The mood of corona

The corona crisis is forcing many people around the world to stay in quarantine and (relative) social isolation. New activities are being explored in our homes and reality is viewed differently when we go outside. Besides the radical disruption of our daily “flow” of activities, the world appears to us differently and we’re experiencing new moods as a consequence of the corona crisis. An analysis of the moods surrounding corona and quarantine teaches us about the deeper cultural and social development and issues of our modern-day societies.

Our observations

  • A large-scale comparative literature study of quarantine measures has found that the psychological effects are mostly negative. Many people forced to remain in quarantine and social isolation suffer from emotions linked to posttraumatic stress disorders, such as anger and confusion. Important stressors are the duration of the quarantine measures, fear of infection, lack of information, financial losses and the degree to which the quarantine is enforced by authorities.
  • In his trilogy Spheres, philosopher Sloterdijk develops a “spherology”: a phenomenological and anthropological theory about the relationship of humans to space. According to Sloterdijk, humans build different buildings and casings (e.g. houses, political systems, metaphysical systems) to protect us from the hostile, strange, and ominous outside world.
  • In his work, Der Untergang des Abendlandes, culture philosopher Oswald Spengler poses that humans, unlike animals, are aware of their inevitable death and the strange world surrounding them. That’s why they create a culture, a material space of symbols and expressions of art, to abate their fear of reality. The notion that mankind relates to spatial reality in a certain way and that spatial reality is “atmospherically” loaded, can be found in both thinkers’ works: the relationship between man and space has a certain spherical quality that includes us and is constituted by both poles. During the corona crisis and quarantine, a new relationship is also arising between humans and spatial reality, as seen in the “strange” atmosphere conjured up by deserted streets and cities, or the feeling of “inappropriate” proximity when a stranger comes within 1.5 meters of us.
  • Isaac Newton, founder of modern physics, made many of his most important discoveries during a period of quarantine in 1666. In social isolation, he experienced a period of great creative success, when he further developed many of his mathematical and scientific discoveries. Now that many people are in social isolation as well, stuck at home without the possibility to see friends and family, it’s conceivable that this time may also lead to a period of enormous creativity and inventiveness. Filmmakers, for example, now have time to think about new formats and pieces. We’ve written before that the Zeitgeist and a “structure of feeling” manifest themselves in art, media, and popular culture.
  • Share prices of “stay-at-home” pastime providers such as Netflix, Facebook, and Nintendo have surged during the corona crisis, because consumers spend more time at home than out of it (e.g. going out to dinner or clubs, travelling). Despite the fact that the activities offered by these companies can be meaningful (playing video games, binge-watching series) in themselves, this points to the “boredom” stemming from sitting at home, and with that, to a mental or spiritual impoverishment, with freed-up time now being spent on entertainment and pleasure. Besides its mental health risks, boredom can also lead to lower risk preferences, which in turn can have sociopathological effects such as political radicalization or alcoholism.
  • We’ve written before that many of the rhythms that used to regulate the routines of traditional societies are disappearing because of modern technology. This means we’re freer to decide when we do what (e.g. it’s possible to live at night instead of by day because of electric lighting, we can set our own working hours in “postindustrial jobs”, and we can meet our friends from different time zones online). The downside to that is that the inner logic and quality of the time dimension is thoroughly changing, and we’re less attuned to the rhythm of social and collective reality. The corona crisis and quarantine amplify this process, as they lead to an increasing number of social activities becoming virtual (e.g. working, meeting online friends and playing games), thereby becoming separated from specific times and moments.

Connecting the dots

In his magnus opus Sein und Zeit, Martin Heidegger developed a phenomenology as a criticism of the rationalist tradition. According to Heidegger, we become familiar with the world and things around us by engaging with them in a practical sense, not through abstract, theoretical contemplation. We only learn what a hammer is by using it as such, i.e. a tool to hit nails with. That’s how mankind interprets this “appearing” world, and the light humans shine on the world is a certain understanding. This isn’t a rationalistic process, as man does not relate objectively or neutrally to the world that appears before him, in the way that a clock counts seconds and hours and a calculator calculates them. On the contrary, man is always in a mood, causing the world to appear to him in a certain way: man’s understanding of the world is a “moody understanding”. When I’m stressed, the world appears to me differently than when I’m relaxed, namely as a whole of tension-filled objects, my relationship to which is equally tense. These moods are neither merely subjective emotions or feelings nor an objective status quo or sum of facts, but the intersubjective openness of the subject that relates to the world and things as well as the way that world appears to the subject. What is the mood that characterizes the current corona crisis and the accompanying period of quarantine and social isolation?
According to Heidegger, fear is the basic mood of man, and he is left to his own devices in dealing with a strange world and his mortality. This mood is apparent in the corona crisis, as the virus tampers with our mental health as well as others’, and the constitution of political institutions and social reality. It can be seen, for example, in our fear of the virus affecting ourselves or our loved ones and in the “horror-like” realization that one of the simplest life forms (a virus) is capable of bringing one of the most complex life forms (humans, or human “superorganisms” such as nations or economies) to its knees, making the outside world a possibly hostile environment to humans. In response to this, we’re also seeing the return of a mood of “hope”, whereby the corona crisis can be understood as a “moment of crisis”: a decisive moment when we can and must make important choices for our future and make progress in long-term issues, because of a new realization of and experience with the problem. Examples of this are the improved air quality boosting our climate approach, or the reduction of mass tourism, now that citizens are having singular experiences in their own deserted cities. Besides the dialectic between fear and hope, the corona crisis is also marked by “stress”. The coronavirus can, after all, indirectly “move” us and cause either tense or relaxed association with others. Now that we’re forced to stay at home, our relationship to our direct environment (e.g. feeling “boxed in”) and others is becoming more pressing (e.g. domestic violence has increased significantly). And now that the other is presented as a possible source of infection and social contact and interaction are only allowed under strict conditions, we’re experiencing a more “tense” relationship to others and the world around us.

