Saturday 25 April 2020

The Covidian revolution

Twenty or thirty years after the invention of the printing press most people still couldn’t read and few books were printed anyway. So too while the Internet has changed life considerably in the past decades it hasn’t really changed how most of us have worked. We still got up early in the morning and got into cars, trains or busses and travelled to our place of work. The jobs that people did in 2020 were not that different to the jobs they did in 1980. But that is going to change rapidly now, not so much because of the Internet but because the Internet enables us to avoid other people.

Change is resisted. Most of us don’t like it. For the past decades we have pretended that the physical could go on just the same even when it had been replaced by the virtual. But Covid 19 has ended that pretence.

There are some people who are required today to go out and interact with other people. This is because the nature of their job requires it and society requires that their job continues even when most of us are stuck at home. This work is essential. Everything else is inessential.

Doctors and nurses still need to turn up at hospitals and risk becoming infected themselves because their job for the most part cannot be done virtually. Doctors might be able to talk with patients with video calls, but sometimes they have to be able to see them and touch them. Treatment still involves a physical interaction between a nurse and a patient.

Supermarkets already have automatic checkouts and the present crisis will accelerate the move to automation, but there still need to be people who deliver stock and put it on the shelves.

Rubbish collection cannot be done virtually, yet without it there would be a greater public health crisis than there already is. People still need to drive around emptying bins. There are some other essential jobs. The police, the army, farmers and factory workers are needed in this crisis. The rest of us are not needed.

The fact that we are stuck at home is damaging the economy, but otherwise the world is continuing as normal. We can buy what we need from the shops. We have power in our homes. We are safe and secure. What do we do when we are at work then? What good does it do, if it is unnecessary now? We produce goods and services that we trade with other countries and with ourselves that create wealth. This will become crucial again soon enough, because it pays the costs of those jobs that are essential, but for the moment our country in its time of crisis can do without us.

The inessential people stuck at home are divided into two groups. There are those of us who can work and there are those of us who cannot. If your job involves sitting in front of a computer and interacting with it, then it is for the most part possible to continue as if nothing has happened. It might be a bit lonely at home, but universities, for example, can with little adaptation function perfectly adequately. Students can have discussions with academics. They can read books and articles online. Research that does not involve interacting with physical objects or travel can continue in many cases just as well as before. When change becomes necessary it happens quickly.

Many jobs that at present require physical interaction could in theory be done virtually. It should be possible to have virtual court rooms with lawyers and juries and defendants. But other jobs clearly require people to be able to travel and interact. Why go to a pub to buy beer and wine if you can’t sit in it and chat? It is far cheaper to buy alcohol from the supermarket.

Those people who are stuck at home, but able to continue working may find that once this crisis has passed, they will continue to do so indefinitely. If journalists can write articles at home and readers can read them online, what is the point of physical newspapers? If writers can write novels and they can be distributed to a Kindle, why have bookshops? If people can work just as effectively at home why are we all getting up early and travelling to an office. What purpose does this office have?  Deduct the cost of buying or renting office space as well as the travel costs and you have a new way of making profit.

The danger for those who cannot work at home is that the world goes on perfectly adequately without their work. If I can buy all I need online, physical shops will cease to have a purpose. Will they even reopen?

We are learning to live without buying expensive coffee at Starbucks. We can eat perfectly adequately without going to restaurants and drink all we please from cans and bottles bought at the supermarket. We can be entertained by online streaming and have no need to go to Cinemas. We are discovering lots of jobs that we can do without. 

There used to be all sorts of jobs that existed in previous centuries that barely exist at all now. When people began to drive cars, the jobs associated with horses declined. We are in the midst of a similar Covidian revolution. It was going to happen anyway, but Covid 19 and the need to live virtually is going to make it happen more quickly. Those of us who are stuck at home are inessential workers, but those of us who are both inessential and unable to work from home might as well be gas lamplighters trying to compete with Edison.