How COVID changes the world forever: A thought experiment

Silicon Valley ‘oracle’ Tim O’Reilly imagines how different sectors could emerge from the pandemic.

by Tim O'Reilly
Last Updated: 12 Aug 2020

It will be years before we can truly appreciate the impact of COVID-19 on business conditions. Some of the changes we’ve already seen will prove to have been temporary anomalies, others will mark a step change in attitudes and behaviours, or an acceleration of an existing trend.

The best we can do right now is to use a little imagination. To help us out, we asked Silicon Valley ‘oracle’ Tim O’Reilly - the man who launched the first commercial website, championed open source software and popularised the term Web 2.0 - to take us through a little thought experiment about what the future could hold.


Imagine what has already changed during the pandemic and may never come back. Imagine what else might cascade from those changes. Consider alternative outcomes, some of which could be threats, others opportunities. What extremes could we see and how could this expand our thinking?

Travel 

Imagine a world in which mandatory quarantines on either end make international travel a commitment of months rather than days. Gone are the days of jetting thousands of miles around the world for a quick holiday or business trip. Airlines go bankrupt, and service remains severely reduced. Tourism, one of the world’s largest industries, providing 1 in 10 jobs worldwide, is gutted. 

Travel becomes increasingly virtual, much like it was in the glory days of global exploration, with dispatches from faraway places now not delivered in talks at the Explorer’s Club, but on YouTube or in virtual reality. But also imagine that airlines are severely undervalued because of the crisis and their stocks will come roaring back along with the passengers

In-person events and entertainment

Imagine theme parks like Disneyland gone. Football, rugby and F1 events held in big arenas, gone. Imagine sports played in empty arenas for video and virtual reality consumption only. Imagine that today’s sports heroes go the way of silent film stars, replaced by new stars and new online-native sports. 

First-run movies targeted for Netflix and Amazon rather than theatre chains? Perhaps a stopgap measure — filming live action movies may be curtailed or become even more expensive, drying up supply for years to come. Animation may rule, and accelerate us into an AI-generated entertainment future in which most movies are created with deep fakes and special effects. 

Perhaps it’s also a new golden age of amateur entertainment and artistic creativity, with social media storms bringing celebrity and money to unlikely new stars. Or maybe next year we’re back munching popcorn in front of the big screen. As you consider each possibility, ask yourself what else might be true in that future.

Privacy 

Privacy was already on its way out in the face of what Shoshana Zuboff calls “surveillance capitalism”, but the pandemic may be its death-knell. Imagine that if you test positive for COVID, your phone shares the name of everyone you spent more than five minutes with in the past two weeks. 

Imagine mandatory quarantine enforced by sensors, as is already happening in China. Imagine both the upside and the downside of health sensors everywhere. How does more perfect knowledge change the insurance business, which relies on statistical averages? How might the privacy-invading infrastructure of contact tracing persist after the pandemic, and how else might it be used or misused? 

Alternatively, imagine that we’ve successfully built a privacy infrastructure that can alert individuals and their doctor without sharing the data with anyone else.

Offices and work-from-home

What if many professional jobs migrate to distributed and online roles, and offices are never the primary work location again? What if the value of the commercial real-estate sector crashes, and with it, the downtown residential real-estate boom? 

The tyranny of having to be in Silicon Valley is broken (or similarly in big cities like New York and London), and new “remote-native” firms emerge to take advantage of the talent that is to be found everywhere. Companies holding onto their old business models and not retraining their teams to work in a distributed, remote, highly digital world fade away.

Jobs and the economy

What if the COVID-19 recession cascades into a long, deep depression? What if the stock market loses its euphoric disconnect from the underlying real economy and experiences a massive crash? Some countries weather it better than others, and this increases their geopolitical power. 

Or, either the wisdom of the market or enlightened fiscal and industrial policy helps direct investment to companies that are driving positive change. There is a long boom for companies that invest in the right new opportunities.

Temporary, but catastrophic, events often usher in permanent economic changes. Sometimes the changes appear to be reversed but it just takes time for them to stick. World War II brought women into the workforce, and then victory ushered them back out. But the wine of opportunity, once tasted, was not left undrunk forever. 

International relations

The pandemic is worldwide. How will it affect globalisation and the balance of power? Asian countries seem to have responded to the crisis more effectively than the US and Europe. Will economic historians mark May 2020 as the beginning of the Asian century, as David Goldman asks? How might that affect the prospects for the way the world works, along multiple dimensions?

Though the list in the last section contains many dire possibilities, remember that through all the tumult of the early 20th century, technological progress continued apace. It was the century of antibiotics, the internal combustion engine, automobiles, airplanes, the electric grid and universal telephone service, motion pictures, radio, and television ushering in a new entertainment economy, iconic skyscrapers and suspension bridges demonstrating previously unimaginable feats of applied engineering, the atomic and hydrogen bombs, the moon landing and the international space station, golden rice, container shipping, communications satellites, computers, and the internet. 

In short, while many things that were taken as certainties were swept away, there has been enormous progress, and people all around the world emerged from the crises of the first half of the century more prosperous, with higher life expectancy, and better off in hundreds of ways.

This is a redacted version of Tim O’Reilly’s original essay. The full essay series can be found here

Image credit: Alexei Pavlishak/TASS via Getty Images

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