Under the title, “There will be no ‘back to normal’” NESTA, the UK’s innovation think tank, published their views on the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. They admit that speculations about what the future will bring are only speculations but point out that it is important to predict what is coming to be better prepared. This is precisely the lesson the pandemic teaches. Already in 2014, Bill Gates held a TED talk in which he prophesied everything that is happening today. But no one was prepared. So we should make an effort to look into the crystal ball and see what could come out of all this.
One of the results of the pandemic is that it is finally obvious to everyone that we are global. Not only did global connectivity and flows of people spread the virus throughout the world in a matter of weeks, but subsequent shortages of protective materials and medical equipment showed international dependencies. The nationalist reaction of closing borders and blocking flows of people and materials represents a “lockdown” mentality aimed to disrupt connectivity and stop the flow of the virus, but at the cost of disrupting the economic, social, and political foundations of the global network society. Politically, anti-globalist factions see themselves justified, whereas those who see the nation-state and its populist supporters as outdated point to the need to strengthen international organizations, such as the WHO and the United Nations. Following these two possible trajectories into the economic realm, some expect a reorganization of supply chains and production favoring national independence under the regime of stronger centralized control and regulation even to the point of nationalizing some industries, while others look to decentralized and networked organizations that alone are capable of dealing with the complexity of the situation. The left is calling for a universal basic income and increased government support for those who have lost jobs and income, while the right is calling for deregulation to spur innovation and the quick development and deployment of new business models and new products and services.
More interesting than the rehearsal of well-known political mythologies is the role of science and technology in the post-pandemic world. Some see the growing dependence of politics on science as a trend toward technocracy, whereas others see how science is unable to deal with pressing moral and social concerns the pandemic raises. One the one hand, society must be guided by scientific evidence and not political ideology, while on the other hand, scientists cannot tell us what values and visions for the future society should follow. Is it right to “sacrifice” lives to “preserve” economic prosperity? How much money is a human life worth? When is life no longer “worth” living? Calls for economic sacrifices in the name of generational solidarity no longer go unquestioned. The conflict between the value of individual lives and the value of social wellbeing is further exacerbated by the insistence upon upholding individual rights to say and do whatever one wants against the demands of regulating public health for the common good. Do personal rights to deny vaccination, for example, outweigh the protection of society as a whole? These are questions that cannot be answered by science. The growing need for a viable vision of a global future will (hopefully) shift political discourse away from traditional ideologies toward new horizons.
Even if the impact of medical science on politics may be short-lived and ambiguous, the impact of digital technologies on society is enormous and will continue. Both in the private and the public sectors, in education, healthcare, research, and other areas, organizations of all kinds have realized that home office, virtual delivery of services and products, virtual collaborative work, new work, and decentralization function very well and reduce costs as well as solve pressing environmental problems. Many digital immigrants have been quickly and even forcibly “naturalized” into the digital world, and traditional top-down, command and control management has received perhaps a death blow. There is a clear need to reduce bureaucracy and cut red tape, not only in healthcare but in all areas of society. The virus has disabled not only many people, but also many traditional convictions about social and economic order, about the way things have to be done.
A further impact of the pandemic will probably lead to increasing demands for transparency and open information. Already many accuse China of dangerous censorship and secrecy with regard to information about the outbreak. Scientists have joined in a worldwide exchange of data and research. Publishers have torn down paywalls. Open access to information of all kinds is considered a priority. Intellectual property claims are becoming suspect. In addition to this, governments are deploying tracking apps, and citizens are accepting more disclosure of so-called “personal information.” In the trade-off between liberty and security/health, security seems to have better cards. This becomes even more apparent when we consider that the shift of more governmental and business activities into the cyber realm will bring greater dangers of cyber criminality and cyber warfare, which in turn demand much greater investments in cybersecurity, or indeed, entirely new concepts of security and accompanying social and organizational changes.
Taken together, it appears that in the wake of the pandemic, we are moving faster towards the data-driven global network society than ever before. Some have predicted that the pandemic will end the “techlash,” since what we need to survive is more information and not less about everyone and everything. This information needs to be analyzed and used as quickly as possible, which spurs on investments in AI and Big Data analytics. Calls for privacy, for regulation of tech giants, and for moratoriums on the deployment of tracking, surveillance, and AI are becoming weaker and losing support throughout the world. Perhaps traditional notions of civil liberties need to be revised and updated for a world in which connectivity, flow, transparency, and participation are the major values.