On the other hand, for many, it’s also a period of relaxation and calm, because the mandatory staying/working/living at home is creating a new rhythm and atmosphere that allows us to break away from the drudgery of our daily routine. This doesn’t apply to everyone (e.g. not to those who can’t work from home, have lost their job or for whom the mood of fear and stress is prevalent) but for a group of people, this is also a time to explore new activities and learn to relate to the world in a new way. At the same time, the latter does require a certain social and cultural capital, and the way the world speaks to us or moves us and how we respond to that, is key. In his existential analysis of Western culture, Heidegger also saw the danger of the type of “boredom” that keeps us from being moved by the world: being continuously occupied with others and things around us, being “scatterbrained” when doing activities, is precisely what leads to deep boredom, because it precludes any deeper contact with others and things and the problems we face. This type of boredom can also be a sign of being overwhelmed with new possibilities regarding the great social, humanitarian, economic, political, ecological problems we are flooded with, and an apathy that may manifest itself in escapism. This is also accompanied by a mood of uncertainty or “confusion”. Because the human condition is such that we are “intertwined” with the world and others, and if our practices change radically, this will also change us as persons. In order to find stability in this changing world, we look for new practices, such as migrating our social events to virtual spaces in a “1.5 meter society”.
These “corona moods” together make up a palette and vary from place to place and from person to person. They expose domains and aspects of reality that remain hidden from theoretical, abstract thinking. For policymakers, the consideration of such moods and the value and effects derived from them, is an important part of solving “wicked problems” and formulating an “exit strategy” out of the quarantine. For example, what are the “costs” of loneliness as a consequence of social isolation, and how does our “fear” influence on the direction and form of globalization? Furthermore, these moods can help to get a feel of social and cultural phenomena, such as people who’ve stopped reading news or do so compulsively (e.g. the daily updates by the RIVM) to get a grip on the corona crisis (stress), growing support for political leadership and governments (confusion and uncertainty), new forms of spirituality (fear), loneliness (boredom), or the application of sustainable and inclusive growth and revenue models (hope). Painting a picture of these moods can help to gain insight into the dawning post-corona world.

Implications

  • The list of moods sketched above is neither exhaustive nor are they mutually exclusive or uniformly experienced by everyone. Someone in the creative sector who can work from home naturally experiences the crisis differently from someone who has lost their job or has to travel hundreds of kilometers on foot to their place of birth in order to apply for social security benefits, who in turn has a different experience from an elderly person fearing for their health and that of their loved ones. This heterogeneity of moods may also become apparent between countries. Regions that have already had a “formative experience” with pandemics (e.g. East Asia with SARS, Africa with Ebola) have a different palette of moods, as do countries with older or younger populations making them more or less susceptible to the coronavirus. Such emotions and moods are important when it comes to the “trust” of countries (e.g. consumer trust, mutual trust among the population, trust in government). In this light, the development of a psychopolitical geopolitics of moods is not unlikely.

  • Describing such moods is not about explicating or categorizing all kinds of psychical phenomena – the cognitive and neurosciences are much better equipped for that – but helps disclose the meaningfulness of our world and social existence. The moods of the corona crisis will determine our Zeitgeist for some time to come. This means we may expect new media that – implicitly or explicitly – is tributary to the palette of moods of the corona crisis and quarantine, in a similar vein to the “post 9/11 media” or the “atomic culture” we witnessed after Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the critical philosophy (e.g. the Frankfurter Schule) that arose in response to World War II.

Corona feeds into doubt about big tech

What happened?

During this crisis, digital platforms have proved crucial to teachers, athletes and other professionals working from home. At the same time, the limited role big tech appears to be playing in the actual battle against the pandemic has garnered criticism. This disappointment could influence our views on these companies in the West, and the regulation they may face in the future.

What does this mean?

