Ivan Radic (Flickr/26344495@N05)
As I write on these late days of the summer of 2020, it often feels like our civilization has morphed into a Herman Melville novel in which …
All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick. He piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it.
Who would not be maddened and tormented by the images and stories coming out of intensive care units where Covid-19 patients gasp out their final breaths as loved ones watch remotely, unable even to bid a final farewell? Who hasn’t experienced cracked sinews and caked brains from months of being isolated with our thoughts, our voices masked, our social movements regulated?
As we peer into the distant horizon, the seeing becomes misty, clarity clouded in the fog of uncertainty. What will 2020 mean in 2030? Or 2050? Or 2120? Even that class of seer known as superforecasters, those trained in the dark arts of Bayesian reasoning and big-data analysis, do no better than chance when they look more than five years out. And I’m no superforecaster. Called upon to forecast the future of our civilization, I feel like Will and Ariel Durant, who in their short volume The Lessons of History (1968) began: “It is a precarious enterprise, and only a fool would try to compress a hundred centuries into a hundred pages of hazardous conclusions. We proceed.”
The Before Time and the After Time
In a 1966 episode of Star Trek titled “Miri,” the prepubescent heroine of the story explains to a flummoxed Captain Kirk what happened on her planet in which all the Grups (grownups) were dead, leaving the Onlies (children) to fend for themselves: “That was when they started to get sick in the Before Time. We hid, then they were gone.” According to linguist Ben Zimmer, who has traced the phrase’s etymology, the Before Time often represents a pre-plague world, and the expression has a literary history at least as old as the King James Bible, in which the author of the Book of Samuel writes: “Beforetime in Israel, when a man went to enquire of God, thus he spake, Come, and let us go to the seer: for he that is now called a Prophet was beforetime called a Seer.” The locution has been resurrected in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, as when Atlantic columnist Marina Koren wrote of “the exacerbated sense that the days before the coronavirus swept across the country—the ‘Before Time,’ as many have taken to calling it—feel like a bygone era.”
If there is a Before Time describing a pre-postapocalyptic world, there is also an After Time onto which we may prophesize what happens after the world ends. Although troubling times are often tagged apocalyptic, invoking the complete and final destruction of the world, the word’s original Greek meaning was “revelation,” or “an unveiling or unfolding of things not previously known and which could not be known apart from the unveiling.” It is in this sense that I want to turn toward what this period may unveil, if we can see through the barriers blocking prognostication. There is a reason why, as Yogi Berra quipped, “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” I will mention four.
The first is the availability heuristic, which holds that we assign probabilities of potential outcomes based on examples that are immediately available to us, especially if they are emotionally salient and easy to visualize. Your estimation of the probability of dying in a plane crash, for example, will be directly related to your exposure to stories about air disasters. The second is the negativity bias that directs our attention to threats more than treats, negative stimuli more than positive. The third was identified by Philip Tetlock and Dan Gardner in their 2015 book, Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction, in which most so-called experts were no better than dart-tossing monkeys when their predictions were checked. They were overconfident, encouraged by the lack of feedback on their accuracy (also known as confirmation bias), and, despite the scientific veneer, are victims of all the cognitive biases and illusions that plague the rest of us. The fourth, and arguably the biggest impediment to prediction, is that the world is highly contingent and chaotic, and at certain inflection points, the course of history can be nudged out of one pathway and into another by seemingly small and random events, but these are very difficult to predict.
The question is, are these factors distorting our evaluation of the events of 2020? Does the Covid-19 pandemic constitute a nudge sufficiently powerful to knock society into entirely new pathways, or will it be washed over by the tides of history as we continue on with business as usual?
Most salubrious changes in society come about incrementally through established institutions, not through violent revolution or disruptive upheavals of change. In my 2015 book, The Moral Arc, I tracked centuries of progress in domains ranging from politics to economics, civil rights to criminal justice, war to civility, governance to violent crime, with a number of stops along the way. In nearly every case, the evidence demonstrated that gradual, step-wise problem-solving is by far the most successful strategy in creating a safer and more equitable society. Will that trend continue through this pandemic and into a post-Covid-19 world? Let’s consider the possibilities.
