How the Coronavirus Might Kickstart the 21st Century

In the pandemic's wake, we'll learn, work, and live more online than ever.


We know little for sure about how the COVID-19 pandemic is going to play out, especially in terms of the number of dead and the effect on the global economy. But this much seems to be a damn good bet: The disease is acting as an accelerant in creating a far more dispersed, decentralized, and devolved world in which we will paradoxically feel more connected than ever before while also keeping our literal and figurative distance from one another. In a year's time—and a decade's, too—you will be living, learning, and working far more online than you are now.

In short, rapid innovations in learning, working, and living online could be a silver lining. Welcome to the 21st century we dreamed about 30 years ago but never quite had the energy or focus to actually implement. Since the 1990s, champions of what was then called cyberspace and digital culture prophesied about "creating a world that all may enter without privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force, or station of birth." Every issue of the early Wired promised a peaceful "Digital Revolution" that would whip "through our lives like a Bengali typhoon" and create real and virtual worlds in which we could let our 3D-printed freak flags fly however we chose.

In 1990's Life After Television, George Gilder (then widely known for his reactionary, anti-feminist polemic Sexual Suicide) gazed upon networked machines he called "telecomputers" and dreamed of a world in which political and corporate hierarchies were smashed by user-generated "hetarchies" and "you could spend a day interacting with Henry Kissinger, Kim Basinger, or Billy Graham" on whatever terms were mutually agreed upon. With the end of "bottlenecks" caused by centralized political, technological, and economic control, telecomputers would revitalize "family, religion, education, and the arts" and other institutions that "preserve and transmit civilization to new generations."

Much of all that has become reality in some recognizable forms. With the rise of the internet and the user-friendly interface laid on top of it, the World Wide Web as a global platform, the world has become much more inclusive and all participants, even the poorest among us, have more options and more control over how we work, what we consume, and how we relate to one another. But if we're being honest with ourselves, we've half-assed it until now. The digital future has figuratively sat in our living room like a piece of complicated and ambitious exercise equipment that, once purchased, is rarely used and now serves mostly as a place to drape dirty clothes.

Our response to COVID-19 has great potential to change all that. The changes that persist after the crisis has passed could, finally, radically change how we work and learn, get medical care, shop, and consume popular culture as more and more of our lives will take place online and, hopefully, on our own personalized terms.

Over 30 states have shuttered K-12 public schools and districts everywhere are scrambling to figure out how to implement distance-learning programs to salvage some semblance of continuing instruction. Colleges across the country have canceled classes at least through the end of March and it seems iffy whether they will return at all for the spring semester. Educational institutions at all levels are scrambling to ramp up their ability to stream classes, which is not just a bandwidth issue but one of preparing instructors on how to teach and students to learn via the internet. While participation in distance learning has grown by leaps and bounds since 2000, fewer than 6 percent of all public K-12 students take a majority of all their courses online. There's every reason to believe that once they get a sense of the flexibility and offerings available, those numbers will rise substantially.

The president is distributing government guidelines urging workers who can do their jobs via the internet to do so until further notice. Among the journalists and analysts who write about telecommuting, working from home is nothing new. I've been working from home basically full time since 1996, when I moved from Reason's Los Angeles headquarters to the remote prison town of Huntsville, Texas, where my then-wife had gotten a faculty position at Sam Houston State University. But what many "knowledge economy" workers take for granted is anything but common. While the share of workers telecommuting has been increasing steadily over the past 20 or more years, just 3.6 percent of the American workers "currently work at home half-time or more," according the American Community Survey. 

Yet over half of all employees have a job where at least some of what they do could be done remotely and fully 80 percent of workers pre-COVID-19 say they want to work from home at least part of the time, according to analyst Kate Lister. Free or nearly free video- and teleconferencing enabled by Google, Skype, and Zoom is booming and won't stop once we all test negative for illness. It's inconceivable that working from home won't gain vastly in popularity (both among workers and management) even when the government says it's OK to return to our traditional workplaces.