The criticism expressed about big tech, and digital technology in a broader sense, is twofold. On the one hand, there is disappointment that these parties don’t seem to be able (or brave enough) to help us understand and deal with the health crisis. In the perception of the public, insights from companies such as Google, Amazon and Facebook (about our health and our search-, purchase- and travel patterns) could help trace the virus, which, as yet, has largely failed to happen (this could change with corona tracing apps). On the other hand, critics argue that after the crisis, digital technology will (still) not be able to create valuable jobs, which are likely to arise in health care and infrastructural projects.

What’s next?

Chances are big tech companies will emerge victorious from the crisis at first. They’re becoming more deeply rooted in our daily lives and will likely profit from the demise of companies from the old economy (e.g. in retail and tourism) and are already the big winners of the American stock market. The disappointment felt about the lack of a real solution to the pandemic will likely lead to a more realistic perspective on these companies and their actual ability to innovate and create jobs. This doesn’t mean big tech has outlived its usefulness but that we may come to conceive of these corporations as somewhat dull utility companies that may be of great societal value in that they provide infrastructure, but are not the ones to solve all our problems. This “exposure” of Silicon Valley would further pave the way for more stringent regulations and, possibly, the breaking up of these giants that are wealthy in both data and capital. The latter ties in with the notion of states claiming a much larger role for themselves during times of crisis.

The organic development of a new medium

What happened?

Last weekend, rapper Travis Scott gave a live performance in the Fortnite universe for millions of viewers. The in-game event was starkly different to the concert by DJ Marshmello last year. The latter gave a virtual concert in the Fortnite universe that was remarkably like a concert in the physical world. By contrast, Travis Scott and Fortnite provided an in-game experience utilizing the possibilities of a game environment as medium. Instead of virtual festival grounds, with the conventional stage, a DJ set and partying avatars, this time, Travis Scott took viewers along in an immersive experience. The “mini-concert” was a surreal journey that transformed the entire Fortnite game into an interactive stage, fully attuned to the rapper’s performance.

What does this mean?

When a new medium is developed, it often initially mirrors its predecessors, a dynamic called the horseless carriage syndrome. This may stem from ignorance, but it can also be done on purpose, to allow people to gradually get used to the new medium (e.g. skeuomorphism) and then continue its development. Concerning the respective performances of Marshmello and Travis Scott, there is something to be said for both. Perhaps Epic simply didn’t know what an in-game concert would look like and didn’t want to take too many risks regarding production costs. Another possible explanation would be that it was more of a purposeful strategy. The tradition of in-game events, often with animations like those in the Travis Scott performance, has been around for much longer. These events were usually related to the game itself and, unlike shows by artists, were not standalone. Making the Marshmello concert as much like a physical concert as possible was probably a way to generate the most attention among generic media and the wider public, who would be better able to place it this way. This course of action enhances the possibility to introduce the Fortnite world to as many people as possible, people who may not have much of an interest in gaming.

What’s next?

Fortnite is currently actively experimenting with in-game live events that have nothing to do with the game itself. Taking the long view, Epic has the ideal of a metaverse, an immersive world that, besides containing gaming elements, fulfills all kinds of social functions, such as work, going to clubs and learning. But the route to the metaverse is not yet clear. This experimental development of virtual worlds is accelerating because of the corona virus and the necessary (temporary) shift to the virtual realm that it entails. Certain new digital practices will merely prove temporary hypes, while others will become engrained in our daily lives or undergo further development. For example, use of the Houseparty app, also by Epic, already seems to have decreased. But some of its design principles and elements appear to be taken up elsewhere, such as in the coming “Party Royale” mode of Fortnite, which in turn could become the virtual stage where music events are hosted.

Sports in a digital world

Professional sports have been hit hard by the corona crisis and could be impacted by social distancing measures for months, if not years, to come. In response to this, athletes are looking for digital alternatives, such as sim racing and virtual cycling races. It’s unlikely that these initiatives will sufficiently alleviate the loss of “real” sports, but they do point to a broader trend of traditional sports and esports increasingly converging.

Our observations

  • The Champions League match between Atalanta Bergamo and Valencia of 19 February in Milan is now seen as an important source of contamination, as the virus was able to spread rapidly, both among the audience as well as among players and staff.
  • As a consequence of several countries going in lockdown, virtually all sports have come to a standstill. Since then, ways of practicing sports in the “1.5-meter society” have been in the works.
  • Many professional racecar drivers already partook in sim racing, and this is now put to use as an alternative to, among others, Formula 1 and NASCAR, races that cannot take place physically anymore. Until recently, these races could only be viewed online, but they are now also aired by linear TV channels. The degree of (physical) precision of these simulators is so high that even professional teams use them extensively to (further) develop real racecars and optimally adjust the car to each circuit.
  • With regard to cycling, platforms such as Zwift and BKool are popular among professionals and amateurs training at home. Last month, the Tour of Flanders was ridden by 18 professionals, at home on the chassis dynamometer, and was aired live on Belgian television. With 800,000 viewers, this virtual edition might not have been as widely viewed as the regular Tour would have been, but it still would have made the top ten of cycling races.
  • Two former professional darts players, Van Barneveld and Taylor, have attempted to revive their old rivalry in a one-on-one game from their respective living rooms, for charity. Electronic dartboards made it possible to register the scores in real-time.
  • Chess, a sport that does not involve physical contact and only small audiences, continued for a while, even when other sports had already been stopped, but was eventually halted after all because of travel restrictions.

