Contrary to what the gloom of another day in lock down or the latest wash of inanity on the news might suggest, I say we’re living in the most inventive, hopeful, and impactful period in history since the days of Newton and Shakespeare.
We’re just in it, so we can’t see it.
The connection between pandemics and change
The original Renaissance emerged during various outbreaks of plague that afflicted Europe from the late 14th to early 17th centuries. In killing many millions and scaring everyone else, the disease challenged or blew up a thousand years of social, religious, and economic stagnation that had followed the fall of the Roman Empire.
These repeat health crises prompted a reawakening to the lens of humanism through which the ancients had once seen the world.
When the Black Death led to shortages of workers in the 1300s, the healthy found that they had the freedom to travel and choose new jobs at the best wages. Laws changed. So did religions. The brutality of the disease forced the practice of medicine away from applying invented theories on health and focus instead on understanding human physiology.
Changing the rules opened up new opportunities for people. A few hundred years later, closing down London gave Shakespeare the time to write three of his greatest plays in a single year, and it was at his country retreat the Newton developed his ideas for the calculus.
Of course, it must have been awful living through those times — plague chronicler Daniel Defoe wrote “This is a world of corpses strewn in streets and pits…” — and for every constructive innovation there were far greater numbers of people who were unaware of them, and would never enjoy their benefits, but the novelty born from those crises led to the Enlightenment and most of what we think of today as “modern.”
Waking up from the 20th century
We live in the dream of the 20th century, even two decades after its end.
There have been bursts of clarity, usually when our fitful sleep has been challenged by the waking world: Our politics, economics, and science don’t account for the implications for real-time/all-the-time connectivity, recognize or incorporate the requirements of nature for individual health or planetary survival, or address the reality of how and where we live and treat one another.
We distrust our institutions and are angry at them (and at one another) because know our laws and customs constrain us, and our technologies seem to exacerbate our problems more than they resolve them.
Swap out our smartphones and snark and we have far more in common with our parents and grandparents than we can see, or choose to believe. The 21st century has been impeded by the 20th, in much the same way that the 1300s were little more than an extension of what was the accepted wisdom in 1299.
Covid-19 is changing all that.
The timeline is shorter now, thankfully, and so are the details. Humanity suffered a thousand years of “dark ages” that preceded the Renaissance, and then endured a few hundred years of plagues during it (civilization outlasted the disease instead of solving it). The 20th century (and century or two leading up to it) were far more notable for their successes, things like colonialism and two world wars notwithstanding, and we’re likely to get a handle on a coronavirus vaccine in a year or so.
We’ll react similarly quickly to the next ones, too.
The New Renaissance
If we simply change our frame of reference from seeing “responses to the virus” to “innovations in our lives going forward,” the entire experience kinda shifts.
We’ve already thrown out the window our preconceived notions about work — where, what, and why — along with our routines and habits of life ranging from what and how we buy, to how we entertain and enrich ourselves and share our lives with family and friends. Today’s plague has challenged us to rethink how we approach our health, considering the relevance of comorbidities to its effects, and our treatment of a planetary ecosystem that may well have thrown the disease at us in response to our abuse.
We’re questioning how we participate in democracy, from the utility of social media to the mechanisms of voting. We’re developing new models for how businesses are managed and thereafter judged and valued, elevating once nice-to-haves of environmental, social, and governance attributes to necessities.
And the argument that technology is some inevitable, uncontrollable phenomenon in our lives has lost its luster. We may never be able to fully conceive of its effects but we know now that can certainly more rigorously and forcefully debate its purposes.
Suffering the blunt trauma of Covid-19 has made us less willing to suffer the biases and buzz of institutions that have agendas that aren’t aligned with our well-being, let alone good for the world.
The director of the London School of Economics and Political Science wrote in today’s Financial Times:
“Covid-19 has revealed deep flaws in our societies that have been festering for decades. These flaws were reflected in people’s disappointment in the lives offered to them. Even before the pandemic struck, surveys found that four out of every five people in the US, Europe, China, India and various developing countries believed “the system” was not working for them.”
We have a lot of pain and confusion ahead of us, but we are not only cursed but blessed to be living in these times. Covid-19 could well be the plague that leads to step-change improvement in our world. All we have to do is see it.
Right now, our Shakespeares and Newtons are inventing our future.