Our lives as consumers will change definitively too, for goods and services that are both banal and important. In the past few years, for instance, telemedicine has grown in popularity, especially for counseling services, but still accounts for less than 1 percent of insurance claims. Now it's being encouraged not just by overburdened health-care systems but by the very governments that long frowned upon it. Effective March 6, new regulations loosened the ability of Medicare and Medicaid providers to dispense medical advice via the internet. Movie theaters and sports leagues have long been suffering declines in attendance, as high-quality, cheap flatscreen TVs and sound systems proliferated and streaming services starting delivering most of what we wanted whenever we wanted it. Even as the number of theater screens has continued to grow and the number of films getting theatrical releases continues to climb, fewer people want to buy tickets for a night out. Of course people will head back out to the local multiplex and sports venues once they are reopened, but they will likely number even fewer than before. 

COVID-19 is a windfall not just for Amazon's traditional products—the online-retail behemoth is hiring an additional 100,000 workers to meet demand over the next few weeks or months—but for online grocery delivery services too. Even before the outbreak, business had been booming online, with sales more than doubling to $26 billion between 2016 and 2018, even while serving fewer than 10 percent of customers.

Especially among media people who report on such topics, the triumph of e-commerce has been a given for at least a decade if not longer. But it was only last February that "online sales narrowly beat general merchandise stores, including department stores, warehouse clubs and super-centers. Non-store retail sales last month accounted for 11.813 percent of the total, compared with 11.807 percent for general merchandise." When other types of purchases such as houses, cars, and prepared meals are factored in, bricks-and-mortar commerce still outstrips online, but that is changing and will certainly be super-charged by the current lockdown. Indeed, even before COVID-19, companies such as Carvana and Vroom were starting to advertise a fully online experience to buy automobiles, while more and more parts of house buying such as finding listings and doing virtual tours have moved online. 

While much was made of minor upticks in people moving to cities in the early 2010s, the longer-term trend has been about Americans increasingly choosing the suburbs, even before COVID-19. As demographer William H. Frey of the Brookings Institution wrote last year, "In many respects, the city growth dominance earlier in the decade was an aberration of historical patterns— perhaps a result of the down housing market following the Great Recession, and the 'stuck in place' millennial generation. Now, the new census data suggest that earlier suburbanization patterns are re-emerging." Suburban living (and small-town living, for that matter) are made more attractive when goods and cultural offerings once only available in big cities are made readily available online and through next-day (or even same-day) delivery. Add in the fear factor of dense populations and infection, and it seems like COVID-19 will speed up the dissipation of urban areas.

Then there is the governmental response. Paradoxically, local, state, and federal governments are flexing, enacting emergency measures rarely or never seen before in peacetime. Across the country, mayors and governors are declaring states of emergencies and shutting down bars, gyms, and other gathering places, putting limits on the number of people who can gather at one time, and even issuing curfews. Yet these same leaders—and members of the federal government from the president on down—are also waiving or loosening longstanding regulations, at least temporarily. The Transportation Security Administration has reversed course and now allows 12-ounce bottles of hand sanitizer where just days ago it insisted that any container with more than 3.4 ounces of fluid or gel was an unacceptable security risk. The Food and Drug Administration, which has famously dragged its heels on all sorts of expedited approvals even for drugs shown safe and effective in Europe, issued almost immediate approval for a new coronavirus testing protocol. The governor of Massachusetts deigned to allow medical professionals licensed to practice in other states to work in the Bay State without going through a timely and expensive certification process.

At virtually every level in the United States, the government response to COVID-19 has been mostly incompetence on the one hand and overreaction on the other. Arguably, the most important conversation we will have as a society post-outbreak is one about the lessons being taught in real time about limited-but-effective public policy. Countries such South Korea and Singapore, despite authoritarian tendencies, responded swiftly and successfully to the outbreak in ways that foregrounded transparency and information-sharing rather than lockdowns and mandatory closings and quarantines (though both nations did some of both). If past is prologue, governments at all levels will be slow to give up the power they are currently exercising, but the weight of public opinion and examples from our work, cultural, and commercial lives might prove an effective counterweight.