Connecting the dots

rowing and running, for which the necessary hardware at least is available, in the form of rowing machines and treadmills. As yet, chances are slim that these kinds of virtualized sports will be as popular as their traditional predecessors. They lack certain elements, such as unpredictable weather conditions and the immediate danger to life and limb that makes athletes heroes. Above all, in digitally mediated sports, what’s missing is the direct connection between what we see (the match) and the athlete delivering his or her performance. As we discussed two weeks ago, we’re rapidly digitizing all kinds of practices that we’re now unable to carry out in the physical space. To a certain extent, this also applies to sports. Essentially, playing a sport is of course a physical activity that cannot fully be digitized, but athletes are looking for ways to, virtually, continue to play sports together, be coached (e.g. digital coaches) and, where professional athletes are concerned, to involve audiences. Professional athletes especially need other ways to generate income due to cancelled matches and sponsors that are beginning to withdraw. But for the vast majority of professional sports, no digital alternative is available (yet).
It’s no coincidence that car racing and cycling were able to switch to online so quickly. Sim racing has been popular for years among gamers and professional racing drivers, such as Max Verstappen, and the hard- and software for it are already highly advanced. The same goes for so-called e-cycling, in which competitions have been around a while already (including cheaters), and for which ready-made systems are available. Equally unsurprising is the fact that these are the two sports in which the skills needed in the original and the digital version are largely the same (besides, admittedly very relevant, aspects such as the physical toll of car racing or the steering skills of cyclists). Other sports are lagging behind these two and probably aren’t as easy to “virtualize”. Take, for instance, all team sports and sports that involve a lot of physical contact. And yet, there probably will be more that dare to take the (temporary) leap and this will certainly include sports such as

In that sense, it was telling that the commentators of the virtual Tour of Flanders seemed more interested in the athletes in their living rooms than in the digital rendering of the progress of the competition.
This is not to say there haven’t always been virtual or mediated elements in the ways we experience sports. Even in the early years of many sports, when fans could only read about matches or hear about them on the radio. These days, we see this type of derivative of the original match or performance in the form of live tickers and dashboards that don’t necessarily display the sport itself but a (quantitative) representation of it. Possibilities for amateur athletes to make a digital print of their performances are increasing as well, by means of smartwatches, smart training equipment and platforms such as Strava, where athletes can compete with each other.

A trend in the opposite direction is visible in the world of gaming and esports; gaming itself is becoming more physical (which started with the Nintento Wii) and this development is supported by increasingly advanced controllers, VR-goggles, haptic suits and treadmills in which the gamer has to deliver an increasingly physical performance). Because this type of gaming requires costly equipment, and space, it will take place in dedicated arcades mostly, which will come to look more and more like fitness centers (and vice versa). Moreover, the rise of championships with live audiences shows that even here, there is a need for actually experiencing the performance (even though online platforms such as Twitch already amply meet the need to not only see the game, but also the players).
The current crisis will most probably lead to the development of more of these types of hybrid forms, with the traditional athlete entering the virtual realm more and more often, while esports increasingly drifts towards a fully physical performance to win over part of the traditional sports audience that isn’t interested in dexterous but athletically unimpressive athletes.

Implications

  • In the coming months, if not years, the main issue for the great global sports will be whether it’s possible to offer an interesting spectacle without a live audience. In that regard, for most sports, the question won’t be how to virtualize the sport itself, but rather how to mimic the ambience and dynamic of an ecstatic crowd. A relatively simple way to do this would be to air in a stadium the (cumulative) sounds of fans watching at home. The Formula E, the electric racecar championship, even takes this one step further; fans can influence the contest by giving their favorite driver a so-called fanboost.

  • When professional athletes take to the digital realm more, a space will emerge where amateur athletes can compete with the pros. It’s already possible for the driver racing from his attic to take on Max Verstappen (albeit not live) and it seems a matter of time before this becomes possible in other sports as well.

Our post-corona relationship to nature

Each crisis in our modern existence has a clear human component. Most of them are even almost fully man-made, such as the financial crisis, the migration crisis, trade wars and conflicts. But the corona virus originated in the wilderness and took modern man by surprise. The virus, however, was not what caused the pandemic. Large-scale ecological destruction by humans most likely contributed to the rapid spread and deadliness of the virus. Will this crisis change the way we relate to nature?

