Janus - God of Endings and Beginnings
The year 2020 is one for the books. The problem comes when you try to figure out where to shelve it in the library. Does it classify as a political thriller, horror, or science fiction? I don't quite know how to characterize it. I can demonize it. I can memorialize it. I just can't figure it out. It seems to be two-faced.
In ancient Rome, the god Janus was depicted as a two-faced head, one facing forward and one facing backwards. The first month of the modern calendar celebrates the god Janus in the month January.
However, this year and the myriad of events filling its days, give us the opportunity to view the cycle of our existence in two different ways, one looking back and one looking forward. Let's consider the pandemic, the spreading illness, the microscopic virus COVID-19 as the seminal element generating a paradigm shift in all of our lives.
But let us look into the rear view mirror first. Hypothesize that, had COVID-19 struck a mere 25 years earlier, in 1995, the world would be a much different place than it is today. Let us consider just five of the changes that this tiny bio-organism, one that is not alive in any scientific sense, has forced upon us.
- Remote learning
- Working from home
- Home delivery of prepared meals
- On-line shopping for groceries and necessities
- Social distancing
Dateline 1995. I had just retired from the Navy and accepted a job with a beltway bandit. Among the unimportant tasks I performed was the programming of one of the first applications on the platform not even named the Internet yet. Browsers didn't exist, portable computers weighed 20 pounds or more and cell phones came with a holster and hip pain. Home computers still connected via phone lines and modems.
Hypothesis. A virus lands in a container from (source unimportant) and spreads among the population. In 1995, only one of the five life-style changes noted above would have been possible: social distancing.
- Any concerted international effort to research and collaborate on statistical investigation and vaccine research would have been severely impaired by the communications capabilities of the day and the world political environment. DNA and virus research were still in their infancy. Computers were too slow to accurately and quickly model vaccine effectiveness.
- Hospital response would be overwhelmed, resulting in exponential population infection, transmission, illness, and death.
- The rate of infection, hospitalization and death would have paralyzed the world economy, resulting in civil unrest and famine. The worst effects would have been in the big cities. Critical city services such as waste removal and mass transportation would break down. The underdeveloped countries, despite heavy death tolls, might have been the most likely to survive because of proximity to food sources.
- Any sort of remote anything, be it working, learning, or shopping would have been impossible. The impacts on our children would have been devastating, regardless of which decision was made; close schools or keep them in session. Amazon was still a river in South America.
In short, the effects on the human population of the world in 1995 would likely be summed up in the cry heard in the streets of Europe in the thirteenth century during the Black Death; "Send out your dead." I submit that, while today's COVID-19 pandemic is a tragedy trying to become a catastrophe, the passage of an extra quarter century has made us much better prepared to weather its effects. We dodged that bullet.
I'm not certain if that's the good news or the bad news. What is certain is that COVID-19 struck in 2020 and the world, our behaviors, our expectations, and our economy will never be the same. The virus could time-out and disappear next week and our world would not, could not, return to that which was before March 2020.
Let's get the philosophy out of the way early. One - The good old days weren't. They are remembered as what you were comfortable with, now viewed through the blurring lens of time. You knew what was around the next corner. Now, you don't. Two – You can't go home again. I believe Omar Khayyam said it best: The moving finger writes and having written, moves on. Finally – In Plato's Allegory of the Cave, he writes that once you have viewed a different view of reality, e.g. the truth, you can never return to the view of reality, as you knew it, before your revelation.
Today's generations have become accustomed, unwillingly perhaps, to grocery delivery, food delivery, entertainment streaming, working from home and social distancing. We shun (or should shun) large groups and may do so for years to come.
I expect, when this pandemic is finally under control, that
- those who have tasted the new service mentality will not willingly return to the old ways. More meals will be ordered in, than eaten out in the restaurant. Chefs are learning to design menus capable as much for delivery as for presentation on their table. Home delivery of every commodity is becoming commonplace, from toilet paper (if you can find it) to automobiles. The online ordering platforms are more robust, accurate and timely, as a result of exponential increases in demand.
- Professional sports will never be the same. I can't foretell its future but tailgating and shoulder-to-shoulder crowds will take years to recover, vaccines notwithstanding. The economic impacts will be difficult to overcome. The face of professional sports will change in a manner not seen since the first televised sports event.
- The entertainment industry is unfolding within a new reality. The film industry was already struggling before COVID-19. Only the big budget films could expect viewings in the megaplexes. Now, with theaters opening to restricted crowds and with limited new releases because of production halts, many will simply close. Once it begins to ramp up, movies will make their money from the safety of streaming. Large venue concerts will become streaming events; at least for a year or two. This will change the entire look and feel of entertainment. I just read that a Navy air show will be streamed from the Naval Air Station. Imagine the future.
- Education presents a daunting challenge, more for the changes in infrastructure than in education. The introduction of widespread virtual classrooms has cast the glaring lamp of reality on the economic disparity in the availability of broadband. States, localities, school districts and organizations, for-profit and non-profit alike, are working to develop the technology and resources to provide connectivity to the far reaches of our country. But infrastructure changes take time; the one thing COVID-19 has taken from us. Our children cannot wait and the future will not.
- The elephant in the room is the continued functioning of our economy. Many jobs have shifted to teleworking, but all cannot. Many of those that have will never return to the office environment. The prevalence of teleconferencing applications removes many of the group functions. But what are the effects on the creative interaction between associates? A manager must now judge performance solely upon, uh, performance. The ancillary effects on small restaurants, clothing stores, and the travel industry etc. will be devastating.And the effects on those segments of the economy that cannot conduct business remotely, such as manufacturing and food production will bring about change years ahead of its time. Robotics will replace some low-paying labor in the meat-packing industry, as it did in the auto industry years ago. Food prices will rise, an inevitable result of increased health concerns and scrutiny to protect the food supply and those who provide it. Those changes will not be reversed. We face huge challenges in the areas of employment and small business.
Nope. The fat lady ain't even in the room, and Elvis has not left the building. But I assure you that we aren't in Kansas, anymore, and clicking her ruby slippers will not return Dorothy to the farm. The help has been replaced by a machine and the farm sold to a conglomerate.