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.