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(For reading in Chinese, please scroll down to the end of the English text.)

There truly is a sense of déjà vu these days. (For those who are not familiar with the term, it means to become aware of a feeling that we are repeating something we have done in the past or are finding ourselves in a place and feel we have been there before.) Collectively and individually, as we deal with an unexpected and world-shaking pandemic, I am struck by some similarities to incidents that were appearing in the 1930s at the beginning of the Great Depression. Some of the official pronouncements which were intended to soothe and reassure, reports of attention-seeking, deliberate zaniness, and extreme solutions proposed by desperate, disoriented people seem quite similar. Perhaps they were the grandparents and great-grandparents of some of the people we are reading about today.

Like 2020, that era was also a time of great uncertainty, in which it sometimes appeared that civilization and life as people knew it were threatened with extinction. Although those people in the 1930s were too close to the trees to see the whole forest, they realized that they were in the midst of some permanent paradigm shifts… just as we are today.

Back in 1933, they were using the botch-and-fumble method of dealing with the ongoing cascade of challenges which forced changes to contemporary routines, expectations, and outlook… just as we are today. Like them, we are definitely too close to the trees to see the whole forest, too close to the action and too intent on survival to pay close attention to the direction we are traveling. One predictable reaction: Many people today are vigorously protesting that they want to return to the old days and the old ways. Yes, those would be familiar and comfortable but they are no longer possible. As an alternative, it would be far wiser and more feasible to consciously choose how we design our new life. Think of it as a sort of forced reinvention.

SIMILARITIES:

Some of the changes in the 1930s were just as revolutionary as anything we face in our current crisis. For people of that era, new technology made communications more rapid and more universal. The television and computer had not been invented yet but, in the 1920s, the rapid deployment of the radio made it possible for people in remote areas and those far away from an event to be informed and influenced. Another major invention of the 1930s was Big Government. In the USA, the economic situation was so dire for millions of citizens that new governmental agencies were created to deal with the urgent needs of the public. And, yes, there were alarms about the encroachment of government into private lives and areas which had never seen government involvement. These included control of the means of production and distribution, creating jobs whose salaries were paid by the federal government, and dictating how resources were distributed. At the time, these were all new areas for government involvement. Closing banks until they could be examined for solvency, introducing government guarantees to the individual depositors that their money was safe, creating of new agencies to oversee and limit the activities of financial institutions – all things we accept today as a primary function of government – were new and, for some people, threatening and frightening.

Yes, there are many common features between the response by governments in the 1930s and in 2020. In both cases, they were entering uncharted waters, and forced to create new solutions to new problems without any assurance that their solutions would be successful. The economic depression of the 1930s, which took a full decade to process through, was unprecedented, just as our current world-wide Covid-19 pandemic is unprecedented in its scale. There are other similarities in terms of the impact on individuals and institutions – especially that both disasters (1930 and 2020) came unexpectedly and both found many leaders pathetically unfit to deal with the new realities.

But…

DIFFERENCES:

While there are many parallels and we need to learn from them, there are also some substantial differences between 2020 and 1933. Not everything can be transferred to an equivalent in our 2020 crisis.

In 1930, the world population was two billion people and there were still many unexplored, undeveloped areas around the world. In most countries, the majority of people were still living in rural areas. In the past 90 years – just one long lifetime, really – the global population has exploded to nearly 7.5 billion and many of those people have been experiencing an urban lifestyle with comforts and conveniences and interdependence which was unimaginable in 1933. Unobtainable, too; even the richest families could not purchase an iPhone or a Gameboy. They were still decades away from being able to binge-watch entire seasons of popular television programs. It makes you wonder how they were able to survive on such an unsatisfactory standard of living. How can you talk about quality of life without Seri and Alexa?

To understand why our 2020 crisis is fundamentally different from the 1933 crisis, let me introduce a contemporary concept we have come to trust: the upward curve of technological development, and explore how this trust can be applied to our current situation. Many people are familiar with the famous Moore’s Law from the 1970s. This is a prediction that computer processing speeds will double every two years. In a surrealistic way, Moore’s Law has been bizarrely accurate for decades. Now, however, it’s not about processing speeds anymore; it’s about how they are applied to our daily life.

