In this episode of Breaking Smart podcast, I want to explore what it means to say that Covid has accelerated everything. If so, it means we’ve done some time travel relative the old timeline. As the cryogenic lab tech said to Philip J. Fry on Futurama, when he landed in the year 2999, welcome to the world of tomorrow!
1/ Let’s set the stage a bit. We’re now in the early days of post-Covid for at least some people, in some parts of the world. We don’t yet know how costly the endemic management problem will be, in terms of treatment, vaccination, fatality prevention, and surveillance, but it feels like we have one foot out of the tunnel now.
2/ I don’t know about you, but I personally feel a bit like Fry in the pilot of Futurama. Right after he is greeted with “Welcome to the world of tomorrow!” he is assessed to determine what sort of “career chip” should be implanted in him, because in the bureaucratic future, everybody has a career determined for them.
3/ The joke is, he is assessed to be best fit to the job of “delivery boy,” the same job he hated in 1999, so he runs away from the career assessment officer, Leela. As it happens, by the end of the pilot, he ends up a delivery boy anyway, but with an illegal career chip, but is happy about it because he gets to work on a spaceship and has new friends.
4/ I hope to get my vaccine within the next few weeks, and the idea reminds me of the idea of Futurama career chip, including vaccine hesitancy. In many ways, this is not far wrong, what with all the talk of vaccine passports, green zones, and so on your vaccine status might shape your career. Unlike Fry, I don’t want to run from the career chip. I don’t have career chip hesitancy. I’m kinda looking forward to reinventing my life in ways that I didn’t expect to till 2031.
5/ Even the idea of a very bureaucratic future is not wrong. Given the amount of fiscal stimulus, the effects of new geopolitics with China, and vaccine nationalism, the role of states everywhere has become radically stronger. Like it or not, the world of tomorrow has governments everywhere getting more into your business, not less. Not least because governments effectively own a lot of assets through the loans they have provided for bailouts and stimulus.
6/ So the vaccine can be considered philosophically like a career chip for a new life in a future we’ve time traveled to, and are still getting used to. One of the signs for me has been that my Twitter feed, which is my main sense-making media feed these days, feels mis-tuned, and I’m re-tuning it. It feels like wearing glasses with the wrong prescription. Everything is a little blurry and distorted.
7/ Okay, so we’re in the future, and like Fry and other time travelers, one of our first questions should be, what year is it? Obviously, no provable answer is possible to this question, since we can’t actually run a believable no-Covid simulation. The new timeline might not even be comparable at all to the old one, because qualitatively different sets of things are happening or not happening. Maybe we’ve gone sideways rather than leaped forwards. Some parts of the world have definitely gone backwards.
8/ I do think the idea of an acceleration is well-posed though, and that we do overall have a forward acceleration rather than a sideways or backwards leap. I’m just going to propose 2031 as a strawman answer to what year it is, with the caveat that you shouldn’t anchor on it. The point of pretending we’ve time traveled 10 years in 1 year is to break old habits of thought and reorient. So how do we do that?
9/ One way to think of this is as a weighted average of trends by acceleration. So for example, if vaccines jumped ahead 20 years, but other kinds of medicine stayed the same, and public health for pandemics is 50% of all healthcare by cost, then you cou