President Trump recently said that it would likely be July before the current crisis passed. Whenever the COVID-19 pandemic recedes, though, it will likely change the coming decades every bit as much as the 9/11 attacks and the 2008 financial crisis changed the past 20 years. Looking back on the cultural, economic, and political responses to those events, it's hard to say that the country responded wisely. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the explosion in government spending under first George W. Bush and then Barack Obama are harder to justify with every passing year. As a society, rather than coming together, we became increasingly polarized and distrustful of public and private institutions. That dynamic, however understandable and predictable, has only made things worse.

This time, we stand on a different threshold. We are wearier and warier than ever, for sure, of what the government might do for us. Even in the early days of this situation, we know that a strong response to the pandemic ultimately relies more on our actions as individuals with agency and autonomy than it does on the ministrations of the Donald Trumps and Joe Bidens and Bernie Sanderses of the world.

The best possible outcome is one that leads to the future that helped fire up our imaginations 30 years ago to dream of a world in which we all were able to participate more fully, express ourselves more cogently, and live how and where we desire. Ironically, the shift online being forced by COVID-19—a global health crisis that many are comparing to the 1918 flu epidemic, one of the defining events of the old 20th century—might finally conjure the future as we once dared to dream about it.

NEXT: Stop It With the Coronavirus Curfews Already

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  1. Every time the pundits tell us that some event will change the world forever . . .
    . . . nothing much changes.

  2. In the pandemic’s wake, we’ll learn, work, and live more online than ever.

    Oh thank Google!

    1. Why would I want too? I’m not the kind that likes to sit on his ass all day.

      1. Why would I want too?

        To mock those who would substitute Google for God.

    2. #Ilovesocialdistancing

    3. Everyone is complaining about what is happening online. Why would they all of a sudden do more of it?

      It can save your business money, but it’s also bad. When your boss gives you a job he can see how you’re doing at it. He can then give you more work. At home he can’t see shit so you could be doing the minimum, getting paid, and the business isn’t as good as it could be.

      My partner worked from home today and spent the majority of it asking me what I was doing. I better get an economic stimulus for this shit. It was day one of the first two weeks. I can’t do this.

  3. I work at an oil refinery. They sometimes blow up. What do you suppose might happen if I try working from home?
    And the power plant guys can work online too, as well as the truck drivers who ship the ingredients for your avocado toast to the artisanal cafe you frequent. Maybe the cell phone tower repair guys, and car mechanics too.
    You live in a bubble where invisible people bring you things you take for granted.

    1. Gillespie dones’t want to know where the grease comes from for his hair.

      Magic electricity comes out of the wall socket!

      1. Magic electricity comes out of the wall socket!

        Well, yeah, the electricity Gods ordained that their be outlets in the apartments and townhomes that have stood since the beginning of time. Duh.

    2. Good luck with a online plumber too Nick. The again, I know how to do my own and other repairs. I’m betting you can’t.

      1. Gillespie just opens the pink toolbox that came with the condo and hands a pair of needle nose pliers to THE JACKET. The leather does all the work.

      2. Youtube is your friend for all your plumbing needs. It’s not rocket science.

        1. Ha! Ok buddy, to an extent. At some point, you need a pro. Even if you can do the work, do you have the equipment? For instance, you’re not gonna solder a 2.5″ main with a normal torch (I did it once with a normal torch and MAP gas, but it was barely and I have mucho xp, and a normal torch with MAP gas can go really speedily really fast). And what if you have to break up some concrete to get to the sewer line? Etc.

          1. “Speedily” is suppossed to be “splody” 😉

    3. Johannes

      You need to be there but probably not all of the support people. The ones who schedule, write your paycheck, order supplies, IT, a lot of them are likely online and outsourced already.