Let me give two simple illustrations of how new technology has changed our behaviors and, indeed, our worldview, virtually overnight. These will be part of my argument that our 2020 crisis is fundamentally different from the crisis of the 1930s, although both events are world-changing in their scope and depth.

1) The self-publishing of ebooks with almost no restrictions or admissions standards has irrevocably changed our reading habits. Anyone could write and publish their own book. The simultaneous introduction of the ebook reader and the development of internet accessibility meant new readers and new markets for those ebooks. A scant decade later, not only do we expect to buy almost any book for reading on a small, portable device, we expect the price to be lower than a print version of the same book – plus we expect to download and begin reading instantly, regardless of where we might be located. Yet the ebook and accompanying portable ebook reader is merely one of the manifestations of the 24/7, instant gratification lifestyle which has become the expectation in most developed parts of the world today.

2) The popularity of the smartphone which was also released just over a decade ago has resulted in a similar tectonics-level shift in contemporary culture. Let us consider a trite example: A smartphone with an internet connection spelled the demise of any form of trivia contests. What fun (or benefit) is there in mastering minutia about some arcane subject if everyone can instantly access the same information via the computer in their pocket? More importantly, the smartphone has been a major factor in changing our consumer and communication expectations. Technology even allows us to search for a soul mate without all those messy F2F interactions.

I propose that those two factors – our interdependence among the 7.5 billion people, linked together by supply chains and computer networks, plus our rapidly developing new technologies that allow communications and collaborations, then prompt implementation of new solutions to new problems – will allow us to get through this period, and probably in  much less than the entire decade it took 100 years ago. Granted that people will die (large numbers, regrettably) and revered institutions will disappear – some revered individuals, too. But, for those who do not hide behind hysterical denial and obstruction to any change, the future remains bright. Different, but unbounded. Like the 1930s. (Let’s hope we can avoid a world war this time.)

2030年代又来了,但不一

最近确实有一种似曾相识的感觉。(对于那些不熟悉这个词的人来说,它意味着我们意识到一种感觉,即我们正在重复着我们过去所做的事情,或者发现自己身处一个地方,觉得自己曾经去过那里。) 不管是集体还是个人,当我们在处理一场突如其来的、震惊世界的大流行病时,我对20世纪30年代大萧条开始时出现的事件有一些相似之处感到震惊。一些原本是为了安抚和安抚的官方宣称,一些寻求关注的报道、刻意的狂热,以及绝望、失态的人提出的极端解决方案,似乎都很相似。也许,他们就是我们今天读到的一些人的祖父母和曾祖父母。

和2020年一样,那个时代也是一个充满不确定性的时代,在那个时代,人们所知道的文明和生命有时似乎面临着灭亡的威胁。尽管20世纪30年代的那些人离树太近,无法看到整个森林,但他们意识到他们正处于一些永久性的范式转变之中………..就像我们今天一样。

早在1933年,他们使用的是 “摸爬滚打 “的方法来应对持续不断的挑战,这些挑战迫使我们改变了当代的常规、期望和观点…… 就像我们今天一样。就像他们一样,我们肯定和他们一样,离树太近,看不清整片森林,离行动太近,对生存太过关注,以至于没有注意到我们前进的方向。一个可以预见的反应。现在很多人都在极力抗议,说要回到过去,回到以前的时代,回到以前的方式。是的,那些会是熟悉和舒适的,但已经不可能了。作为一种选择,有意识地选择如何设计我们的新生活,将是更为明智和可行的做法。把它看成是一种强迫性的再创造。

相似性:

1930年代的一些变化与我们目前面临的危机一样,都是革命性的。对那个时代的人来说,新技术使通信变得更加迅速和普遍。当时电视和电脑还没有发明,但在20世纪20年代,无线电的迅速普及,使偏远地区的人们和远离某一事件的人们有可能得到信息和影响。20世纪30年代的另一项重大发明是大政府。在美国,经济形势对数百万公民来说是如此的危急,于是新的政府机构应运而生,以解决民众的迫切需求。而且,是的,人们对政府侵占私人生活和政府从未参与的领域发出了警报。这包括控制生产和分配手段,创造由联邦政府支付工资的工作岗位,以及支配资源的分配方式。在当时,这些都是政府参与的新领域。关闭银行,直到它们的偿付能力得到检查,政府向个人储户保证他们的资金安全,设立新的机构来监督和限制金融机构的活动–所有这些都是新的,对一些人来说,这些都是新的,也是威胁和可怕的。