Our observations

  • Scientists point to the high probability of the virus having spread from bats to a wild animal species before spreading to humans. This would make banning the trade of these wild animals a possible measure, but that would not contain the risk of future virus outbreaks. Trade in these wild animals is merely a link in the chain of causes of the pandemic. Scientists warn that the degradation of ecosystems and the decrease in biodiversity could increasingly lead to epidemics. These factors result in vulnerable species dying out sooner and others with a more ‘live fast, die young’ nature (such as bats, which harbor many pathogenic viruses) experiencing uninhibited growth and spreading their pathogens to humans faster. Deforestation especially enhances the chances of this so-called “species jump”.
  • One Health is a concept that’s being used by more and more scientists and policymakers, in which the health of people, animals and the environment are monitored integrally. In this integrated system approach, public health is not detached from the health of animals and environments. In line with this, the EAT-Lancet report appeared last year, in which for the first time, the optimal diet for the health of humans AND the environment was calculated. The bottom-line was that we should eat fewer animal-based and more plant-based foods.
  • Dutch scientists are arguing against returning to “business as usual” after the corona crisis, and for preventing further ecological consequences of economic growth. They emphasize that the current economic model will lead to, according to the WHO, 4.2 million people dying annually of air pollution, that the consequences of climate change are expected to cause 250,000 additional deaths per year between 2030 and 2050, and that further degradation of ecosystems will heighten the risk of new and more powerful virus outbreaks.
  • We’re far from global reaching consensus on the cause of the pandemic, even though it likely originated in wild animals but was successfully spread and made deadly by humans. A globalized and strongly urbanized world helped the virus spread so rapidly and air pollution probably made the virus even more fatal. While these causes are not confined within the borders of any one country and international cooperation is needed in this crisis, the discussion on the virus has become strongly politicized and countries are arguing about where the virus originated and who is to blame.

Connecting the dots

Crises in modern societies are often man-made. Take, for example, military conflict, financial crises, trade wars. The corona crisis on the other hand, is neither solely caused by humans nor is it a purely “natural” phenomenon like famine or the climate crisis. The possibility of a sudden and swift emergence of a new, deadly virus in our modern, globally connected lives, was a risk that was barely acknowledged by most of us. The new virus has awakened the realization that humans are a part of a complex world, in which human and non-human life are connected. Furthermore, it has raised questions about how man relates to his natural surroundings. COVID-19 is a zoonotic virus, meaning it’s transferrable from animals to humans, putting into question how we relate to other, non-human life and, more broadly, how we as humans relate to natural ecosystems.
From the onset of the outbreak, the virus has not only exposed the differences and rivalries between countries but has especially shown which ideas are predominant in our consideration of the way humans relate to nature. The corona crisis has not only fueled discussion between political leaders, the pandemic has also been taken up as ammunition in the defense of several ecological stances, often in order to identify guilty parties. The pandemic is said to be a “warning of Mother Earth”. These interpretations comprise largely Western and modern views on nature, dividing the world into man versus nature, the moral division of nature as harmonious and good and humans as harmony-disrupting and wicked. Supposedly, mankind, not the virus, is the disease ravaging mother Earth, as is shown by the position that mankind is the cancer of the Earth in the second report by the Club of Rome. The Cartesian relationship between subject and object, between culture and nature are clearly highlighted in this. It gives humans a central role in life on Earth, and with that, the possibility to control this life. The corona crisis provides insight into the flaws of these apparent contradictions.Even before modern man, there was no harmonious natural order, the earth has always been an inhospitable

place where live organisms are continuously exposed to disease, parasites and natural disasters. But modern man mostly considered himself to be separate from nature and romanticized living in harmony with it.
Karen Barad’s concept of intra-action offers an escape from this way of thinking about nature, which is failing us in the corona crisis. She defines intra-action as the mutual constitution of intertwined agencies. This means we should not just understand the corona crisis in terms of a corona virus, but as a phenomenon that has arisen between human and non-human actors and the virus itself. It’s unlikely that everyone on Earth will be exposed to the virus, but it’s a given that everyone will have to deal with the corona crisis, dividing responsibility among constitutive entities. Intra-action questions the artificial boundaries that characterize our thinking and our actions (subject-object, culture-nature). In an ecological system, each part is connected to the others by countless relationships, and these relationships define life, just as social contact between humans humanizes.
Barad’s concept is also in line with the Gaia hypothesis of James Lovelock, who, despite his ecological outlook, also broke with the environmental movement, due to his view that it invariably oversimplifies reality, putting all the blame on humans. He understood the earth to be a superorganism that we’re part of. This undermines micro-perspectives on the virus. The virus and its spread can be perceived as part of a complex system, just as much as humans can. Both the concept of intra-action as well as the Gaia hypothesis acknowledge humans as an integral part of a complex and dynamic system that humans cannot control but are (partly) responsible for. In this sense, this kind of thinking is reminiscent of metamodernism. It foregoes the modernist subject-object opposition, nor does it succumb to post-modernist relativism. It urges us to acknowledge the complexity of life on Earth and to take responsibility for it. The current pandemic makes it necessary to embrace this type of thinking.

