Metamodernism and corona

The corona crisis is multidimensional: it’s a crisis from a political, economic, social, geopolitical and humanitarian point of view. Such crises are turning points, at which enduring, deeper trends that were slowly meandering in the background, are accelerated. One of the deeper developments in our society and culture, is that of a metamodern discourse and the corona crisis particularly is a phenomenon that ties in with metamodernism.

Our observations

  • History can be understood as the sum total of coherent and meaningful narratives about the rise, development and possible future of mankind and the world around us. This means that history in this sense began with the first information and communications technologies (ICT), such as myths, clay tablets, and writing, which enabled such narratives to live on through time. Different “information regimes” co-existed for a long time, because the information costs were too high to spread knowledge and information across the world uniformly. The current Digital Information Age and its specific ICTs (e.g. the internet, smartphones, bits saved in datacenters) have led to an enormous reduction in information costs and with that, to a “hyperhistory”: a convergence of different histories and mutual connectedness of formerly separate information regimes.
  • That makes the coronavirus one of the first hyperhistoric phenomena, as (approximately) the whole world is focused on the virus and its consequences (exemplified by livestreams of corona hospitals being built, real-time corona maps with updates on the number of victims and infections. And because the coronavirus is a “viral phenomenon” that is really a part of this networked and complex superorganism (e.g. facilitated by intercontinental flights, international value chains), being a “superbrain”, this network is looking for solutions (e.g. the international medical scientific community is attempting to find a vaccine, nation states have closed borders to prevent the spread of the virus).
  • The work of Hanzi Freinacht, which is the pseudonym of Daniel Görtz and Emil Friis, is a “guide” to metamodern political philosophy. In his work, Freinacht criticizes current politics as lacking an exciting vision of the future and an ideal for politicians and society to work towards. In the book The Listening Society, Freinacht describes a “development stage approach” of societies and political systems by looking at four variables: i) the cognitive complexity of persons (the ability to analyze information and then respond to it), ii) the symbolic code of a society (the stage of cultural development and the accompanying “value memes”), iii) the palette of subjective conditions of people (how we experience life and reality), and iv) depth (the “embodied” experience and mineralization of these experiences).
  • In his second book Nordic Ideology, Freinacht describes how, based on these principles, metamodern politics and society could be created. They should be founded on personal development and the spiritual growth of society, and complexity thinking should be embraced to dissect and connect the current problems in their constituent ideas (e.g. climate change, polarization, economic inequality).
  • Two weeks ago, we wrote about the different moods that characterize the corona crisis and the accompanying period of (relative) isolation and quarantine. Moods are not subjective experiences or flighty emotions but intersubjective atmospheres in which reality appears to us in a certain way because of our own moody interpretation of it (e.g. when we’re bored, the attic where we spend our time seems like a dull space, when we’re stressed, we relate to our roommates and loved ones in a tense way). When describing these “corona moods”, it’s striking that they are often opposing ends of a continuum (fear and hope, stress and boredom), which shows there is a high degree of ambiguity in how we experience the corona crisis.

Connecting the dots

Our word “crisis” is etymologically derived from the Greek word krinein, which can be translated as “to separate” or “to judge”. This also means that a “critical situation” is one that could culminate in different ways, giving it a high degree of uncertainty. A crisis is therefore always a moment of truth, in the sense that certain problems and contradictions escalate and require “judgment”: a decision that clarifies what is right and wrong, valuable and worthless, relevant and irrelevant, making this moment of decision deeply ethical and political. A crisis situation is thus not subject to the quantitative sequence of moments of “clock time” (chronos), but to qualitative time, or the moment when something becomes clear and visible that wasn’t previously there (kairos). That means that a crisis is always an opportune moment that we can seize to thoroughly change and reform the existing order and system. The corona crisis is such a kairotic moment for metamodernism. But what exactly is metamodernism
Metamodernism is the cultural development phase that follows modernity and postmodernity. It criticizes both the naïveté and reductionism of modernity (with its emphasis on progress, rationality, humanism) as well as the ironic, nihilistic and restless criticism of postmodernity. By contrast, medamodernism seeks to rediscover the truth and narratives, as modernity attempted to do, but with the edge of the critical perspective of postmodernity, because humans need direction and a story to add structure and organization to their own lives, society and the world around them.
In contrast to the postmodern parataxis (putting words together without any meaningful correlation: deconstruction) and the modern syntaxis (the reduction and connection of words to their elementary principles: construction), metamodernism focuses on metaxis: the ongoing discussion of different ideas and positions to discover a broader pattern of development; a reconstruction of collective truths and our embrace of them.
Metamodernism could really take flight during the current corona crisis, because it’s a highly metamodern phenomenon in itself: it was facilitated by the possibilities of the global, digital, hyperhistoric and complex world. But our current ICTs also make it possible for the whole world to adjust to such a phenomenon: rather than a local problem (such as Ebola, which remained mainly limited to West Africa), for the first time in history, there is a phenomenon that captures the attention and interest of almost all people on Earth.
This makes the corona crisis constituent to the superorganism “Earth” or “man”, meaning that solutions to, questions and ideas about corona are in fact global “grand narratives” that transcend physical and cultural boundaries. This is not yet very visible, but it is the seed of a new form of metacognition in which different thinkers, countries, cultures present their solutions and the dialogue that results from that gives rise to new solutions. That’s why the models of open-source, open science, open data and open innovation match metamodernism and the corona crisis so well; because metamodernism is an institutional or political model which allows for the best ideas to surface through collective trial-and-error and a non-linear learning ability among radically different actors who nonetheless deal with the problems and questions.
Furthermore, the corona crisis also confronts us with a “harsh” reality, in which neither deconstruction and criticism, nor a naive or simple answer conceived from existing frameworks will suffice. Rather, we’re in need of an action-based perspective and systemic change to fight, if not prevent, the next pandemic. In countries that have previously had a formative experience with such a pandemic, for instance, citizens show more willingness to accept strict limitations of social freedom.