Even the preternaturally prescient Anthony Fauci can’t really say what the pandemic will do. Much depends on how the virus evolves, either mutating into a less virulent strain, or (less likely) an even deadlier variety. So far the virus has exhibited few genetic changes since it first emerged in December 2019, which is good news for vaccine developers. And death rates per infection are declining, which makes sense from an evolutionary perspective, since it’s better for the virus that it not kill its hosts too quickly before they can spread it to other hosts—especially if they are infected but symptom-free for weeks, which also appears to be happening.
If a vaccine is developed, produced, and distributed globally to billions of people within the next 12 to 18 months, as some optimists hope, then it is possible that life could return to relative normality. Good reasons exist to think that this might happen, given the number of government agencies and public and private corporations working on it. Then again, there are plenty of deadly viruses, like HIV, for which there is still no vaccine. Or, as with many flu viruses, this one could mutate periodically, requiring the regular development of new vaccines. Or, the anti-vaccination movement could prevent herd immunity from occurring, thereby permitting the virus to continue its spread indefinitely.
Whatever happens, it appears that SARS-CoV-2, or some variant of that virus, will likely never be fully eliminated, as that rarely happens (smallpox being the exception). But even if it were, so many vectors exist out there for other diseases, potentially far deadlier than Covid-19, that we will still need to implement changes to try to mitigate future outbreaks. What, then, might be in store for us in the near and far future?
Economics and Business
The economy will eventually recover, as has happened after every downturn in history, although there are reasonable concerns that runaway inflation—from printing over $2 trillion in aid—could crater the economy. The amount of money being tossed at this crisis is unprecedented, so the prospect of recovery could be delayed for many years. But will it ruin the economy? I don’t think so. As Adam Smith replied to a friend who worried that American independence might ruin Britain’s economy: “There’s a great deal of ruin in a nation.”
Even without the worst-case scenario of devastating inflation, businesses and entire industries that were already on the margin may never recover, including small colleges and universities without robust endowments, midsize churches and other places of worship, smaller newspapers, magazines, and other media companies, as well as the department stores and other retail outlets that shuttered and never reopened. Although this likely outcome will be disastrous for many of the people directly affected, this is not an altogether bad thing for long-term economic health; it’s Austrian political economist Joseph Schumpeter’s “creative destruction” on steroids, accelerating change that clears the way for new and innovative industries to take root and thrive.
Amazon has already capitalized on this process enthusiastically. When new markets open up, competition steps in, so we could see other online retailers, like Walmart and Target, cutting into Mr. Bezos’s empire, and who knows what new technologies are being developed right now in some entrepreneur’s garage that, in the fullness of time, could become the next Apple, Google, or Amazon. Rarely do monopolies reign for long before innovators step in to challenge their dominance. Meanwhile, abandoned department stores, malls, and other buildings could be converted to warehouses, storage units, fitness facilities, medical centers, museums, and even apartments and condominiums, a process that is already beginning. Of the approximately 1,500 malls built in the United States since the 1950s, about 500 have closed. Sixty others have been remodeled into new types of community spaces, including housing and office space, and another 75 are now in some stage of redevelopment. A former mall in Lakewood, Colorado is a case in point. After it closed in 2000, the city and its development associates converted it into a 22-block development with nine acres of urban parks, 300,000 square feet of office space, and condominiums and apartments that house 2,000 people. Continued mall closings could open up new markets for developers.
Universal basic income (UBI) was largely a fringe idea until Andrew Yang promoted it during his 2020 presidential campaign. At the time, few could conceive of the government dispersing checks to tens of millions of people to supplement their income, but that is exactly what happened only a few weeks after he dropped out of the campaign. Depending on the economic outcome of these relief payments, they may be held up as a model for future federal intervention.
Once travel restrictions are lifted and airlines negotiate the most cost-effective way to keep passengers safe, business travel will bounce back from its current state of near nonexistence. But it will likely never again approach pre-Covid levels. Why schlep your atoms around the world when your virtual self can cover most of what constitutes communication?
The entry and regulatory barriers for teleconferencing and remote communication for both established and new companies servicing this new demand will likely decrease as more of our lives move online. Yes, some business still needs to be conducted face to face, but not much, especially now that business contracts and other legal documents can be signed remotely.
