#121: Don't Go Back to Rockville

Last week, Toby Shorin published some fascinating predictions about how this pandemic will affect culture and technology, and he let me contribute some thoughts about what will happen to cities and physical space. At this point, making predictions about any stage of the future feels like a fool’s errand if accuracy is the goal, but I’ve always believed that these exercises are valuable for reasons entirely independent of whether they turn out to be correct. Thinking about the future, at its best, is really just another way to process the present, and there’s never been a better time to do that. Since the future is already here but not evenly distributed, as William Gibson said, observing certain current conditions can literally be a form of prediction (but maybe less so now than normally).

A common refrain these days is that much of our pre-coronavirus culture has been quickly invalidated, as was the case immediately after 9/11, when it only took six days for Graydon Carter to pronounce irony dead. Having wondered whether this is true of my own stuff, I’ve been surprised to find that a lot of what I’ve written in recent years feels at least as true this month as it did before coronavirus. The interaction of physical and digital space—my beat, if I’m forced to summarize it—hasn’t been fundamentally transformed so much as intensified. The infrastructure for a digital-first life was already in place and ready to meet escalating demand not due to some heroic wartime effort but because many of us were already living that way (hence Ian Bogost’s assertion a month ago that we were already living in quarantine). I would forgive you for indulging wild conspiracy theories—which I’ve seen in the form of jokes—that COVID-19 was started by Zoom, Amazon, or the private equity industry, only because the pandemic-ravaged world seems poised to accelerate so rapidly into their welcoming arms. Indeed, there is a sort of conspiracy afoot, but anyone who frames it the way I just did has it exactly backward: Rather than creating a pandemic, those entities built an interiorized, pandemic-optimized world in advance of its realization. We’ll learn soon enough how that works out for them.

Most of the predictions I’ve seen thus far are monolithic statements about what “everyone” will do differently going forward, but what’s increasingly obvious to me is how this crisis will decisively divide the world in two along many different axes. Some of those fault lines are obvious, and were already splitting open: at-risk or healthy; hourly or salaried; manual laborer or knowledge worker. This month, as I discussed last time, we’ve already witnessed a massive transfer of risk from those who can keep working remotely (and getting paid) to those who must continue physically showing up to a job. In the absence of a satisfactory bailout for individuals and small businesses (duh), that transfer of risk will be matched or surpassed by a transfer of wealth (“corporate raiders and PE firms are already sharpening their knives”). The effects of these upheavals alone will last well beyond the pandemic itself. And then there are the behavioral changes that Toby and I contemplated: It’s impossible to say what everyone will do once this is over. Extremely online life will not appeal equally to everyone, or even be possible for many. To some, the event will feel like a generational tragedy; to others, it might seem like we all overreacted. Once quarantines end, not everyone will be ready to stop social distancing, but others have already stopped or never started, and a lot of that depends on necessity as well as preference. For the past four years, we have understood the bifurcation of the United States in terms of political alignment, but going forward, those distinctions will be sharper and probably more complex. If the future is unevenly distributed, that’s because everything else is too.