- Five things that are likely to change as a result of the pandemic that has shaken us all up
The challenge when it comes to predictions is that if you get it right, you’re called a genius, and if you get it wrong, an idiot. So I am fully aware that writing this piece is highly risky, but I also think it is important to offer a perspective. I believe that the argument is never between a right and a wrong, but between two rights. Therefore, I would be delighted if people considered this as one point of view and not the holy truth.
It seems pretty clear now that from an economic point of view, covid-19 and its impact will be the biggest event in our lifetimes, and since World War II. Here are my predictions. I would like to re-read them every year just to check whether I’ve been a genius or an idiot.
One. For good or for bad, the world will slow down: People will realize that our current level of economic activity is unsustainable and actually unnecessary. Extended periods of working from home make us realize the needlessness of long commutes. The same goes for air travel; working in three countries a week is overkill. The only positive of this pandemic is that, air pollution and carbon dioxide has fallen rapidly, because of which we may just have added a few more days to our lives. However, once the pandemic is under control, we might see a massive rise in economic activity, just as in the aftermath of World War II, and we should take care that it is not at the cost of the environment. Eventually we may have to ask a basic question: Is economic excess worth it?
Two. Artificial Intelligence (AI) will cause the next big human catastrophe: I remember Larry Brilliant talking about pandemics more than a decade ago; the movie he produced, Contagion, has a setting eerily similar to the world today. In 2015, Bill Gates warned us in his TED talk that we are not prepared for a pandemic. We haven’t heeded such warnings. Can we at least avert the next catastrophe?
My take is that AI will be the cause (though unintentionally) of our next big existential challenge. We tend to dismiss warnings from experts like Elon Musk, because few people understand AI, and the ones who do are incentivised to maximise it for their (or corporate) benefits. Vint Cert, the father of the internet, has repeatedly alerted us to the dangerous consequences of giving machines autonomy. AI gone rogue is a real possibility.
Three. The end point of capitalism is socialism: Gandhi had predicted that capitalism that isn’t rooted in moral values will be unsustainable. It is ironic that in the ongoing election campaign in the most capitalist country in the world – the US, democratic socialism emerged as an alternative. The current administration is planning a $2 trillion stimulus involving large-scale cash distribution—not very different from what a socialist country would do. The idea of a Universal Basic Income is a reality now. The question remains: Is the final outcome of capitalism, socialism?
Four. We will become more decentralised, yet connected: Within a century, we moved from a disconnected decentralised world to a centralised connected one. Now we will move towards a more decentralised yet connected world. India has restricted the export of dozens of drugs including paracetamol and various antibiotics, which could lead to a global shortage of essential medicines. Similarly, France stopped its supply of N95 masks to the UK. This shows that overly relying on one company/country is unhelpful. Even with technology, we’re overly dependent on one centralised system—Netflix cannot be used if the Amazon server crashes. While we have seen a massive centralisation of servers owned by companies like Google and Amazon, we may see a more distributed yet connected setup in the future.
Five. A correction will happen across industries and the way we work: While the health industry will become more relevant, in countries like the US it will get fundamentally disrupted. Also, the software industry will get disrupted and many start-ups will fold, while platform companies will thrive. Software companies will have to relook at their business model or cease to exist. Work from home will become the norm. Companies like Automattic Inc, founded in August 2005 and most notable for WordPress.com, have had a distributed setup from day one, and is an example of a global remote company. Scott Berkun shared his views about this in his book The Year Without Pants. Large companies which spend unnecessary time on physical meetings will find it hard to adapt to such a setup. The question is can you decentralise on a personal level?
Finally, we have realised that when you cannot go outside, you go inside. People are forced to meditate, reflect and introspect. Our inner core is where we are centred, connected, curious, and committed. In today’s turbulent times, we need to dig deep into our inner world to navigate the complex outer world. When we know how interconnected we are, how little control we have, we will go back to our best selves—to that time-honoured ideal, Love!