This is the New Normal

Goodbye office buildings, goodbye schools, and goodbye chain stores.

Posted May 15, 2020

Goodbye office buildings. Goodbye schools. Goodbye chain stores. We were slowly but steadily drifting towards a more virtual world before the pandemic, and now the writing on the wall is becoming clear. Many kinks have to be worked out, of course, but the online universe is rapidly emerging as our primary model for work, education, and shopping.

Interestingly, the germ of Thomas Jefferson’s late 18th-century concept of America being a nation of independent, self-sustaining households owned and operated by yeoman farmers is coming to fruition. In the early 21st century, it is not the family farm that is serving as the driving force of the economy but the internet. With our ever-expanding network and ever-increasing bandwidth, we’re realizing that we can get much of our work done, learn much of what we need to know, and get many of the products and services we need without venturing to the outside world.

The physical infrastructure that we’ve constructed over the centuries to enable work, education, and shopping is being exposed as largely inefficient if not unnecessary. Now, because of the pandemic, that infrastructure is understandably perceived as potentially dangerous to one’s health because of intensive human contact in what may be a new era of globally spread contagions.

Beyond the health risks, however, buildings are expensive to construct and maintain, and rents, taxes, and insurance comprise a high percentage of operating costs. It makes simple fiscal sense to bypass these expenses, assuming there is an acceptable alternative with which people can effectively communicate with each other.

The internet is that alternative. After 25 years or so of commercial construction, the online universe has reached a point where it can serve as a functional platform for much of what we do. The pandemic has further pushed us into this virtual world and there is little reason to believe that this course will or even can be reversed. Public gatherings which have no good virtual replacement will survive (and perhaps thrive), but those that do not will be relegated to the dustbin of history in the not so distant future.

One doesn’t have to be a professional futurist to observe that this shift is already taking place. The pandemic has exponentially sped up the gradual encroachment of the internet in our everyday lives, particularly with regard to work, education, and shopping. With continued improvements and advancements in technology, the transition from analog to digital in these arenas will accelerate.

Extending the model of how we’re currently working, going to school, and buying things is not too difficult. Zoom, Google, and Amazon will leverage their dominance of their respective businesses and will spin off new products and services that take away share from enterprises based in the physical world. (I’m convinced, for example, that Google University will within a decade have more enrolled students than any other institution of higher learning.) Other mega-brands that make innovative use of online technology will likely emerge.

Will the analog world completely go away? Not at all. Bars, restaurants, professional sports, and entertainment events offer communal and sensorial experiences that cannot be replicated online, at least until virtual realities greatly improve. As well, humans will likely always be social animals, and will continue to seek each other out for the kind of companionship that can be found only in the real world. I think the future is also bright for mom and pop stores offering things that can be had at a moment’s notice and would be impractical to buy online.

Because they are considered essential, governmental services such as military, police, fire, paramedic, and garbage should not be much different in our post-pandemic world. Health care, too, will likely remain much the same, although that arena is destined to be greatly expanded in order to manage and control the spread of future contagions.

To that point, I foresee a federally run National Health Center (NHC) charged with keeping public life as virus-free as possible. In such a scenario, all Americans would be issued IDs that are linked to a national database providing the viral health status of the individual. The merit of both national IDs and universal health care has been debated for years, of course, and the current pandemic will be justification to combine elements of each in the name of public safety. (Despite our Constitution, civil liberties tend to go out the window in times of crises and emergencies such as this one.)

How would the NHC work? First by mandating that all citizens be both tested and vaccinated for COVID-19 at local National Health Centers. (A medically trained government worker akin to a census-taker would administer the test and vaccine to children and the home-bound.) After that, an annual “booster” would be required to ensure the virus is not present and to ward off other viruses. In large cities, these centers would (sadly) be not unlike the DMV, while post offices or town halls could be appropriately staffed and assigned the task in smaller communities.

How to enforce such a thing? Those who refuse the test and/or vaccine would face arrest and quarantine. But there would also be a powerful incentive to go along with this admittedly Big Brother-like directive. Admittance to any public gathering place—bar, restaurant, baseball game, or Lady Gaga concert—would require showing one’s virus-free health status per one’s ID. Theoretically, then, everyone in a public place should be non-contagious.

Naturally, all kinds of implications spin out of this scenario or anything like it, the most significant one being the creation of a more powerful and centralized federal government. A government charged with, first and foremost, guarding the survival of its citizens could even mean the end of the two-party political system and the disbanding of states (each something I believe is long overdue). Now, however, is the time to rethink all of our assumptions and create the world that is most likely for us to live healthy lives.