Coronavirus

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.

Photo credits: ID 54732254 © Fernando Gregory | Dreamstime.com, ID 140948893 © Viktor Gladkov | Dreamstime.com, ID 172245631 © thanakorn hormniam | Dreamstime.com, ID 8336313 © Matt Antonino | Dreamstime.com, Cortland 256k Model by MJGOODWINART, ID 54989358 © Tsung-lin Wu | Dreamstime.com, ID 141480540 © Ovydyborets | Dreamstime.com, ID 132925232 © Syda Productions | Dreamstime.com, Tim Evanson "Doctor's Office", ID 13537936 © Andreus | Dreamstime.com, ID 295711 © Daniela Spyropoulou | Dreamstime.com, Jonathan Lang "People Walking", Marcin Wichary by Tatung Einstein computer, ID 172097620 © Muhammad  Annurmal | Dreamstime.com 

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  1. This viewpoint is disgusting and quite possibly why a large amount people dislike libertarians. Creative destruction is a net good, but there is nothing creative about gov mandated economic crippling and destruction. This isn’t the time to be celebrating a silver lining of a pandemic that is going to result in thousands of dead and possibly lead us to the brink of economic ruin. In fact it’s quite ghoulish.

    1. What are you yapping about? What is wrong with celebrating silver linings — why do you think they are called that? Would you rather there were no silver linings?

      1. probably best to save this article a couple of years down the road.

        1. I guess you had to open your mouth twice to double down on being a fool rather than answer the question: what is wrong with silver linings?

          1. nothing, in fact I specifically argued that creative destruction is a net good. I’m just saying it’s probably not an appropriate time to talk about silver linings with so many suffering at the hands of the force that your cheer leading to causing your economic wet dream scenario.

            1. So, no Hope and Change?

        2. Once again, most of the government shutdowns follow the demands of the population. Most of this is people changing their behavior voluntarily to avoid getting infected or spreading the virus. Otherwise, why are airlines flying empty planes?

          1. Once again it’s apparent to me you don’t actually own one of the effected business’s as your okay with a gov mandating whose essential and who isn’t. Seems to me you might actually be a facist.

          2. They are flying empty plane because it is mandated.

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  2. The new coronavirus has done what 30 years of internet manifestoes never accomplished: a mass migration into our screens.

    I knew that it was only a matter of time before 90’s cyberspace movies like 1995’s Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe film Virtuosity became our reality. Lawnmower Man (which I also don’t remember what it was about), here we come!

    1. Libertarian moment? Or introvert moment?

      1. There’s a difference?

  3. The new coronavirus has done what 30 years of internet manifestoes never accomplished: a mass migration into our screens

    I think this article misses some wider, more nuanced points. It would be my estimation that the people who were most easily able to transition to working from home (I’m one of them) already spent our working days on our screens. So I didn’t gain anything by transitioning to home (aside from the niceties of… working from home, not having to commute etc). But I’ve also lost a lot of face-to-face interaction which has an intangible value.

    It also ignores the group of people who can’t work at home that we depend on, and never will. I suspect that if anything, this episode will help those of us who transitioned to working at home, what the value of going into the office is.

    Time will tell.

    1. Seems to me there is a vast disconnect with how people view the economy as this thing that has sectors that are seperate and not connected and the reality in this whole thing is so monumentally complex you can’t disrupt one without massive repercussions for the others.

      1. I think the elephant in the livingroom on this whole topic is that the economy is going to collapse because we’ve barred all the people who can’t work from home from going into the workplace.

        If our economy could tick along just fine while we all worked at the diningroom table, then we wouldn’t even notice the CV19 thing. But the fact of the matter is that all those millions of people that the economy needs to go into an office now can’t go.

        1. Whole economy is sales/service based it’s amazing that people don’t see how shutting down people’s ability to legally sell or provide services isn’t going to trickle up or impact them soon.

          1. There was even an article on the “Food Economy”, as if you could slice one chunk of the economy off the rest and have it function…
            Every part of the economy has inputs and outputs; you know, the rest of the economy. Shut that down and you don’t have a “Food Economy”; you’ve got a dead economy.

        2. Pardon me, but I think you misspelled “orifice.”

          But I guess “office” works okay for some people.

  4. So the 21st Century is the Century when the government takes over the US economy?

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  5. the Reason descent into unintellectual continues unabated

  6. Currently this has done the greatest harm the world would ever see.
    By the way am enduring with music from Lockdown playList

  7. Huzzah! The Golden Age has arrived.

  8. I thought the last two words of the subtitle were going to be, “the country”. To me the infection map looks like a population map, maybe with a slight variable for the degree to which a given city has a strong ‘international’ community or economy.

    I’m in suburbia where it’s been very light, I personally know one person to have had it and he’s recovered. All my friends who either live or own second homes in the country are far away and consider this little more than a mild inconvenience. They shop in large quantities because a grocery store of size is over an hour away, so most had plenty of the basics. They are rarely in crowds of more than 5 or 6, much less 50 or 100. They never sit in a seat on a subway or bus that’s been sat in by 50 other people recently and hasn’t been really cleaned in a long time.

    If you aren’t making millions on the stock exchange, I have no idea why you’d live in NYC after this. Or San Francisco, or Detroit.

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  10. The problem with NIck’s assessment is there still a digital divide that will likely slow the progress at some point. Yes on-line teaching can replace in-school but to get there you have to get all students on line. That mean access for all to both a computer and the internet. There is also the problem of rural internet access that remains to be addressed. The upside to this is that there has been a population drain in rural areas caused of lack of employment. Working from home would allow people in rural areas to have jobs that could make it easier to remain living in rural areas. So the interesting question is will the pandemic drive the infrastructure development to allow the future envisioned is this article?

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