What’s coming? What’s ahead? “The world after COVID-19” is President magazine’s theme this month. Highly qualified experts speculate — inconclusively, it goes without saying; modestly, to their credit. The future alone can unveil its secrets — in its own time.
What will the coronavirus do to us? We’re still reeling from what it has done. Taking stock has scarcely begun. We’ve barely scratched the surface.
So far, it’s all bad news: a million-plus dead worldwide, the global economy gutted, society in a state best described by now-familiar neologisms such as “corona unemployment,” “corona divorce,” “corona poverty,” “lockdown,” “self-isolation” and so on. The pandemic will sooner or later (presumably) run its course, humanity will rally and rebuild, and life will go on — not, however, quite as we’ve known it. On that point, President’s experts agree.
And on this: Long-term, the coronavirus will accelerate the high-tech revolution that has characterized the century. Remote work and online schooling, now firmly entrenched, point the way forward to a hyperdigitized, hypervirtual future.
For better or for worse?
It could go either way — very far either way: utopia on the one hand, dystopia on the other; or utopia for some and dystopia for others, the gap between the two widening until, to suppose a worst-case scenario, the dystopians revolt, with consequences that defy even speculation, let alone prediction.
To put COVID-19 in perspective: There have been deadlier pandemics. Israeli historian and futurist Yuval Noah Harari mentions AIDS, Spanish influenza after World War I, and the Black Death that decimated Europe’s population in the 14th century. Spanish flu, he says, killed 10% of some national populations; Black Death, one-third to half. With COVID-19, he says, we’re talking (so far) 1% tops.
Fourteenth-century Europeans didn’t know what had hit them. Monsters and ghosts filled their dreams and visions. Their credulity seems limitless, but wasn’t. It stopped short of microorganisms. In them they had no belief. God in his wrath, the devil in his mischief — those were their explanations, and prayer their remedy.
Harari fears a modern devil — devils, rather. “More than the virus itself,” he writes, “I’m afraid of the devils of hatred, greed and ignorance.”
Trauma invites scapegoating. Scapegoaters find scapegoats. There’s no shortage of them — Jews in the Black Death, gay men and women while AIDS raged, other foreigners and minorities elsewhere and always, down to the present day. The online bashing of the infected and perceived sources of infection suggests technological progress leaving moral progress far behind.
Harari is hopeful, however. Sexual minorities rose to the challenge of AIDS. They formed a community — the LGBTQ community, whose members as active volunteers nursing the sick won respect and, over time, social recognition and the political rights that go with it. Crises are awful to go through but — potentially at least — bring out the best in us as well as the worst.
The same is true of the new human community taking shape online. COVID-19 heightens the pre-virus shift from face-to-face conversation to screen-to-screen communication. Is that conducive to, or destructive of, community?
Conducive, says researcher Takeshi Mori. “Digital social capital” is the payoff he anticipates — “businesses, governments, hospitals, educational facilities and the like, all linked up and working for the public good.”
Social capital is an early 20th-century concept attributed to U.S. pedagogue Lyda Hanifan (1879-1932), who defined it as “those tangible assets (that) count for most in the daily lives of people: namely goodwill, fellowship, sympathy and social intercourse among the individuals and families who make up a social unit.”
Postwar individualism took its toll, and loneliness became the overriding theme as communities and neighborhoods disintegrated. Mori’s “digital” social capital is community reconfigured — online. We see it in embryo, he says, when, for example, an accommodation booking site rises to the challenge of a natural disaster, steering victims to temporary lodging more comfortable than mass shelters; or when job placement sites direct the COVID-19-unemployed to new job opportunities — laid-off hotel workers to the delivery sector, for instance.
Possibilities spread outward from there, ideally embracing all humanity in an infinity of situations. Mutual assistance, social engagement, the sense that we who extend help today may need it tomorrow, burgeon in proportion to the expansion of our digital networks. We become, digitally, our brothers’ keepers.
This is possible but not assured. Microsoft President Brad Smith warns of a potential “digital divide.” Every form of wealth creates its haves and have-nots. The key, says Smith, is broadband — “it is to the 21st century what electricity was to the 20th.” Some nations have more of it than others. Some have none at all. The digital divide widens — a potential fissure in the global togetherness idealists hope the pandemic is nurturing.
Can anything good come of such harsh nurture? Japan knows one answer to that: World War II brought it democracy and prosperity. History doesn’t coax us onward; it lashes us. Sometimes we’re the better for it, sometimes not. Sometimes it’s a matter of interpretation. Teleworking, says Smith, can free us from office routines and make us masters of our time; it can also isolate us and make us socially dysfunctional. IT heightens freedom of speech and association as never before; it can also heighten surveillance as never before.
Noritaka Kobayashi, founder and CEO of the social networking site Bajji, sees germinating, from seeds now being sown, “a non-face-to-face economy.” Now, we can’t get together. The virus conquered and the world restored to health, we may not want to. What for? Habits formed now are sure to carry over into the post-COVID-19 world, especially the advantageous ones, and “the one-hour business meeting reduced to a 10- to 15-minute online chat,” as Kobayashi puts it, has obvious advantages. As with business, so with “events.” Instead of massing by the thousands and tens of thousands in stadiums and auditoriums, we’ll stay home and enjoy sports and performances online.
Neo-community? Or neo-loneliness? The future will tell. Or maybe the past does. Telework and its offshoots may be no more revolutionary than was the herding of workers into factories a century or two ago. In fact, they take us back even as they propel us forward — to the remote pre-factory days of household cottage industry.
A brave new world. Then again, maybe not.
Big in Japan is a weekly column that focuses on issues being discussed by domestic media organizations. Michael Hoffman’s latest book is “Cipangu, Golden Cipangu: Essays in Japanese History.”