Implications

  • With respect to measures, quarantine is somewhat paradoxical, as it may help to isolate humans and prevent them from becoming infected, but is hardly a tenable solution in the long-term, because it negates precisely those relationships that constitute our life. To contain the risk of future large-scale outbreaks, preventative measures will also need to be taken that do justice to the complexity of systems. Involving multiple disciplines (not just virology) will help in thinking about these measures.

  • Furthermore, complexity thinking, holistic research agendas and innovations surrounding the theme “one health” will be vital in devising solutions to this crisis.

  • Since many infectious diseases, such as Ebola and swine flu, spread through animal feed, the corona crisis will be associated with factory farming and give momentum to the transition from animal-based to plant-based protein sources. Deforestation, which is linked to the production of cattle feed (such as soy), will also face more scrutiny because of this crisis.

The hand of the state post-corona

What happened?

Governments are taking unprecedented measures to cushion the economic blow of corona. Take, for example, the American Congress, which has already spent twice as much as it did after the financial crisis of 2008. These types of measures give government a larger role in the economy. The current crisis may be temporary, but what will become of this more extensive role of government? How quickly will it disappear after the crisis, or will anything remain, permanently?

What does this mean?

For centuries, the role of governments in the economy has been growing (government expenditures have increased from about 5% in the 17th century to nearly 40% of GDP now). Large crises are turning points. Think of wars, when the state takes control of production of markets and increases taxes. The current crisis isn’t a war but is comparable to times of war. That’s why it’s important to understand that this effect is often permanent. How is this possible? Take the welfare state that arose in Europe after World War II. Higher expectations of government made its larger role permanent (which we’re already seeing with Gen Z). Moreover, the pressure governments face to maintain or even further extend their role, is higher than the pressure to relax their control.

What’s next?

In what way will the government’s role be permanently visible after the crisis? National debts will rise enormously, forcing many countries to increase their taxes in any case. Another possibility is that new generations will ask for more state interference in matters such as the climate and inequality. But perhaps the most important potential for change lies in the fact that many countries are reconsidering which industries are vital or strategic. The military or energy may have previously fallen under that heading, but now the debate centers around food, medicine and computer chips. If this type of thinking gains momentum, we can expect to see more government intervention in these sectors.

Remote teaching: building a plane while flying

What happened?

Since World War II, there haven’t been as many schools closed as there are now. Unlike then, technology has made it possible to provide education at a distance. However, physical education can’t just be moved wholesale to the digital realm. Physical presence is a prerequisite for a number of didactic tools teachers need to provide quality lessons, and the proximity to other students is an important aspect of education. Even if the circumstances of teachers, parents and students are optimal, they are forced to make many adjustments to continue to facilitate education.

What does this mean?

Nearly all lesson content can be made digital. The challenge is mainly to do so in as stimulating a manner as possible. The perfect balance has yet to be struck between synchronous contact and subject material that students can study in their own time. Teachers are finding out that simply streaming their lessons is not ideal, not to mention the practical obstacles such as students not always having full access to a computer. From a distance it’s much more difficult, for example, to keep students engaged and to get a notion of whether the material is coming across. Moreover, it’s more challenging for students to concentrate on a screen for long stretches of time than to stay focused in the classroom. This has consequences for students’ daily schedules as well: their ordinary school schedule appears to be less than perfectly suited to remote teaching, but the optimal alternative remains elusive. Synchronous contact through the screen is now often reserved for interactive meetings and the transfer of content takes place largely through video or exercises, for example. Some subjects (mathematics) appear to demand more synchronous contact than others (languages). Furthermore, the contact between teacher and student seems to be becoming more informal, now that the participants are safely behind screens at home and communicating through, for example, chat messages.

What’s next?

Not enough research has been done on education as it’s now organized to be able to oversee the long-term consequences for students. It’s therefore unclear how to optimally organize it, slowing down the pace of learning while its organization is more time-consuming. It’s as though the parties concerned were building a plane while flying. And yet, this way of teaching will continue to play a considerable role in education until the crisis is resolved. Because even though we’re gingerly considering ways of reopening the schools, we’re a long way from education as we used to know it. Moreover, since all students and teacher are now forced to endorse numerous digital educational tools, it is likely that after the crisis the adaptively of Edtech has substantially increased.

The new “complexity premium”

What happened?

The US has long enjoyed an equity premium: US assets generating higher multiples of earnings than in other places. Besides strong economic fundamentals (e.g. demographics, growth rates), the power of the U.S. dollar as the global reserve currency and corresponding American “exorbitant privilege”, the preponderance of the American military that can protect American assets in times of crisis, as well as a strong domestic tech sector that has driven growth in recent years, international investors tend to assume – often implicit –that US governments are pro-friendly. In contrast, investors often price in “political risk” in other countries, where government have strong influence in industry and business and political cycles significantly impact business cycles.

What does this mean?

