:

Our failure to make deep, systemic changes after the financial collapse of 2009, and our choice instead to spend the last decade cutting taxes and spending profusely to prop up financial markets while ignoring deep, underlying problems has only made responding to the current crisis that much more difficult. Our failure to build back creatively and productively from the global financial crisis is necessary context for the challenge to do so now.

Tim O’Reilly, Welcome to the 21st Century: How To Plan For The Post-Covid Future

All of these things compound one another, with financial uncertainty leading to political instability, and the election of populist leaders. That meant we were less prepared for the pandemic than we could have been, and when it hit, we’ve suffered (in the UK and US at least) from an incompetent response.

I recently finished reading A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century by Barbara E. Tuchman, which discusses at length something that O’Reilly picks up on:

If you are a student of history, you know that the massive reduction of the workforce in post-Black Death Europe forced lords to give better terms of tenure—serfdom all but disappeared, and the rise of a mercantile middle class set the stage for the artistic and scientific progress of the Renaissance. Temporary, but catastrophic, events often usher in permanent economic changes. Sometimes the changes appear to be reversed but it just takes time for them to stick. World War II brought women into the workforce, and then victory ushered them back out. But the wine of opportunity, once tasted, was not left undrunk forever.

Tim O’Reilly, Welcome to the 21st Century: How To Plan For The Post-Covid Future

I’m hoping, like O’Reilly, that there are silver linings that come out of the pandemic related to climate change. Unlike him, I don’t think the answer is more consumption. As an article I shared recently points out, not only can we not have billionaires and solve climate change, but the whole edifice of over-consumption needs to collapse under its own weight.