Five Lessons From the Pandemic

My family and I have been locked down for over two months now. At first, it felt like a temporary inconvenience. That feeling has passed. It’s clear now that the pandemic is a transformational event. Some changes are temporary, but many will be permanent. It can’t be otherwise, what with a major health crisis underway and unemployment at levels not seen in close to a century.

These facts have me in a reflective mood. I’ve been revisiting old books, looking for what still rings true in these very different times. I’ve been tweaking habits around essential functions like eating and sleeping. I’ve cut down on the attention I apportion to social media. I’ve also been thinking about what we can learn from this experience.

As with all crises, the pandemic can be a powerful teacher. Here are five lessons that the coronavirus has made tangible for me:

Technology is the infrastructure of life

The current situation is terrible. Many people are sick, and many more have lost their livelihood. But consider how much worse it would be if we didn’t have advanced technologies. The internet opens the world to us from our homes; many of us can work from our living rooms; we can stay in touch with friends and family through video chats. When I wrote Living in Information, I didn’t expect we’d be doing so as thoroughly as we are now — but I’m glad that the option is available.

Basic human needs don’t change

Yes, we have amazing technologies, but our basic needs don’t change. The crisis reintroduces us to our priorities: We need to eat and feed our families. We need shelter. We crave connection with others. We want to be of value, to do meaningful work. We can find calm and maybe even joy, even in uncomfortable and unsettling circumstances. The crisis nudges us to cast off nice-to-haves in favor of things that matter.

Resilience trumps efficiency

Much of our world has been structured by a relentless drive to produce things faster, cheaper, and at higher volumes. Supply chains for essential goods extend throughout the planet. The pandemic has disrupted many of those supply chains. While efficiency is desirable, it’s not the ultimate goal; it doesn’t matter how cheap something is if you can’t buy it at all. Decentralized, heterogeneous, distributed systems (such as the internet) are more resilient than overly optimized ones.

Expertise matters

The internet is the most powerful publishing medium that has ever existed, and it’s within most people’s power to use it as such. But not everyone knows what they’re talking about. Following the advice of experts can be a matter of life or death, and fame and power don’t confer expertise.

We’re all deeply interconnected

Our societies are complex networks of relationships. Viruses don’t care about national boundaries, political affiliations, levels of wealth, fame, etc. A manufacturing plant in the American Midwest relies on parts made in China and transported in ships that fly the flag of another nation. Someone who doesn’t pay his rent can cause his landlord to default, which can cause his bank to default, causing other businesses to default, etc. The shopper coughing in the next aisle can be your executioner; the neighbor bringing you groceries can be your savior. There are no “others”; we’re all in this together.