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From now, history will part into before and after this pandemic



LENIN had it right when he said that there are decades when nothing happens, and there are weeks when decades happen. Had he been with us through lockdown, he might have added: there are months when centuries happen, too.

  My main task as the BBC’s first media editor has been reporting on a technological revolution. Many of the stories that I have covered in the past few years have the same arc: a ludicrously rich tech giant unleashes something it can’t control; unforeseen consequences abound; democracies around the world declare “Up With This We Will Not Put!” and convene a meeting or hold hearings. And then nothing happens – except the tech giants keep getting richer.

  Why does this keep happening? Some will say there is a mismatch in competence and intelligence: the tech giants have the world’s best engineers and very clear global ambitions; democratic states are easily distracted, focused on their own national preferences, and they don’t pay nearly as well. But I have started to think the real divide is speed. Innovation is fast and unpredictable. Regulation is slow and consensual. Democracies are always playing catch-up.

  Tony Blair famously claimed, in 2006, that the great political divide was no longer left versus right but open versus closed. But today the more important split in politics – and in media – is fast versus slow.

  In some ways, this isn’t a new development: centuries ago, the invention of the printing press suddenly sped up European history, prompting rebellions and revolutions everywhere. The difference today is how much faster information moves: what took 10 days in the age of Gutenberg seems to happen in 10 seconds in the age of Zuckerberg. The speeding up of history is itself speeding up.

  This is the great acceleration. And it leaves a lot of people behind. For those who benefit from hyper-mobility, and have excellent cognitive training, change can mean gains; for those unable or – quite reasonably – unwilling to adapt to the revolution, change means pain. The other great driver of history is a youth bulge. In the west, the end of the war prompted a population burst. One explanation for the cultural energy of the 1960s is that postwar babies were reaching young adulthood.

Today, the west is old and getting older, whereas parts of Asia and Africa are young.

  When you put together technology and demography – the rise of Silicon Valley and Asia, basically – it becomes clear we are living through one of history’s hinge moments. For half a millennium the locus of global power was in the battles between western empires, then states. In this century, it will shift east.

And then COVID-19 happened; from now on we will divide history into before and after this pandemic. If anyone doubted that the ideological scaffolding of the post-1945 global settlement was crumbling, the last few months have provided definitive proof. We can see that something like a new era – a post-pandemic world – is struggling to be born. And a national conversation is beginning about what it should look like – including a collective reappraisal of how we should live. This includes fallen statues of slave traders, but for most of us, the adjustments of the new era will be personal rather than geopolitical.   Video conferencing might supplant the commute or the office. An exhilarating connection with birdsong might become part of the daily routine. Fresh bonds with neglected neighbours could lead to happier, healthier streets.

  But the bigger picture also needs a rethink – and the future of our politics, society and economy feels very much up for grabs.

Scrambling to understand this new world, some analysts argue that it is easier for the right to move left on economics than it is for the left to move right on culture. But they seldom ask why this might be so.

The answer may have something to do with education and economics. In a post-pandemic world, we have to ask anew: what is education for? For generations, we have upheld cognitive skill as the gold standard of human endeavour in our achievement societies. There are good reasons for doing so: meritocracy may be the worst form of society, except for all the others that have been tried. But the extraordinary depth of the education divide today, with graduates pitted against non-graduates in ever more distinct voting blocs and media universes, is not conducive to social harmony. These degrees of separation, as it were, need a rethink.

  In economics, what should follow the worst recession for centuries? Exorbitant inflation in asset prices, and a declining share of wealth going to workers, are entrenched, alarming trends. Today, Apple is worth more than $1.5tn, only two years after crossing the $1tn mark. Just five companies account for one-fifth of the S&P 500 index. Five years ago it was less than 10%. This is the biggest asymmetry of knowledge, wealth and power in the history of our species. Who, among capitalism’s champions, is willing to defend these outcomes?

  How a new world is forged from the old depends on the calibre and courage of leaders, and the intellectual ambition of the rest of us. At this rate, we can shape the latter but not the former. In the coming months, we shall plot not just what is happening, but what ought to happen.

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