It was a long time ago that (Western) societies and younger generations were last confronted with such a crisis, which leads to a new sensation of urgency and willingness to critically reconsider and reassess concepts such as development, progress, the purpose of the economy and growth and the importance of nature and ecology (similarly, 9/11 led to new ideas on the importance of national safety, the geopolitical role of the U.S. and Islam). After the first phase of abating the crisis by containing the virus, there will be a period of necessary reorientation and making choices to shape our society and economy sincerely and from a grand narrative, in a way that fits the metamodern ethos as now manifests itself in, for example, new sincerity literature, post-irony media or the return of horror in films and series with new esthetic tropes (such as “the weird and the eerie”). Metamodernism has also emerged as sentiment or “structure of feeling” in art and popular culture, and it’s specifically such pre-theoretical modes of expression, e.g. of Zeitgeist or mood, that later translate into material and societal changes.
That brings us to the moods that go with the corona crisis and the new socio-cultural living world in which it’s taking place (e.g. the 1.5 meters society, the quarantine). A high degree of ambiguity is visible in this, that fits the complexity of both the virus as well as the world in which it’s manifesting itself. Precisely because we are unable to find middle ground, metaxis, we keep going back and forth between the different moods and often experience them simultaneously or in quick succession. This gives the palette of corona moods a high degree of ambiguity, from which new (variations on old) phenomena and practices arise, such as reconnecting with nature out of boredom (e.g. gardening) or stress, or a return of religion as well as new forms of spirituality out of the fear and hope of the corona crisis. The common factor in these examples is that they were all “ignited” by the corona crisis, in which people assume a hopeful, positive stance in light of the negative precarious situation of our living world.
In a wider sense, we see this type of sentiment in the return of utopian thinking, which was long considered naive and ignorant by the postmodern mind. In the same way that modernists thought everything could be reduced to a simple reality based on elementary particles, and postmodernists held that everything is a perspective and there is no universal truth, metamodernists believe that reality and perspective are one. And due to the continuous oscillation between perspectives and positions, we hope to catch a glimpse of a higher truth or the exterior reality that shines through from it. This kind of idea that subject and object ultimately cannot be seen as separate, can be found in quantum models, such as in the work of Karen Barad on intra-actors and agency.
The significance of such metamodern perspectives is in the fact that as soon as the metamodern method and the resulting insights are embedded in a metamodern reality, when ideality and reality coincide, a new socio-cultural transition becomes possible, which is also necessary as the idealistic foundation of the new metarules of societal, economic and political systems in a Second Deep Transition. Politically, we’re already seeing the first signs that this – rather abstract – description of metamodernism and its principles, is being politically, institutionally and economically realized. Examples of this are the works of Hanzi Freinacht, Brent Cooper’s Abs-Tract Organization, the growth of metamodern political parties in Denmark and Sweden, which in turn are part of the growing meta-ideology of green social liberalism in Northwest Europe.

Implications

  • At the moment, metamodernism is still mostly an artistic and cultural movement which lacks clout and solidity in reality. But when its principles and logic eventually spread in several forms (e.g. open-source, metamodern forms of politics and economy), it will eventually institutionalize in all layers of the socio-cultural reality. At FreedomLab, we’re therefore working on a multidimensional and layered model to understand socio-cultural transitions and phenomena, in which metamodernism plays a large role.