      What is likely to happen is that movement will be accelerated. Once those systems are more in place they will not revert to what they were.

      We are living through a historical change.

      1. “You need to be there but probably not all of the support people. The ones who schedule, write your paycheck, order supplies, IT, a lot of them are likely online and outsourced to India or The Phillipines already.”

        1. Not in my business nor anyone in my family. We are all US based and supported.

          That does occur. Not as often as one might think.

          1. Outsourcing doesn’t mean what most people think it means tbh.

    4. No one suggested that physical work still needs to be done, but much of what is considered to be necessary to be done in an office – and more and more work is that, can be done independent of location.

      Twenty years ago I knew a guy who ran a PraxAir plant. He was the onsite manager, a Navy tech trained in pneumatics (Submarine) with a couple of helpers but they were basically firemen, the plant itself was completely automated and ran itself on a software model hosted on a computer in a different city, 800 miles away.

  4. This could also eliminate some of the luddite resistance to automation, robots, etc. I can almost imagine the UAW workers screaming for more remote-controlled robots with remote QC workers monitoring them.

  5. Eh, this will probably set back work from home efforts, not help them. Productivity is going to drop like a rock with employees many employees working in distracting environments with screaming kids and trouble contacting coworkers they’d normally just turn around to ask questions to.

    Some people will be more efficient, but most will not, which is going to scare off a whole new generation of managers from letting their employees out of the office.

    1. One of the reasons cited for Yahoo’s fall was the work-from-home culture that was horribly abused. On the other hand, I’ve had an office job before where everyone sat at their desk silently working on excel models. Definitely did not need to be in the same place.

      1. I pegged Yahoo’s failure when Microsoft bought them out. I’m predicting GitHub will end up in the same boat. From where I sit Microsoft isn’t nearly as competent as they think they are and mostly stay alive though brown-nosing big ads more then product.

        Then again; that’s the secret of CEO’s big income. The ability to talk people into paying more for something worth less.

        1. Microsoft never bought yahoo. They tried but yang turned them down. Made some real money on puts that day.

        2. Microsoft has completely changed. Look at VS Code. We use it and it has enhanced productivity completely. Also use Azure DevOps backend by Git. Best set of tools weve had in a long time. We limited by what we can bring into the area though as far as tools.

          1. Some of what they do – I do appreciate VS being one. But that’s dismissive of the Windows 8 bombshell; the result of their indecisiveness of competing in the mobile market or sticking to their success market (i.e. PC). And its dismissive of their Office market going down the toilet with rent-seeking and stability issues. And dismissive of their server platforms about as reliable as Office 🙂

    2. I have been working from home office for about 7 years. It is much more productive.

      I think it is a good point you bring up. For those who do you need to take a professional approach. Laptop on the couch is not going to work.

  6. The Spanish have erected a monument to jock sniffers?

  7. Of the top 10,000 things I can be made to care about, wuhan pandemic disease is a close runner up for the participation ribbon. Everyone has lost their minds apparently.

    1. OTOH, as a student of history, I find it fascinating to witness, firsthand- upclose and personal, the suicide of a civilization.

  8. People will be back in the office because humans are still simians and need to pick bugs off each other and pound their chest once in a while. Can’t do that alone without an audience.

    But there will be long term issues. And poor people who get manipulated and used by ineffective government get angry.

    Let’s hope the people don’t think China handled this better. Or Joe Biden might be Emperor Joe the First.

    1. Yup. The working class is being systematically screwed. If one didn’t know better, one might suspect that this emergency (and it is an emergency) is being manipulated to both punish the unwashed masses for electing such a bore in the first place, while also being used to prevent the reelection of our current executive. If one were the conspiratorial type, of course.

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  10. I just got off work, yeah, gotta go there to do the work. As many others will always have too. Not everything can be done at home typing. Many people work with their minds , hands, legs and back.

