How Coronavirus Is Kickstarting the 21st Century

A global pandemic has done what 30 years of internet manifestoes never accomplished: a mass migration into our screens.


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We were once told that nothing could replace sitting down with a teacher, the camaraderie of an office, a face-to-face business deal, or seeing a movie in the theater.

But when the grim COVID-19 pandemic is finally defeated, the question we'll be asking ourselves isn't Why would you want to do that online? but Why would you want to do that in real life?

For decades, the shimmering potential of what used to be called cyberspace gathered dust in the corner of our living rooms, like a fancy, expensive piece of exercise equipment used for draping laundry.

In 1990's Life After Television, George Gilder gazed upon networked machines he called "telecomputers" and dreamed of a world in which political and corporate hierarchies were smashed by user-generated "hetarchies." The founders of Wired promised a peaceful "Digital Revolution" that would whip "through our lives like a Bengali typhoon." 

The new coronavirus has done what 30 years of internet manifestoes never accomplished: a mass migration into our screens. We aren't being quarantined in our homes so much as being frog-marched into a virtual fallout shelter. The silver lining is that we may finally realize that life is mostly better in the cloud, where it's possible to learn faster, work better, and generally get what you really want, delivered directly to your door and for less money.

Ironically, living online gives us more free time in our actual flesh-and-blood lives. The typical round-trip commute is about an hourYet just 3.6 percent of America's labor force "currently work[s] at home half-time or more." More than 50 percent of all employees have a job that could at least partly be done remotely and 80 percent say they want to work from home at least part of the time. Now is their chance.

Doctors' appointments that last just a few minutes can take weeks to schedule and blow apart entire days. Telemedicine accounted for less than 1 percent of insurance claims before the pandemic. Now, Medicare is covering video and phone appointments. And hospitals are monitoring COVID-19 patients remotely at homes, providing more comfort and reducing the risk of contagion.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, fewer than 6 percent of public K-12 schools offered a majority of their courses online and just 13 percent of undergraduates got their bachelor's degrees through the internet. Now the whole country is experiencing the flexibility and offerings available through distance learning, and it seems likely that the future of higher education will more seriously blend online and in-class instruction.

Many people will head out to multiplexes and sports arenas once they reopen, but fewer than ever before. Even before this time of self-isolation, studios had already been stepping up the simultaneous release in meatspace and on-demand video. Netflix now allows users to watch the same show remotely with friends, creating a communal experience instead of a solitary one.

Amazon is hiring an additional 100,000 workers to meet demand for deliveries of its standard fare and for groceries too, as online retailing explodes. Many will come to see their weekly shopping as the definition of 21st century drudge work, the equivalent of beating carpets or hand washing clothes.

For all the talk about Americans moving back to traditional, densely populated cities, suburbs were already making a "comeback," according Brookings Institution demographer William H. Frey. Suburban and small-town living will become even more attractive as goods and cultural offerings become increasingly dispersed via the internet. 

This new, accelerated digital revolution won't be lonely or isolating.When it comes to school, work, and socializing, we will all get to set our own hours and preferences more than ever before, and we'll have more time left over to hang out with friends and family. 

Virtual and augmented reality gear, faster connection speeds, and the ability to interact with more and different people will give us more points of contact than ever before.

Cyberspace, the "new home of Mind," declared independence from the industrial world decades ago, and had been slowly filling up with new arrivals like the New World did after the first contact with Old Europe. The great migration has finally begun, not out of choice but out of necessity. That irony aside, the future awaits us all in whatever terms we choose.

Written and narrated by Nick Gillespie. Motion graphics by Lex Villena.

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