  • The corona crisis is also what American philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn calls a “paradigm shift”: the moment our view of the world and the way we regard phenomena changes to such an extent that it leads to a different perception of reality in our models, ideas and insights. A crisis, a critical situation, is thus also an anomaly: a deviation that we can’t understand and control with our usual models. This means that in times of crisis, our usual ideas, models, habits, are “parenthesized”, and that we are willing to push through great changes that were previously unthinkable, which could lead to enormous growth for metamodern thinking and institutions. Metamodernism itself is part of a system in which different utopian-critical paradigms are joined, such as post-humanism, quantum ontology, post-reductionist and hermeneutic philosophy, deep ecological and complexity thinking. What these paradigms have in common, is that they are critical of the simplistic modern paradigm for understanding phenomena (i.e. humanism, Newtonian metaphysics, reductionist scientism, a rejection of the social sciences and humanities), as well as of the poverty of the postmodern perspectivism with regard to the formulation of answers. Practically speaking, it proposes a transdisciplinary method, in which phenomena are viewed from different perspectives, and the different levels of problems are sought in continuous dialogue. This ongoing oscillation makes metamodernism suited as an explanatory model for socio-cultural and political-economical questions and phenomena.

Who controls the surveillance Stack?

What happened?

Apple and Google have jointly proposed a system for Covid-19 contact tracing. However, in doing so they have provided an alternative to the initiatives of some countries in developing their own applications. As it turns out, most of these initiatives largely rely on centralized infrastructure, in which data is stored on central servers. In contrast, Apple and Google’s system relies on a decentralized approach where data is stored locally on the user’s phone. In response, privacy advocate groups have sided with the big tech companies’ system as being more privacy friendly, which swayed countries like Germany to abort their initiatives and switch. Other countries like France and Australia have stuck with their approach and, therefore face political backlash. On the other hand, even though Google and Apple’s approach is generally preferred, they have also been critiqued for forcing their solution by leveraging their power through their dominance of the mobile market, thereby sidestepping political deliberation.

What does this mean?

Governments, big tech companies and society are figuring out how our IT infrastructure should be governed. This confrontation is particularly interesting as it shows how different governance stacks (state-controlled, industry-controlled or open) behave and interact during times of crisis. Under these circumstances governments generally seem to prefer centralized solutions as it provides them most control and the possibility to act swiftly. However, this approach also increases the risk of hacks and potential misuse by state-actors. It is not the first time that we have witnessed this dynamic. In 2015 and 2016  Apple was pressured by the FBI to compromise users’ encryption for the purpose of preventing terrorist threats.

What’s next?

This pandemic has shown our willingness to address systemic crises through the deployment of digital surveillance tech.  Going forward, this crisis will lay the groundwork for how we are going to approach other systemic risks like social unrest, terrorism and climate change using data, algorithms and IT infrastructure. Having learned from the societal backlash surrounding fake news and privacy scandals, big tech will try to preemptively self-regulate to cement their central position in society. Governments on the other hand will force big tech companies to further open up their solutions to political scrutiny.

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.

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.

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.

Scenario thinking: embracing uncertainty

When thinking about the future, one could employ two different strategies. The first is referred to as forecasting and is all about actually trying to predict the future. This strategy is often used by politicians or companies in order to persuade voters or consumers to join them (e.g. if you join us, this is what the future will look like). By contrast, the second strategy embraces the assumption that the future is inherently unpredictable because of structural uncertainties, and concentrates on developing various scenarios that are treated as equally possible. Today it seems we are increasingly aware of, and confronted with structural uncertainties such as climate change, virus outbreaks, rapid technological innovation or political instability. This might cause people to look for parties that embrace uncertainty rather than trying to solve it.

Our observations

  • Complexity is defined as the number of factors that we need to take into account, their variety and the relationships between them. The more factors, the greater their variety and the more they are interconnected, the more complex it becomes to predict the future.
  • With the rise of the internet and digitization, things that used to be isolated became connected, making the world more complex than it was before. Among other factors, technological and sociological changes took place: the digitization of massive amounts of information, smart systems communicating autonomously, the decreasing cost of computing power, the increasing ease of communicating “rich content” across space and time, and institutional innovation in terms of industry norms and business models. Because of such developments, it has become more difficult to predict the future as a single, well-defined and highly probable future.
  • According to Forbes, popular business press and academic literature are struggling to find terms that refer to an increasing inability to get a grip on the world and the events that occur. Uncertainty, turbulence, rapid change, dynamism, disruption, complexity, hyper-competition, high-velocity markets and flux are examples of such terms. The notion of “VUCA” (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) is gaining popularity as it covers the various dimensions of uncertainty we are facing.
  • According to BNY Mellon, some of the many consequences of the continuous technological disruptions is that companies are spending a much briefer period on leading positions in the stock markets, a change in traditional business models and a much shorter lifespan of companies. In 1965, for example, a company could spend 33 years on the U.S. stock market. By 1990 that average had fallen to 20 years – by 2026 that number is expected to have shrunk again to 14 years. This implies that over the next 10 years, about half of the 500 largest companies in the U.S. stock market will be replaced.
  • Portraying multiple scenarios has become a common way to explore the future for many. The World Economic Forum, for example, made four different scenarios for the future of energy, KPMG made four different scenarios on the future of Artificial Intelligence, Medium made four scenarios on the future of work, newspapers sometimes offer multiple scenarios  when important events have multiple plausible outcomes (e.g. The Guardian on Brexit), and Bloomberg Opinion recently offered three scenarios for investors on the impact of the coronavirus.

