(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.
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.
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.)
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。