Big ideas from a godawful year

November 15, 2020

By Andrew D. Green in collaboration with Kevin McDermott

Twenty-twenty has in so many ways been a godawful year. Which is exactly what has made it so clarifying.

Every year has its own set of multivariate problems. But it would be hard to find another year in which the variants included pandemic, economic collapse, political disruption, social strife, climate change, migrant families separated at our southern border, foreign interference in our democracy, an acrimonious US election and all the accompanying symptoms of cynicism and mistrust. That was 2020.

This horrible year brought into sharp relief problems that have roiled our social and economic systems for a long time. The harshness of the moment brought fresh attention to ideas that have been on the margins. We looked at these ideas with new openness—because we had to.

Some, like
universal basic income, might still be too big a stretch even after all we’ve been through. Others may stick around and morph in interesting ways. We can’t know which parts of the present will matter to the future.

But in the interest of cultivating an openness to change—the prerequisite to living in our age—it is useful to catalog some of the big ideas that emerged out of 2020 and its multiple calamities.

Civic engagement

All over the world—from Belarus to Hong Kong to Lagos—discontent with bad government boiled over in 2020. Photos of protesters in surgical masks will be among the resonant images of this period in history.

The year put a spotlight not just on the necessity of leadership in government but on the necessity of principled professionals working in government.

Possible knock-on effects: It could be that 2020 was the year when government service began to acquire a broad esteem only enjoyed by professional military. In 2020 we saw
principled public servants put their careers at risk. We may argue about the size of government but we all respect honor and professionalism. Renewed admiration might inspire great talents to make a career of government service, sparking a different kind of talent war.

Social media: super-spreader of disinformation

We tend to forget how new the social-media phenomenon is. It’s grown like a weed—a sometimes noxious weed—under the protection of our shared commitment to free-speech rights. Unlike professional journalism, which has had centuries to develop codes of responsible behavior, social media is proudly unregulated.

In 2020 we felt the dark side of this radical freedom. Like other disruptive industries—Uber comes to mind—social media has taken advantage of incumbents to sidestep the regulations under which legacy industries like newspaper labor.

Possible knock-on effects: We are rightly leery of government intervention in free-speech rights. But cultural pressure to apply professional standards may with time come to be viewed as another matter, as it has in mainstream journalism.

Even as they’ve evolved as new forms of media, social networks have evaded the accountability that goes with that status. To see this as a problem is to begin to seek a solution.

The limits of remoteness

A friend of ours attended a memorial service for his father in 2020. Some families were at the graveside in Connecticut. Twelve others were scattered across the country attending by Zoom. The remarkable thing, the friend said, was that it sort of worked.

In 2020 we discovered that all kinds of intimate and shared experiences don’t necessarily need to be done in person. As a species we are so inventive that we reinvented important social relationships seemingly overnight.

We also touched the limits of remote everything.

Possible knock-on effects: Lots of people are making work-from-home succeed. Few miss the grind of commuting. But many of us do miss gathering in offices not just to work but to connect—both of which are central in our lives.

We may develop some hybrid of the way we work. What that will mean for landlords holding millions of square feet of office space is hard to predict. Will it reenergize the fortunes of affordable second-tier cities? Will a reduced need for mobility lower demand for cars?

Education-from-home appears more problematic. It is hard to see how EFH in present format—essentially taking classroom routines and transplanting them online—can continue. Too many
kids are not learning. Moreover, a critical function of schools is socialization, and that’s a lot harder when the kids can’t gather.

Maybe our ambivalent experience of EFH in 2020 will inspire new thinking about what school is for. It may finally provoke an appreciation for smaller class sizes. That will create a different war for talent, this time for teachers. With that may come a new respect for the profession—and better pay—that is too often lacking.

Together alone: The transformation of mass entertainment

The experience of sitting in a darkened theater with strangers might never be the same. Live theater is almost unknown in 2020. In October
Regal Theaters, the U.S. movie chain, announced that it is closing its locations.

Possible knock-on effects: Our desire for entertainment, amusement and storytelling won’t be erased by the pandemic. Humans have shown endless inventiveness in those arenas for millennia. Hollywood’s response to the existential threat of television in the 1950s is a good example.

For nearly 100 years we have had the experience of consuming entertainment “together alone”, beginning with sitting in our homes listening to radio programs. The difference this time might be that consumers of entertainment have more of the technology in their own hands. They can invent their own innovations and workarounds.

Already we hear stories of friends watching films and sporting events online—miles apart, maybe, chatting simultaneously. That’s the market telling us something. It’s hard not to imagine the arrival of new applications to meet the demand.

In the near term we pay a price for making change. That can produce resistance. But when circumstances become extreme enough—as they did in 2020—we may decide the price is worth paying because we see the need so clearly.

Could it be that when our sense of emergency abates in a year or so, we’ll snap back to our old habits? Sure. But it won’t be all the way. It’s too hard to unlearn things. Life goes on. We adapt.

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