是的,在20世纪30年代和2020年政府的反应之间有许多共同点。在这两种情况下,他们都是进入了未知的水域,被迫为新问题创造新的解决方案,而没有任何保证其解决方案会成功。1930年代的经济大萧条花了整整十年的时间来处理,是前所未有的,就像我们目前世界范围内的科维德-19大流行病的规模也是前所未有的。在对个人和机构的影响方面也有其他相似之处—-特别是这两次灾难(1930年和2020年)都是突如其来,而且都发现许多领导人都可怜地不适合应对新的现实。

但是…..

差异:

虽然有很多相似之处,我们需要借鉴,但2020年和1933年也有一些实质性的差异。在我们的2020年的危机中,不是所有的东西都可以转移到一个等价物上。

1930年的时候,世界人口是20亿,全世界还有很多未开发的、未开发的地区。在大多数国家,大部分人还生活在农村地区。在过去的90年里–真的只是漫长的一生中,全球人口已经激增到了近75亿,其中许多人已经过上了1933年无法想象的城市生活,生活的舒适、便利和相互依存。这也是不可企及的;即使是最富有的家庭也无法购买到iPhone或游戏机。他们还差了几十年才有能力看完一整季的流行电视节目。这让人不禁要问,他们是如何在如此不尽人意的生活水平下生存下来的。没有了Seri和Alexa,你怎么能谈得上生活质量?

为了理解为什么我们的2020年的危机与1933年的危机有本质的区别,让我介绍一个我们当代人所信任的概念:科技发展的上升曲线,并探讨这种信任如何应用到我们现在的处境。很多人都很熟悉20世纪70年代著名的摩尔定律。这是一个预言,即计算机的处理速度每两年就会翻一番。从超现实的角度来说,几十年来,摩尔定律一直诡异地准确无误。然而现在,这已经不是处理速度的问题了,而是如何将其应用到我们的日常生活中。

让我举两个简单的例子,说明新技术如何在一夜之间改变了我们的行为,事实上,我们的世界观也几乎在一夜之间改变了。这些将成为我论证的一部分,即我们的2020年危机与1930年代的危机有着本质上的区别,尽管这两个事件在广度和深度上都是改变世界的。

1)电子书的自我出版,几乎没有任何限制和准入标准,不可逆转地改变了我们的阅读习惯。任何人都可以自己写书、出版自己的书。电子书阅读器的问世和互联网的发展同时出现,意味着这些电子书有了新的读者和新的市场。十年后的今天,我们不仅期望购买几乎所有的书,在一个小型的便携式设备上阅读,而且期望价格比印刷版的书更低–此外,我们期望无论身在何处,都能立即下载并开始阅读。然而,电子书和随身携带的电子书阅读器只是当今世界上大多数发达地区所期望的全天候、即时满足的生活方式的一种表现形式。

2) 十多年前发布的智能手机的普及,在当代文化中引起了类似的地壳级转变。让我们看一个老生常谈的例子。一部智能手机与互联网连接,就意味着任何形式的小品比赛的消亡。如果每个人都能通过口袋里的电脑立即获得相同的信息,那么掌握一些玄奥的主题的细节又有什么乐趣(或好处)呢?更重要的是,智能手机改变了我们的消费和沟通预期。技术甚至让我们可以在没有那些乱七八糟的F2F互动的情况下寻找灵魂伴侣。

我建议,这两个因素–我们75亿人之间的相互依赖性,通过供应链和计算机网络连接在一起,再加上我们快速发展的新技术,使我们能够进行沟通和协作,然后迅速实施新的解决方案来解决新的问题–将使我们能够度过这个时期,而且可能比100年前的整个十年时间要短得多。诚然,人们会死掉(很遗憾的是,大量的人都会死掉),受人尊敬的机构也会消失–一些受人尊敬的人也会消失。但是,对于那些不躲在歇斯底里地否认和阻挠任何变化的人来说,未来仍然是光明的。不一样,但不受约束。就像1930年代一样。(但愿这一次我们能避免一场世界大战)。

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