Everything will change, I tell you — everything!
When the COVID-19 pandemic was officially declared, last March, I found myself flying from São Paulo to Rio on what would have been the last leg of a two-week visit from my friend Eli, whose only other time in the American continent coincided with the 9/11 attacks, leaving the obviously misleading, though still disquieting feeling I should try to meet her in Britain next time just in case.
What we found in Rio was far from the exoticised image of a lustful paradise with a touch of imperial decay. Eli and I barely left our flat and our excursions outdoors were reduced to going from one shop to the next, trying, to no avail, to get hold of a bottle of hand sanitiser. A week before, this product had been almost invisibly ubiquitous to us, but now it was nowhere to be found. ‘Is this what it’s going be like now?’ — I thought. ‘Are we just going to be roaming deserted streets for hand sanitiser forever’?
There’s no surprise that such a hyperbolic scenario would pop up in my head then and, ten months later, bottles of hand sanitiser pile up in shops everywhere. We can’t say yet if gallons of the product are what the future holds for us permanently, but what I, for one, can indeed say at this point is that the most striking effect triggered by this pandemic in terms of how we make sense of the world is that it seems to have legitimised guessing as a tool for thinking about the future. This has quickly turned into a sort of ‘forecast fatigue’: the result of an incessant machine of churning out claims of seismic changes to every aspect of our lives on the daily — all of which are, of course, due to coronavirus.
This discomfort with what I’ve chosen to slyly describe as guessing started during those very first weeks of the pandemic, when, even though the virus was still relatively breaking news, a social-scientist-turned-influencer proclaimed on Instagram that we would simply never shake hands again. That was it: no more handshakes, ever! It wasn’t a hypothesis; he was not wondering. He was outright stating it. How could he have even fathomed that — I thought — after only a few weeks of us grappling with the idea that, for the time being, we should keep track of how many times a day we were washing our hands?
Claims about how culture is going to radically change because of this pandemic are therefore particularly worrisome because they seem to be more concerned with divination than with investigation.
This is why 2020 has morphed into a year of sheer doubt, for me, as to how much we can say will change because of this pandemic. Not just slightly change though; I mean change radically, profoundly, lastingly. According to these prophetic feeds on social media, the types of ground-breaking, paradigm-shifting changes that will ensue go from a realistic concern with how the meaning of office space might change now that more companies, such as Twitter, are telling their employees ‘they could work from home forever’ all the way to somewhat looser claims that a certain demographic fleeing crowded and expensive urban areas to find refuge in rural communities is ‘driving an exodus’.
Not that any of these things might not actually happen, for as tossed around as they have been this year. Trying to disprove them in advance would be as futile as the very proclivity to making exorbitant claims on what the future will be like, based on nothing more than a few random observations, skewed by the desire to make sure we shoot in all directions just to make sure that, if and when any of the items on our list of prophecies does happen, we would be able to claim we were the ones who saw it coming before anyone else.
Claims about how culture is going to radically change because of this pandemic are therefore particularly worrisome because they seem to be more concerned with divination than with investigation. It’s one thing to say that we’re being forced to attend online meetings and classes, but it’s something completely different to say that ‘online teaching is the future’. If anything, we actually seem to be leaning towards a hybrid model at work and regaining an appreciation for the power of physical classrooms. Likewise, if we might have rediscovered the importance of government and the very role of the state through these months of feeling completely adrift, this does not, in any way, imply that mega-corporations, on the other hand, might be under any more fiscal scrutiny than before — in fact, they seem to be sailing through this whole thing rather pompously.
The gap, however, between might and could — or even will — can only be substantially bridged with dedicated research, data, and rigorous analysis; not the eagerness to hold as many I-told-you-so cards under one’s sleeve for when something does eventually take place.
In other words, culture doesn’t change this fast. And it doesn’t because it can’t. Despite evidence that ours is an ever-more connected world, whose structures are being gradually more informed by algorithms and artificial intelligence, culture is still the result of how history interacts with meaning — that is, how our ideas evolve throughout time alongside the ways in which we activate and materialise these ideas through discourses, practices, and objects. There simply cannot be a culture that is so spontaneous and immediate as to flip on its head after a few months or even a few years of counterintuitive developments.
Cultural change — deep, significant cultural change — takes a long time to brew and it’s much less connected with whatever ludicrous possibility might occur to us as we wait in the queue at the shop and much more dependent on how tendencies, patterns of micro-shifts interact with one another, converging into major phenomena across space and time.
That said, things might always happen — that’s for sure. Whatever these might be. Speculation and even guessing if you will are, after all, at the root of any effort to make sense of the world around us. The gap, however, between might and could — or even will — can only be substantially bridged with dedicated research, data, and rigorous analysis; not the eagerness to hold as many I-told-you-so cards under one’s sleeve for when something does eventually take place.
Culture is not keen on sudden U-turns and it certainly doesn’t change overnight as far as what one or two or even ten years represent in the grand scheme of human history. Many things will indeed change, but the ones we are actually going to notice more vividly for now are just the tips of the iceberg, the symptoms of much larger, much more complex changes whose fate is not sealed, whose very character is not defined a priori. What we need to do is focus less on coming up with shocking headlines from some kind of future and more on building solid networks of diverse perspectives that can work together at identifying, tracking, and unpacking these tendencies and the larger contexts from which they ultimately stem.
Just in case though, if everything does change, you can quote me on that.
About the author:
Gianlluca Simi is a PhD in Critical Theory and Cultural Studies from The University of Nottingham (UK) and works as a Creative Project Manager with California-based, Norwegian design company Superside. A wannabe polymath, he’s worked in consumer and market research, academia, media, cultural production, and tech — but it’s design and especially design strategy that make his eyes sparkle. Find him on LinkedIn.