In time, medical personnel and patients—first by necessity, then by desire and demand—will turn even more toward telemedicine, virtual reality, and other online tools. Few people will miss the wasted time and energy of driving to the doctor’s office, checking in, and especially waiting—sometimes for hours—for a consultation that lasts, on average, 17 minutes. Most medical procedures cannot be done remotely, but any relief of the burden at either end of the doctor-patient relationship will surely be welcomed.
Marriage, Dating, Sex, and Home Life
The option to work from home has not been this widespread since medieval craftsmen fashioned shoes and horseshoes in their domiciles. Not only will no one miss sitting in soul-crushing traffic for hours a day, but more time at home and less time on the road could lead to healthier bodies, relationships, and families.
Gender roles could become more fluid and balanced with greater numbers of fathers working from home, giving them more time with their children and allowing for more flexible childcare options for both parents.
Dating has already changed dramatically and some of those changes might stick, such as more careful screening of suitable dating candidates through online dating apps.
As for sex, Millennials were already having less of it than Gen-Xers and Baby Boomers. Thus it is not unreasonable to project that Gen Zers (or iGeners—those born in 1996 or after) will push the trend even further in the direction of greater sexual discretion. Early polling indicates that they are doing just that, along with being more likely to practice safe sex and birth control.
Reading, journaling, meditation, yoga, walking, hiking, cycling, swimming, and other solo activities—all of which are good for physical and mental health and fitness—could increase as temporary trends become habits.
More time at home means more home improvement, from maintenance to remodeling, thereby continuing the DIY movement, along with helping to fill the coffers of big chains like Home Depot and Lowe’s.
More at-home time could also mean more take-out, pick-up, and home delivery of meals that could not only bolster the bottom line of struggling restaurants, but also relieve the daily grind of meal preparation.
Entertainment, Travel, and Vacations
Bars, restaurants, night clubs, sports stadiums, theaters, and other high-social density entertainment venues may continue practicing reasonable hygienic measures without too much push-back from customers, although “tight cultures” like Germany and Japan will have an easier time of it than “loose cultures” like Italy and the United States, where citizens are less inclined to follow norms in times of crisis, as tracked by the cultural psychologist Michele Gelfand and amply demonstrated in several states with disastrous results during the summer of 2020.
Airbnb rentals could continue to increase and staycations may become even more popular as people explore their local environs, which could also enhance the quality and maintenance of local public gardens, parks, and recreation spaces. The 650-percent increase in RV rentals during the pandemic could also rejuvenate this slagging industry at all levels of the supply chain.
Movie theaters could go the way of drive-in theaters, whose appeal began to wane in the 1970s as home entertainment systems grew in popularity. Today, with a plethora of cheap online streaming services and high-definition, big-screen TVs, why leave home to sit in a crowded theater with coughing and sneezing strangers? Microwave popcorn is just as tasty as the theater variety and a lot cheaper. And wouldn’t you know it? Drive-in theaters are making a comeback around the country as people seek to get out of the house while remaining safely ensconced in their cars.
Educational institutions, along with the students and parents who support them, may continue to adopt many of the existing online technologies that help transfer knowledge from one mind to many. After the mid-March shutdown, I recorded the rest of my Chapman University lectures on scientific thinking and made them publicly available for anyone to watch. Why pay tens of thousands of dollars to Harvard when you can take Steven Pinker’s course on rationality for free? With thousands of other free online university courses developed over the past decade (e.g., MOOCs), plus for-profit educational businesses like The Great Courses, and the many popular podcasts from which to choose, becoming an autodidact has never been easier or cheaper.
Not all education can be conducted online: lab classes will need to be done in person, and videoconference discussions for seminars are no substitute for in-class conversations that ricochet around the room guided by nonverbal cues. So expect some hybrid classroom models to develop.
The bloated budgets and corresponding tuition hikes of higher education might finally be curtailed as disgruntled students (and parents) vote with their dollars for more economical choices. College tuition has increased faster than almost anything over the past half century. The reasons include a spike in demand over the decades (now waning for demographic reasons), a greater need for financial aid, a decline in state funding for public colleges and universities, and ever-swelling administrative and student services staffs. Under pressure from many sides both pre- and post-Covid, the academy will have to trim some of the fat off that brisket.