  11. Great. A new generation of obese couch potatoes with muscular dystrophy, a complete lack of social skills, and an intellectual repertoire derived entirely from Twitter.

    Boredom, heart disease, and suicide will kill more people in ten years than this pansy ass virus ever had a hope of killing.

    1. Yeah, but then we can take their stuff. Can you tell I’m sick of this shit by all my posts ?

      1. The only stuff they’ll have left will be government issued sex bots, sex-bot replacement parts (Made in China), and a chip card loaded with social credit points (which can be redeemed online for food and sex bot replacement parts).

        1. I’d imagine sex bots are the kind of thing that depreciates rapidly after the first owner.

          1. Then you should try Sex in Noord Holland and chat with sexz girls

  12. I doubt it. In fact I think the reverse.

    This virus is pretty much the anti-online. It has moved so quickly precisely because online dulled us into thinking that, eg suppliers 12,000 miles away are exactly the same as suppliers 2 miles away – and cheaper too. So far, it’s also very obvious to me that online is not doing much that is helpful other than providing a quite effective way to manipulate from the top-down. There are I’m sure some online resources that are actually useful in figuring out to how to fight this virus in the other-than-medical meta-ways – but I’ll be damned if I can find them.

    I was around in those early Web1.0 days and agree completely with the vision back then of what could have been. But Web2.0 is what killed that early vision. And I see absolutely nothing so far that is leading me to think that a Web3.0 is going to fix what went wrong and what can work better.

    In the meantime, that virus is going to demonstrate the difference between a strong sense of local community and a lack of same – by turning the latter into wasteland.

    Or maybe not

    1. Pretty much this. The virus has shown people that nature still exists and online is a fantasy. It likely will make online less attractive not more.

      1. wouldn’t that be nice.

  13. Our response to COVID-19 has great potential to change all that. The changes that persist after the crisis has passed could, finally, radically change how we work and learn, get medical care, shop, and consume popular culture as more and more of our lives will take place online and, hopefully, on our own personalized terms.

    When your job is writing think pieces for an online magazine or… in my case, managing global networks, it’s tempting to wonder why everyone doesn’t just work from home!

    But then when you start breaking down your day, you realize how thankful you are to the gajillions of people who CAN’T work from home. The postal worker, the amazon warehouse employee fulfilling your prepper orders, the Fed Ex guy, the uber driver delivering your Uber eats, the drive thru employee handing you your food, the people in the kitchens, the truck drivers stocking the grocery store, the factory worker making the stuff.

    1. The guy who runs the power plant, grows the food, runs the hospital, fights fires and all of the rest of the stuff hipster doofuses like Nick think are unneeded and unfashionable.

      1. +10000

        The coroner who will have to physically come and wheel Gillespie’s stinking corpse from his condo.

        Someone will send for The Jacket.

      2. So many butthurts working themselves in a lather over strawmen on this one.

        Also, if collecting, simplifying, and popularizing libertarian ideas was unneeded or unwanted, then Reason wouldn’t have taken off the ground to begin with.

    2. Did Nick even allude that everyone could work from home? He pretty said it wasn’t right here: “Yet over half of all employees have a job where at least some of what they do could be done remotely.”

      Half is not all. So I don’t know who you’re arguing with.

      1. I’m not arguing with anyone, I was merely suggesting that we’re probably already about as online as we can be. And in particular, this statement:

        The digital future has figuratively sat in our living room like a piece of complicated and ambitious exercise equipment that, once purchased, is rarely used and now serves mostly as a place to drape dirty clothes.

        Is pretty untrue. I mean, maybe if ten years ago- or even five years ago, you imagined a magical world in which everyone worked from a laptop from your living room and your amazon orders were delivered by drone and on those rare occasions you had to leave the house and interact with the real world your self-driving car would whisk you there, I guess maybe the online world does look like that exercise equipment.