The belief that American government would not (and often cannot) get in the way of the economy stems from the liberal American culture, with its high esteem of private enterprise, importance of individual liberties and general wariness of government intervention and Big Government. However, this “business first” policy and emphasis on economic interests has now put the US in a severe corona health recession, with infection and deadly victims per capita much higher than in other crisis. As a result, financial markets followed suit, with US equity markets taking big hits (especially compared to Asian stock markets).

What’s next?

We have written before that there is an increasing need for complexity thinking and systemic responses to global uncertainties. As a result, the laissez-faire model of the U.S. might not fit the current complex economic reality, where globalization, digitization, financialization and other abstract forces create much more uncertainty and create new “wicked problems”. In contrast, countries with strong governments, that have both the scope and capacity to intervene and formulate coherent policy responses in times of systemic risk (e.g pandemics, war, climate change), could enjoy a new “complexity premium” from international investors. As such, the new safe haven could become East-Asian stock capital and debt markets, where governments generally have a stronger hold in the economy and operate from long-term industrial policies. As such, the current coronacrisis could be a huge accelerator of Asia’s financial catch-up.

Global value chains are experiencing a formative moment

What happened?

The corona crisis has made painfully clear how intertwined and fragile global value chains are. Even in the provision of critical goods such as food, medicine and medical equipment, value chains are based on offshoring, outsourcing and just-in-time inventory, which is now causing problems. Because of the crisis, 75% of businesses in the U.S. are dealing with disruptions in their value chains and 44% of them did not have a plan of action for this event. Many companies were shocked by their factual dependence on China. In turn, because of the looming decoupling from the U.S., China previously tried to spread the risk by stimulating trade with its two neighboring countries Vietnam and South Korea, but even the regional dispersion of suppliers has not been successful in limiting the damage caused by this pandemic. Furthermore, open economies such as the Netherlands are strongly dependent on intertwined value chains. Starting in the eighties, the low labor costs elsewhere and low cost of transportation ensured that for many products, it was cheaper to have them assembled and traded abroad, while Western countries such as the Netherlands specialized further in services and innovation. Now, after a moment of suspense about whether even the essential ventilators made by the Dutch company Philips would be allowed out of the U.S., the question whether the vulnerability of these value chains is tenable, becomes more pressing than ever.

What does this mean?

Companies generally opt for offshoring, outsourcing and just-in-time inventory because of the comparative labor cost advantages in many developing countries. Now that the corona crisis has only just begun, and since it will result in a deep, enduring recession, we will start to perceive these costs differently. In a world with perpetually lurking pandemics, do we still want to subject ourselves to uncertainty about the supply of critical goods? In the short term, we’ve seen that this crisis has led governments to intervene in value chains. The U.S., for instance, has invoked the Defense Production Act, meaning President Trump has commandeered production of domestic (such as GM, which is to produce ventilators) and foreign companies (such as Philips). The Netherlands were heavily dependent on one pharmaceutical company, Roche, and it was soon suggested that the state should order the company to maximally shore up production. In the short term, the corona crisis will also lead to companies monitoring their chains more in order to take stock of these risks. After that, companies will consider the possibilities to modularize, diversify and localize/reshore, especially regarding critical goods. For example, the Dutch DSM has converted a production facility in order to produce disinfectant on a large scale at the behest of the government.

What’s next?

The above-mentioned measures still fall into the category of “damage control”. But in the future, it makes sense that companies will try to place more emphasis on the three Rs – resilience, responsiveness and reconfigurability – in the overall design of their value chains, instead of adhering to the currently leading just-in-time principle, which doesn’t take systemic risks into account. This will likely mean that products and services will cost more in the short term, while systemic risk costs will disappear in the long term. Besides future pandemics, climate change is a systemic risk that transcends all borders and will disrupt global value chains. The realization of this gives momentum to prevention measures, such as attempts to make chains resource extensive. Even if precision technology for large-scale food production is still a long way ahead, with this technology, only minimal amounts of water, nutrients and energy will be used for crops, making this local form of food production less dependent on foreign imports of resources.

Crisis practices

As a consequence of the corona crisis, we’re developing all kinds of new practices to replace our old ways, which, for the time being at least, are no longer viable. These are often practices that were already popular in certain circles, but are only now becoming mainstream. The question is whether these new practices, which often take place in the digital realm, will last or be quickly discarded once the crisis is over. This will largely depend on whether we’ll think of them as inferior substitutes or come to see their value.

