Apocalypse or a New Beginning?

On March 16, the German futurist  Matthias Horx published Die Welt Nach Corona in which he imagined what might surprise us in six months time as we look back on this tumultuous pandemic.  “There are historical moments when the future changes direction. We call them bifurcations. Or deep crises. These times are now.  The world as we know it is dissolving. But behind it comes a new world, the formation of which we can at least imagine.”


First, he suggests, we will be surprised that our physical distancing rarely led to a feeling of social isolation. Instead, after an initial shock, there was a sense of relief that the constant chatter, on a multitude of channels, had ended. Rather than remoteness, physical distancing opened up new connections and six feet of separation created a new closeness. We encountered people whom we would never have met otherwise,  contacted old friends more often and  strengthened ties that had become loose. 


“The social courtesy that we previously increasingly missed, increased,” he predicts. 


We will be amazed at how quickly digital cultural techniques proved themselves. Teleconferencing turned out to be productive, teachers experienced the viability of learning beyond the classroom, and the home office became a matter of course for many. And quaint outdated cultural techniques experienced a renaissance, not least real people answering the phone without being distracted during the forthcoming conversation. 


Long walks were back in vogue,  reading books was fashionable, while TV reality shows  and cruel crime series seemed trivial, as did the political correctness debate, the infinite number of cultural wars and  the mass rage evident on the roads or at sport fixtures.  Cynicism, a casual way of devaluing the world, was out, the culture of fear and hysteria in the media was limited, fake news rapidly lost market value and conspiracy theories suddenly looked ridiculous.  In Germany, the right-wing AfD lost popularity  because a malicious, divisive policy did not fit into a post-corona world. The pandemic made it clear that those who want to incite people against each other have little to contribute to real questions about the future. When things got serious, the destructiveness that lives in populism became clear.


We will be surprised how the rapid development of drugs  increased the survival rate and made covid19 a virus that we have to deal with — much like the flu. Medical progress helped but  we also learned that it was not so much technology but a crucial change in social behavior that was important - despite restrictions of movement, people expressed comfort, empathy and solidarity, bolstered by a sense of humor,  in a way that artificial intelligence never could. This has shifted the relationship between technology and culture; before the crisis, technology seemed to be the panacea but afterwards there were grave doubts about the great digital redemption.  Rather we turned our attention back to the humane question: What do we mean to each other? 


We will be amazed at how far the economy could shrink without collapsing. Although there was a deep economic downturn and a major drop in the stock market, although many companies went bankrupt or mutated into something completely different, it never came to zero. By September  the global economy had recovered but it is in the process of  being dismantled and reconfigured.  Local production is booming, networks are being localized, and crafts are experiencing a renaissance. The global system is drifting towards what Horx labels GLOCALization -  the localization of the global.  Thus the movement of people from the land to crowded  urban and industrialized cities will be reversed for the first time in two centuries. 


We will be surprised that even the loss of assets due to the stock market crash does not hurt as much as in the beginning; in the new world, good neighbors and a blossoming vegetable garden are the real wealth. 


Every deep crisis creates stories. Two of the strongest images are of the Italians making music on the balconies and of the satellite images showing the industrial areas of China and Italy free of smog. In 2020, human CO2 emissions will drop for the first time, which should inspire us as the environmental holocaust returns into focus. 


This transformation is largely an unproven human societal evolutionary process that emerges from the failure of its predecessor. And it can consciously be designed by people - those who speak the language of the coming complexity will be the leaders of tomorrow,  the up- and-coming Greta Thunbergs.  But there are examples for us to emulate, if only we can see them.  For me they are found in the wisdom of honey bees, for whom good neighbors and a blossoming garden really do represent  opulence. For millions of years, perhaps as many as eighty, their purpose has been the future of the species in as strong and as healthy a form as possible.  They take everything they need from the environment in such a way that not so much as a leaf is harmed. They are neither cynical nor hysterical, but work as a unit for the survival of all. The fact that their future is in question is a reflection of the environment we have created, as well as viruses and parasites introduced by global communications, and for the first time in millennia they cannot resolve it, or adapt to it, by themselves. 


Maybe, Horx speculates,  the virus is a messenger from the future, with the memo that  human civilization has become too dense, too fast and overheated. It would be foolish to underestimate the  powerful forces that will want to re-establish the old status quo, even though we have been  sprinting  in a direction in which there is no future.  The ultimate challenge of the corona virus is to recognize this rare opportunity to reinvent ourselves.

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