Politics and Society
The practice of U.S. senators and representatives conducting congressional business remotely will not only better serve the people they represent, but reduce the governmental waste spent on travel, housing, and all the rest that goes into the current system. That Congress is struggling to make this transition is indicative of a system designed in the 18th century. Perhaps the nefarious effects of lobbying will be attenuated when congressmen are not so readily accessible.
It’s time for electronic voting. Trillions of dollars are transacted electronically every year, and although fraud exists, it isn’t enough to force businesses to revert to using paper. Signed ballots? No problem. If you can secure a loan, buy a home, invest in a business, wire money, and buy and sell stocks online, surely casting a vote in an election should be child’s play for security programmers. If Russian and Chinese hackers have not been able to tank the U.S. economy, our elections should be safe, assuming we invest in upgrading our electronic voting systems to the high standards used in business.
Political polarization seemed to decrease for the first couple of months of the pandemic, but as the November presidential election returned to our newsfeeds, we slipped back to where we were at the end of 2019—peak polarization. People and nations sometimes become more united when confronting a common enemy, as the English did during the Nazi Blitz. It remains to be seen if Covid-19 will bring us closer together or drive us farther apart, but so far the signs are discouraging. Time (and the next election) may tell.
A healthier balance between individual freedom and collective action could develop. Many Americans seem to think that wearing a mask infringes on their freedom, although they don’t seem to object to being forced to drive on the right side of the highway, or to restaurants requiring them to wear shoes and shirts for service. The freedom to swing your fist ends at my nose. You’re free to smoke but you are not free to blow it in my face. You’re free to risk contracting Covid-19, but you’re not free to put me at risk. As Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and other pioneers of the social contract explained centuries ago, all of civil society is a tradeoff in which we give up freedom for security.
Gun sales have spiked during Covid-19. Americans purchased 1.9 million firearms in March—the second highest number ever—as fears increased that the pandemic could lead to civil unrest. This will likely abate as panic subsides. Nevertheless, gun violence remains a problem in the United States—one that won’t go away any time soon, and may even become worse, if the spike in gun-related homicides of many U.S. cities is any indication.
Personal and Public Health
Handshakes are out and will likely remain so, replaced by fist bumps, elbow taps, and maybe even noncontact greetings like the Japanese bow or the yogi “namaste.” This is a cost-free, easy-to-implement change that may reduce the number of common colds, flus, and other communicable diseases that we all experience and could further a trend, recently documented, in which the average human body temperature has decreased over the past century and a half. Say what?
In January 2020, researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine published a study adjusting the old standard of 98.6 Fahrenheit, established by the German physician Carl Reinhold August Wunderlich in 1868, to the new lower figure of 97.9 Fahrenheit. The researchers concluded that the shift is not due to measurement-error corrections but rather reflect a true historical pattern of changes in our environment and lifestyle over the past 157 years. Our bodies are getting cooler, according to the study, because we’re getting sick less often:
Economic development, improved standards of living and sanitation, decreased chronic infections from war injuries, improved dental hygiene, the waning of tuberculosis and malaria infections, and the dawn of the antibiotic age together are likely to have decreased chronic inflammation since the 19th century.
Paradoxically, then, it is possible that Covid-19 will make us even healthier—and cooler—than at any time in our plague-riddled history.
It may seem overly melioristic to spin so many changes in a positive direction while Covid-19 continues to ravage populations, filling the country’s ICUs and morgues. But with history as our guide and rational superforecasting as our method, what I have outlined here may not be entirely off the mark. I, for one, choose to adopt a posture of cautious optimism and look forward to a better future in which we will have learned from the misery of today.
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Michael Shermer is the publisher of Skeptic magazine, a presidential fellow at Chapman University, the host of the Science Salon podcast, and the author of a number of books, including Why People Believe Weird Things, The Mind of the Market, The Believing Brain, The Moral Arc, Heavens on Earth, and Giving the Devil His Due.