Covid-19 came as a shock to almost everyone, except for the many elites responsible for the task of preparation. Who should be surprised that pandemics are a threat? Didn’t Hollywood even make a movie Contagion in 2011 that discussed the R0 parameter that Chancellor Merkel explains to the German public? Elites knew, yet we were not prepared. Isn’t that astounding? What’s the point of having elites if they don’t do much?
Many countries, the US included, engaged in planning for such catastrophes in simulated response times to hypothetical viral and bacterial crises. Hospitals ran crisis management exercises following the SARs epidemic. Corporations engaged in such exercises, and they were stunned to find, they forgot they were prepared. Facebook discovered hundreds of thousands of facial masks re-discovered in inventory. Corporate leaders met with military leaders, politicians held open inquiries, medical institutions and insurance companies knew the risks.
Some argue that the world will change as a consequence. We ask will Covid have a structural impact, or an accelerating impact on forces already bearing upon economies and societies? It is a good question and it is too early to know. Covid did us at least one positive service and pulled the curtains from the windows. Now that we see the benefits of pervasive, we have to decide what to do if preparation means the permanent pervasive State.
What do I think? Covid teaches us the fundamental value of humanity, sociality, the longing for proximity. We are social beings, living in purgatory, saved and damned by Zoom. We live in isolated rooms but with connectivity, Sartre’s Huis Clos modernized, always on-line and still no exit.
Here is a better alternative: we will live in a future world inhabited by people and algorithmic machines that know our names. Work places will change, maybe now only faster. Cities will change, the cost of social distancing will flip the scale economies negative, and people move to smaller towns. Democracy will be challenged by technology, it will be enabled by technology. This week, the US public for the first time listened in real time to the arguments held at the Supreme Court. Cultural institutions opened their archives.
Change is before us, as it has always been in history. We’ve come this far. Academics should prepare to engage in common humanity, humility, and better science. While the past months meant that we came to grieve, we also woke up. We looked for the exit.
Meanwhile, I learned to make sushi, among other things…
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Bruce Kogut is Professor in the Department of Sociology and in the School of Business, at Columbia, where he also co-leads the working group in Computational Social Science. He is a member of the “Working Futures” Network at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin.
More articles of the series "Wiko Briefs - Working Futures in Corona Times" can be found here.