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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The photos of brutalist sandcastles accompanying this week's link roundup made me both smile and really miss care-free walks on the beach. Although technically we're still allowed to visit the coast, our local council has closed nearby car parks.
This week I've been busy, busy, but managed to squeeze in a bit of non-fiction reading, the best of which I'm sharing below. Oh, and one link that I can' really quote is UnblockIt which was shared via our team chat this week. If your ISP filters certain sites, you might want to bookmark it...
In this article, we summarise and synthesise various - often opposing - views about how the world might change. Clearly, these are speculative; no-one knows what the future will look like. But we do know that crises invariably prompt deep and unexpected shifts, so that those anticipating a return to pre-pandemic normality may be shocked to find that many of the previous systems, structures, norms and jobs have disappeared and will not return.
I'm going to return to this article time and again, as it breaks down in a really helpful way what's likely to happen post-pandemic in the following areas: political, economic, sociocultural, technological, legal, and environmental.
I’m attempting to be pragmatic. I think this is one of those times where we should hope for the best but plan for the worst. Crucially, I think that a terrifying number of people are in denial about the timescales of disruption that Covid-19 will cause, and this is causing them to make horrible personal and professional decisions. I believe that we have a responsibility to consider any reasonably likely worst case scenario, and take appropriate steps to mitigate it. But to do that we have to be honest about the worst case.
It's hard to disagree with the points made in this post, especially as the scenario planning that universities are doing seems to point in the same direction. Having said that, I don't think 'lockdown' will mean the same thing everywhere and at each stage of the pandemic.
For centuries, people used religion as a defence mechanism, believing that they would exist for ever in the afterlife. Now people sometimes switch to using science as an alternative defence mechanism, believing that doctors will always save them, and that they will live for ever in their apartment. We need a balanced approach here. We should trust science to deal with epidemics, but we should still shoulder the burden of dealing with our individual mortality and transience.
The present crisis might indeed make many individuals more aware of the impermanent nature of human life and human achievements. Nevertheless, our modern civilisation as a whole will most probably go in the opposite direction. Reminded of its fragility, it will react by building stronger defences. When the present crisis is over, I don’t expect we will see a significant increase in the budgets of philosophy departments. But I bet we will see a massive increase in the budgets of medical schools and healthcare systems.
Yuval Noah Harari
Some amazing writing, as ever, by Harari, who argues that, because our secular societies focus on the here and now rather than the afterlife, science has almost become a religion.
We incur emotional debt whenever there’s an experience we’ve had, but not fully digested in all aspects of it. In my trauma therapy training I learned that this is in fact a natural and important human survival skill. Imagine you’re living in a pre-historic village and it gets raided by a neighboring tribe. Although no one gets killed, a number of houses have been burned down and food has been stolen. The next morning the most important tasks for everyone are to protect the village again, rebuild the houses and hunt for food to survive. Many of the villagers will have been deeply traumatized from the fears and terror they experienced in their bodies. Since food and shelter takes first priority to humans, not processing these emotions for now is a debt that’s necessary and important to incur. We can put it aside and leave it stuck in our bodies, ready to reengage and digest it later. It’s a great survival feature if you will.
A couple of weeks later when everything has been rebuilt, there might be a chance for the local shaman to offer a ritual around the fireplace where everyone can gather and re-experience the emotions that were too difficult to deal with at the actual event of the raid: the rage and anger towards the attackers, the fear and the terror over their lives and eventually the grief for the loss of their goods and most importantly their safety. Once that has been felt and integrated, everyone is able to move on and the night of the village raid can safely go into the history books, fairy tales and heroes journey accounts that luckily everyone survived, yet learned from.
While this is framed in terms of startups, I think every organisation has 'emotional debt' that they have to deal with. I like this framing, and will be using it from now on to explain why teams need times of compression and decompression (instead of never-ending 'sprints').
Recognize that the pressure you apply is a reaction to a construct of control. You think you can control people – and things – and the reality is you can’t. The quicker you can realize this, the sooner you can shift to a frame of mind where you can focus constructively on the things that actually help your team, such as: (1) Making it clear why the work matters (2) Creating milestones to help that person achieve that work (3) Giving as much context as possible so they can make the best decisions (4) Helping them think through tough problems they encounter.
I've led a remote team for a couple of years now, and worked remotely for six years before that. Despite this, it's easy to fall into bad habits, so this is a useful article to remind all leaders (most of whom are remote now!) that the amount of time someone spends on something does not equate to progress made.
But the bigger picture is this: it creates a platform for contact tracing that works all across the globe for most modern smart phones (Android Marshmallow and up, and iOS 13 capable devices) across both OS platforms. Unless appropriate safeguards are in place (including, but not limited to, the design of the system as described above – we will discuss this more below) this would create a global mass-surveillance system that would reliably track who has been in contact with whom, at what time and for how long. (And where, if GPS is used to record the location.) GACT works much more reliably and extensively than any other system based on either GPS or mobile phone location data (based on cell towers) would be able to (under normal conditions). I want to stress this point because some people have responded to this threat saying that this is something companies like Google (using their GPS and WiFi names based location history tool) can already do for years. This is not the case. This type of contact tracing really brings it to another level.
This, by a professor in the Netherlands who focuses on 'privacy by design' is why I'm really concerned about the Google/Apple Contact Tracing (GACT) programme. It's only likely to be of marginal help in fighting the virus, but sets up a global surveillance network for decades to come.
Year in and year out, when school’s in, children know that they are to be at certain places at certain times, doing particular tasks in particular ways. And now, weeks loom ahead where they are faced with many of the same tasks, absent of all the pomp and circumstance. This is the ultimate zombie apocalypse nightmare—a pandemic has hit the world with a mighty force, schools and tuition centers are shut, and homework is still due. Children are adaptable creatures, but it will be challenging for many, if not most, to do all that they are expected to do under these altered conditions.
I was attracted to this article by its great title, but it's actually an interesting insight into both education in a Singaporean context and the gendered nature of care in our societies.
As cash transfers are increasingly seen as the ideal way to confront the magnitude of the coronavirus threat, it is unclear whether our political imagination is truly up to the task. The current crisis might accelerate rather than decrease our dependency on the market, strengthening capital’s grip on society. Large-scale public works are evidently unfeasible with physical distancing. But, with a clear medical equipment shortage and lacking trained personnel, there is obvious space for public planning responses, and “production for use value” seems ever more necessary. None of these ills will be solved by cash transfers.
Anton Jäger & Daniel Zamora
This, in the Los Angeles Review of Books, considers a new work by Peter Sloman entitled The Idea of a Guaranteed Income and the Politics of Redistribution in Modern Britain. Having previously been cautiously optimistic about Universal Basic Income (or 'cash transfers') I'm not so sure it would all work out so well. I'd rather we funded things like the NHS, but then that might be my white male privilege speaking.
I first found the poster in 2000, folded up at the bottom of a box of books we had bought at an auction. I liked it straight away and showed it to my wife Mary – she had it framed and put up in the shop. The next thing we found was that customers wanted to buy it. I suggested we make copies but Mary said: “No, it’ll spoil the purity.” She went away for a week’s holiday, so I secretly got 500 copies made.
Stuart Manley (interviewed by malcolm jack)
This ridiculously-famous poster was discovered in a wonderful second-hand bookshop not too far away from us, and which we visit several times per year. I love the story behind it.