        But the online world IS pretty comprehensive in everyone’s daily lives, and I’ll bet you all the way up to fifty cents that after this covid 19 thing passes, people are going to re-remember that there’s value in going into an office and interacting with people on a daily basis, not the other way around.

      2. The demons in their own head.

  14. One thing this virus should do is put an end to the idea that dense megacities are superior as places to live and work. Even if we don’t have another outbreak for many years, social distancing is here to stay and cities are the last place you want to be.

    1. No shit. The virus has shown pretty much everything the left and their fellow travelers like Gillespie think is a virtuous lifestyle to be a dangerous liability. John Nolte had a great piece on this issue this morning. Its like these idiots think people invented disposable products and decided moving to the country was the way to go did so out of some great plot against mother nature. Living on top of each other is something people have done out of necessity throughout history not because it is some kind of ideal.

      1. If city dwellers could not live in Delusion-Land where urban living is all positives, they would be throwing themselves off buildings like it was raining.

        1. I don’t know who said it, but it went something like this: “Being miserable while convincing yourself you’re living in the best city in the world is what being a New Yorker is all about.”

          1. I’ve always said New Yorkers are the most parochial people in the world deluded into believing that they’re the most cosmopolitan. Look, when people from all over world come to visit your city but you personally have never traveled further than Jersey City, it’s not you who’s cosmopolitan.

      2. Some of that is just due to preference, though. When asked whether they preferred living in bigger houses further apart, or walkable areas with smaller houses closer to each other, majorities of liberals consistently choose the latter and majorities of conservatives the former.

    2. Besides the virus, and probably soon to impact more people, megacity dwellers are always at risk of a disruption of the supply chain that brings them all the not-online stuff they actually need to survive: food, energy, trendy clothing, and all the shit in the Amazon boxes. Some wise people might question the wisdom of choosing a lifestyle that can fall completely apart in a matter of hours.

  15. The “libertarian moment” is just around the corner!

    1. More like a long, gradual shift towards decentralization and individual flexibility that this crisis is accelerating.

  16. This kind of BS reminds me of the so-called predictions of the paperless society with the advent of the internet.,.

  17. Until “cybersecurity” is a real thing don’t hold your breath. Just imagine what havoc (the reactions to) “e-Coronavirus” will produce.

  18. Once a universal, at-home virus test kit is available, we all go back to normal the next day:

    Everyone who tests postitive quarantines, and everyone else goes back to normal. Pandemic over.

  19. Let’s hope so. Because unlike previous predictions, change has already happened in this crisis: more people are already working, learning, and shopping from home. Plenty of governments are already scrapping useless regulations in response. All we should expect is for things to keep trending that way post-Corona.

  20. Why don’t they just isolate the most vulnerable?

    1. Tsk. Tsk. You can’t be saying stuff that makes sense.

  21. How’s Lou Reed doing by the way? He’s in the most vulnerable demographic.

    1. Jerry Garcia is in the same group.

  22. Change? Yeah, sure, people can change.

    Just like cattle, people can change from ignorant, complacent cud chewers to wild-eyed, stampeding suicides. And then they can change back. That’s pretty much it for most of humanity.

    Think regular people changed their thinking and behavior about money and personal finance after 2008? Ha ha ha ha ha ha.

  23. <

    …COVID-19—a global health crisis that many are comparing to the 1918 flu epidemic…

    Many who, Gillespie? Many who?
    (Aside: the Spanish Flu actually originated in Kansas, and was introduced to the rest of world via WWI)

  24. What’s the Symptoms And Risk of Coronavirus , Can anyone tell me?

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  27. Ok. You won’t believe this. So…Henry Kissinger, Kim Basinger, and Billy Graham are walking into a bar…that I just created on Roblox.

  28. >>In the pandemic’s wake, we’ll learn, work, and live more online than ever.

    Not good at all. For example, my gym was closed and I’ve just started to blog about my workout routine. But where and how can I make a content for Workout Family without sport equipment?

  29. I relish the thought of living in such a world. Good stuff Gillespie.

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