Like many, I’ve been pondering what life will be like post-pandemic. It’s become almost trite to ask, “What will be the new normal?”
There are so many ways to look at this question. How far will business travel rebound to pre-pandemic levels? How will we decide who will be allowed to continue remote work? How will organizations deal with the myriad legal complexities of “reasonable accommodation” among a hybrid virtual/on-premises workforce? How will automated and distanced emergency short-term process changes map into long-term process innovation? What gaps have appeared in our information security and governance systems during the rush to deploy these systems that must now be addressed before they snowball?
For those dealing with these and so many other complicated tactical questions tied to the return to work, I suggest two articles that I have found very helpful: 1) Employment Law Considerations for Returning to the Workplace in a COVID-19 World from the White & Case law firm; and 2) this super helpful checklist from the Society for Human Resource Management.
This will be more than enough to keep us busy, particularly those in the information management space. But another set of changes have been bothering me. These more strategic and societal changes have been brewing for a generation, exacerbated by technology and exposed in technicolor during the pandemic.
I’m talking about the distributional and regional impacts of technology and automation.
The Pandemic Spotlighted Existing Inequalities
A decade ago, Marc Andreessen pondered the disruptive implications of global, cloud-based software in "Why Software is Eating the World."
“More and more major businesses and industries are being run on software and delivered as online services — from movies to agriculture to national defense. Many of the winners are Silicon Valley-style entrepreneurial technology companies that are invading and overturning established industry structures. Over the next 10 years, I expect many more industries to be disrupted by software, with new world-beating Silicon Valley companies doing the disruption in more cases than not.”
Six years ago, in "The Great Uncoupling," Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee worried that in spite of the clear productivity benefits of “The Second Machine Age,” the distributional and societal implications are mixed:
"Digitization is creating new types of economic disruption. In part, this reflects the fact that as computers get more powerful, companies have less need for some kinds of workers. Even as it races ahead, technological progress may leave some people — perhaps even a lot — behind. For other people, however, the outlook is bright. There’s never been a better time to be a worker with special technological skills or education. Those people can create and capture value. However, it’s not a great time to have only ordinary skills. Computers and robots are learning many basic skills at an extraordinary pace.
"There’s no economic law ensuring that as technological progress makes the pie bigger, it benefits everyone equally. Digital technologies can replicate valuable ideas, processes, and innovations at very low cost. This creates abundance for society and wealth for innovators, but it diminishes the demand for some kinds of labor."
Fast-forward to the current day. The impact of the pandemic has made not only the uneven benefits of disruptive technology across individuals clear, but also highlighted the uneven regional impact of such technology, which adds additional strains on our political fabric. Per Alec MacGillis in "Fulfillment: Winning and Losing in One-Click America":
“No one should have been surprised by the disparity of the [pandemic] impact, because the divides had been there for anyone to see, getting more noticeable by the year, wherever your travels took you …. In 1980, virtually every area of the country had mean incomes that were within 20 percent of the national average — only metro New York and Washington, D.C. fell above that band, and only parts of the rural South and Southwest fell below it. But by 2013, virtually the entire Northeast Corridor from Boston to Washington and the Northern California coast had incomes more than 20 percent above average. Most startlingly, a huge swath of the country’s interior had incomes more than 20 percent below average — not only the rural South and Southwest but much of the Midwest and Great Plains as well. As for the places already wealthy in 1980, they were now off the charts. Income in the Washington area was a quarter higher than in the rest of the country in 1980. By the middle of 2015, that gap was more than twice as large.”
Where Life Will Be Like in 2025
The Pew Research Center and Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center asked 915 innovators, developers, business leaders, policy leaders, researchers and activists to consider what life will be like in 2025 in the wake of the outbreak of the global pandemic and other crises in 2020.
The good news is this:
“Their broad and nearly universal view is that people’s relationship with technology will deepen as larger segments of the population come to rely more on digital connections for work, education, health care, daily commercial transactions and essential social interactions. A number describe this as a 'tele-everything' world.”
The not so good news is that “47% of the respondents said life will be mostly worse for most people in 2025 than it was before the pandemic, while 39% said life will be mostly better for most people in 2025 than it was pre-pandemic. Another 14% said most people’s lives in 2025 will not be much different from the way things would have turned out if there had been no pandemic.” The 915 leaders concluded, “The advantaged enjoy more advantages; the disadvantaged fall further behind” and offered these five specific concerns (original quote shortened):
- Inequality and injustice are magnified: The pandemic and quick pivot to the use of digitally-driven systems will widen racial and other divides and expand the ranks of the unemployed, uninsured and disenfranchised.
- As risk grows, security must also. Privacy falls and authoritarianism rises: The health crisis spawned by the pandemic and broader dependence people have on the internet heighten threats of criminal activity, hacks and other attacks.
- Threats to work will intensify from automation, artificial intelligence, robotics and globalization: In order to survive, businesses are reconfiguring systems and processes to automate as many aspects as possible.
- Misinformation will be rampant: Digital propaganda is unstoppable, and the rapidly expanding weaponization of cloud-based technologies divides the public, deteriorates social cohesion and threatens rational deliberation and evidence-based policymaking.
- People’s mental health will be challenged: Digital life was already high-stress for some people prior to the required social isolation brought on by the pandemic.
Looking for the OxyMorons: The Practical Dreamers and Visionary Pragmatists
This is the part of the article when I should offer recommendations. Frankly, I don’t know.
But there are some out there to whom we can turn. Over the years I've observed that most people fall into one of two camps: those who endlessly dream but never actually implement, and those who work on a perpetual set of never quite perfect-enough detailed plans. Those who truly change things — at work, in their communities or even in the world — are rare. I’ve been spending some time recently talking to these people, whom I call The OxyMorons, the Practical Dreamers and Visionary Pragmatists among us.
As we think about the more strategic questions of where technology is leading us, we need more of these crazy “double thinkers” — folks who can envision the profound benefits of technology and what it can do, but also consider the iniquities created by the accelerating disruption in “the new normal.” It’s not an easy task, but it's one we have to do.