Our observations

  • A number of online services have seen their number of users skyrocket as a consequence of the corona crisis. It’s highly likely that services such as Zoom, for teleconferencing, and Houseparty, for catching up with loved ones or throwing a small party, will go down in history as the apps of the corona crisis.
  • Social media platform TikTok was already extremely popular among young people and, thanks to the corona crisis, has gained even more users and become the platform for making and sharing quarantine videos. Use of educational app Squla increased so quickly after schools closed that its servers were unable to accommodate all the extra traffic.
  • The use of e-commerce has also, understandably, increased considerably as a substitute for closed physical stores. Meal and meal kit delivery have taken flight, replacing eating out, and are framed as a way of supporting local restaurants and food producers.
  • Musicians and other artists that cannot give live concerts now are going online en masse. An intriguing example of this is YouTube star and live musician Marc Rebillet, who replaced his four cancelled concerts in Australia with live shows on YouTube, reaching a far greater audience (more than a hundred thousand viewers) than he would have with his live concerts. Similarly, various yoga courses, boot camps, church services and even the AA’s addiction treatment are now provided online.
  • We’ve written before about young people’s online practices and the ways they find meaningful experiences in environments such as Fortnite and Roblox. Gen Z is often seen as the first generation of “digital natives”, people who never experienced the pre-digital age. Nevertheless, there are older generations that have worked with digital technology nearly their entire lives, even if they use it less and, especially, differently.
  • Not all practices that are gaining popularity are digital. As a consequence of gyms closing, hordes of people have taken to exercising inside as well as outside (often supported by an app), to kill time, people are baking again, and we might see large numbers of people going camping this summer if we still can’t go on holiday abroad by then.

Connecting the dots

Because of the corona crisis and the limited lockdown we’re in, we’re eager to find new means and ways to continue with our daily lives as best we can. This is giving rise to new practices. It started with the elbow tap instead of a handshake and by now, we’re all having video conferences, being homeschooled and having house parties with Houseparty. Many of the apps that have now been discovered by large groups of users, already existed before and were of value in specific niche markets. Apps such as Zoom, Houseparty and Squla were not developed in response to the crisis but were already seeing their userbase grow, and now that growth is accelerating strongly. It remains to be seen whether these new practices, many of them supported by digital technology, will remain, or whether we’ll simply revert back to our old habits as soon as the necessity of these practices is gone.
Some of these crisis practices are indeed perceived as necessary but inferior substitutes, and these will be abandoned as soon as possible. In this light, Houseparty might just turn out to be the tulip bulb or chicory coffee of the corona crisis. However, there will also be practices that we clearly see as adding value and these will stay on. That added value could be, for example, the time we save with videoconferencing, or the far-reaching personalization made possible by tele-education. Furthermore, a lot of people are grocery-shopping much more efficiently now, because they see the supermarket as a hostile environment that is to be avoided as much as possible, certainly not as a place to linger. And this might just be the stepping stone for a lot of consumers to start shopping for groceries online more often. After all, their new shopping rhythm, including planning ahead one or several weeks, is already similar to the rhythm of ordering groceries online.
Things become more interesting when we consider genuinely new practices that arise from the possibilities, such as time and technology, offered by the crisis,

rather than those that emerge as frenetic surrogates. In this respect, we might follow the lead of young people who have been having (meaningful) experiences in the virtual world for much longer. To many, environments such as Roblox, Fortnite and TikTok are a viable alternative to the playground, the schoolyard and maybe even the club. Notably, these environments are not half-baked attempts at mimicking real life (like Zoom or Houseparty) but offer an entirely singular experience. The question is whether older generations will also develop and embrace these kinds of practices. Ironically, these older generations, specifically older millennials and Gen X members, who grew up with gaming and other (primitive) forms of digital technology, are much more inclined to distinguish between real (physical) and valuable experiences on the one hand, and virtual, thus less meaningful (or even childish) experiences on the other. The corona crisis could lead these generations to also discover value in virtual environments, such as a metaverse, where part of your life is meant to take place, as was the aim of Second Life, and was intriguingly portrayed in the recent film ReadyPlayerOne. New consumer practices arise from a combination of technological possibilities, changing societal norms and individual desires and abilities. A crisis, such as in times of war, functions as a pressure cooker in which developments accelerate while societal norms and personal needs become flightier. Whether this crisis will actually result in new technology will probably depend on how long it lasts, but the aforementioned examples do show that all kinds of norms are, at least temporarily, shifting. It will therefore be interesting to see to what extent existing technology will find new uses due to these changing norms. After all, the technology for virtual reality and video calling has long been available, but adoption was partly hampered by cultural barriers, which are now rapidly being broken.

Implications

  • A number of new applications and platforms will take flight on a large scale, and this doesn’t just include the obvious, apparently most appropriate substitutes for old practices. They could also be games that offer a rich, social experience to older users, or e-commerce platforms that specifically target, for example, elderly users.

  • In this crisis, our house is where most new practices are developed and, as we noted before, the home will have a multitude of new functions. These will largely (have to) be supported by network technology, smart appliances (e.g. smart sporting equipment) and data-driven platforms. The home itself will also increasingly change shape and come to include, for example, separate, or flexible rooms (e.g. an office also functioning as VR room).

  • Business models that were previously thought impervious to digital technology, such as yoga studios and conference centers, are now under pressure, as people are realizing that the digital alternative can be (almost) as effective and valuable. It’s highly likely that a winner-takes-all dynamic will manifest itself here as well: one good yoga teacher will render all the other ones redundant.