When the world restarts, what will we have lost? And learned?

When the world restarts, what will we have lost? And learned?

As I write this column, my meetings-free, interviews-canceled, to-dos-in stasis world is very different than it was two months ago.

As you read this, your today-world will likely have morphed through many more neck-twisting, head-shaking reversals and resets before landing on whatever is your own new abnormal.

We will get through this.

The larger question: What we will have learned from the journey? Short term? Long term?

Yuval Noah Harari, the Israeli historian, philosopher and deep-thinking author of best-selling popular science books—Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow and 21 Lessons for the 21st Century—says our world, post-coronavirus crisis, faces “two particularly important choices. The first is between totalitarian surveillance and citizen empowerment. The second is between nationalist isolation and global solidarity.”

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“When choosing between alternatives,” he wrote in a Mar. 20 commentary in Britain’s Financial Times, “we should ask ourselves not only how to overcome the immediate threat, but also what kind of world we will inhabit once the storm passes.”

The crisis has accelerated the use—and acceptance—of invasive existing surveillance techniques. China monitored citizens’ smartphones and used facial-recognition cameras and software to track suspected carriers. Israel, invoking an “emergency decree,” deployed “technology normally reserved for battling terrorists to track coronavirus patients.”

Harari notes the crisis has accelerated the use—and acceptance—of invasive existing surveillance techniques. China monitored citizens’ smartphones and used facial-recognition cameras and software to track suspected carriers. Israel, invoking an “emergency decree,” deployed “technology normally reserved for battling terrorists to track coronavirus patients.”

Where might this lead? “Consider a hypothetical government that demands every citizen wears a biometric bracelet that monitors body temperature and heart-rate 24 hours a day,” Harari asks.

That government would know “you are sick even before you know it… [So] the chains of infection could be drastically shortened, and even cut altogether.” But that same government—with access to body temperature, blood pressure and heart rate data—would know whether you clicked on a Fox News instead of a CNN link and could measure what made you laugh, cry and “really, really angry” while watching.

Given a choice between health and privacy, Harari says, people “usually choose health,” suggesting we may—ex-post-facto—mark our current crisis as the tipping-into-the-surveillance-society-abyss point in that battle.

He also argues the current crisis can only be confronted by global, government-level cooperation. “A coronavirus in China and a coronavirus in the United States cannot swap tips about how to infect humans. But China can teach the U.S. many valuable lessons about coronavirus and how to deal with it.” 

But, three-quarters of the way through March, he did not see much hope for international cooperation, especially since the nationalist, Trumpian U.S. had long since “abdicated the job of leader” of the international community.

Has that really changed in your now-world?

Harari sees our choice starkly. Global disunity will prolong the current crisis and result in worse crises. Global solidarity will signal a “victory, not only against the coronavirus but against all future epidemics and crises that might assail humankind in the 21st century.”

I might not go that far, but I do believe we must collectively think more about “what kind of world we will inhabit in the future.”

Including in our global economic, environmental futures.

We have created a world in which we have been taught to believe taxes are evils to be avoided, not a way to ensure we all have access to essential services and supplies. We have created a tax system that starves public services in the name of individual freedom while exacerbating the survival gulf between rich and poor. We have promoted policies that destroy the planet instead of preserving it…

We can’t continue to do those things—not if we want to continue.

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