It was just over a year ago that I last walked out of the Seattle airport. Before the pandemic, I was a very frequent flyer. As the pandemic was starting, I was under the weather and chose to skip RSA, having little idea what was coming.
That trip, in early February, was also the last training I did in front of a room. Now, a year later, I want to look back and look forward a little. First, I want to acknowledge that my family has been very lucky in escaping the worst of the damage of the pandemic, and I’m aware that that luck is tied in part to us being able to work remotely via computer, and having sufficient space to make that function.
On a professional level, the pandemic forced me to learn a great deal about teaching and learning and how to make distributed classes work. I also learned a lot about video production and editing and learning management tools and wow… our classes are now available online, and we’re building out more open classes (more on that soon). Every class, I observe some students struggling, and my compassion for teachers and students in elementary school grows. My students and I have all sorts of advantages including discipline, developed learning skills, etc. I can barely imagine how someone who’s seven years old can do it.
But moving from me to a larger view, the magnitude of the calamity of 2020 is hard to overstate.
On a political level, the United States has seen violent interference with the peaceful transfer of power, and the consequences for the person most responsible for that seem to be minimal. That’s an astounding level of political dysfunction, whose consequences are likely to be awful. If you want to hold “elites” accountable, there’s a clear place to start: Donald Trump. We can think about a future in which the US returns to a stable political system, and possibly acts as a global anchor for human rights, democracy, free markets, and enlightenment values, or one in which we careen back and forth, with each administration working to undo the damage wrought by its predecessors. I’ve written recently on legitimacy before and after the election.
On the level of the pandemic, we have somehow normalized and accepted the idea that thousands of people per day are dying. Hospitals are overwhelmed. We can reasonably anticipate that as many as a million Americans may die of this disease. Nothing in my lifetime relates.
We can roughly model the future of the pandemic as vaccines work — or not. By “not,” I mean the rate of variants is high, and we fail to develop “pan-corona” vaccines (see here). The “vaccines working” scenario is vaccines, in combination with medical advances to reduce the impact to those who’ve caught covid, and public health measures like contract tracing, masks, and other forms of isolation all join together to cut the impact of the disease enough that things can go back to normal.
If vaccines don’t work, well, for most of human history, we lived with plagues, and there were many responses that took advantage of the time involved in travel. We may have seen the end of the golden age of fast travel. Demand will go down: we have seen organizations figure out remote work, teams figure out remote on boarding and team building, and businesses are learning how to learn without putting everyone in a room. Acknowledgements of old and new difficulties will rise. Those with young children or other dependents are less able to be away. We may see quarantines on arrival. My year without flying may become less remarkable.
The combined bleak view seems remarkably bleak, and we haven’t even talked about climate change. We can imagine and work for better futures. Part of getting to a better future will entail doing something about the outrage machines that select and promote content that upsets people and drives them to commit violent acts against each other. We’ll need to get back to the idea that long-form content is worthwhile, and in that mode, I want to recommend Rebuilding the Civic Square with Kaye Husbands Fealing, a dean at Georgia Tech and Professor Peter Swire. It’s roughly 35 minutes, and it’s very good. They start out discussing issues of outrage engines and the legal framework for them in the US. The link jumps in a bit later where Peter discusses being willing to understand that people who think differently are not monsters, and it is very much worth listening to.
If you’ve read this far, thank you. Let me tie this back to threat modeling as a reward.
This post started out with what I’m working on, transitioned through two sets of what can go wrong (with distributed learning, and then broader societal issues). It then moved to what are we going to do about it, and in noting that you’re here, at least my writing did a good job of keeping you reading.