Connecting the dots

Forecasting the future in terms of a single outlook that is considered most probable, is a traditional way of strategic planning in organizations. It assumes that, in theory, it is possible to predict the future if only one has the right information and possesses the (human and/or automated) capabilities to process that data. In most cases this implies that an ongoing trend is extrapolated into the future. However, ever since the oil crisis in the early 1970’s, forecasting appeared to fail as a successful strategic planning tool in times of uncertainty. At that time, the oil price had remained one of the most stable features of the global economy and experts had predicted it would stay that way in the next decade or so. As we know now, these forecast were way off as prices rose explosively due to a number of Arab oil-producing countries taking action directed against the West. However, at the end of the 1960’s, before the oil crisis, Pierre Wack had introduced a new strategic tool at Royal Dutch Shell: scenario planning. Because of this tool, Shell successfully anticipated the oil crisis of the early 1970’s. They had included the oil crisis in one of their scenarios, so when the first signs of price changes occurred, they linked them to this scenario and where able to anticipate the sudden changes quickly.
Scenario planning assumes that the future is unpredictable and contains irreducible uncertainties. In his book Scenarios, Professor Van der Heijden distinguishes tree types of uncertainties: risks, structural uncertainties and unknowables. Risks can be modelled and extrapolated into the future, as they have enough historical precedent in the form of similar events that allow for probabilities to be formulated. Structural uncertainties concern trends or events that are unique and don’t allow for a perception of likelihood. Unknowables are events that we cannot imagine at all. Some of the current risks

are, for example, the trade tensions between the U.S. and China or aging populations in many countries. Current structural uncertainties are for example the disruption of many business models by technological change, the rapidly changing nature of work, climate change or feedback loops. The current coronavirus can be categorized as an occurrence of a structural uncertainty: although we couldn’t know how and when it would happen, the fact that we are confronted with a global virus outbreak every now and then is a given. An example of an unknowable is the Fukushima accident. The nuclear base seemed ready for almost anything, but when it was hit by a tsunami, three reactors had a meltdown. Scenario planning operates in the area of structural uncertainties.
As structural uncertainties cannot be reduced to probabilities, scenario planning aims to take into account multiple outcomes of known, or yet unknown, developments. Contrary to forecasting, the starting point is to consider these different outcomes as equally probable. As time unfolds, events and trends are monitored through the lens of these scenarios, looking for clues and question whether they might be weak signals for one particular scenario. Also, the developed scenarios are revisited on a regular basis, verifying whether they are still up-to-date as time goes by. They are so-called living documents that evolve over time as opposed to static strategies that hold on to one vision over time. Finally, before policies or projects are launched, they are analyzed vis-a-vis these scenarios in order to see whether they can be successful in one or more scenarios. As structural uncertainties such as technological disruption, the future of work and climate change are dominating the outlooks in business, many the world’s largest corporations, including Disney, Apple and Accenture are using scenario planning.

Implications

  • As we wrote before, uncertainty is increasingly accepted in our thinking about the future. Speculative design, for example, emerged as a new discipline in design, architecture and art. It takes the uncertainties and ambiguity of new technologies as a starting point and imagines possible outcomes. Pragmatic utopian thinking has gained considerable popularity in different domains. The general attitude within this pragmatic utopian movement is that grand narratives and utopian thinking should not be used as a blueprint for society, but instead should be perceived as tentative orientation points for our decision-making and as a source of hope in uncertain times. Current developments in the horror movie genre also seem to provide us with the extreme scenarios that allow us to ‘safely’ explore some of our dark horizons.

  • A more flexible way of looking at the future is only possible when uncertainty is a structural element on the agenda of, for example, policymakers in business or politics. As structural uncertainties are increasingly getting attention, trustworthiness might shift from offering voters or consumers simple solutions that envision just one future (e.g. Trump’s “America first” or Facebook’s (original) mission statement “To give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected”) to presenting a creative and multiple outlook into the future, demonstrating to be prepared for more than one (preferred) scenario.

Could Europe Fix the Internet?

Over the last two decades the internet has gradually balkanized into myriad centralized spaces where either big tech or authoritarian state actors have become powerful gatekeepers. As a consequence, the project of an open global internet is jeopardized. It is against this backdrop thatEurope is currently in the process of developing a data and AI strategy which should restore some of its competitiveness and sovereignty. Here we take a closer look at some of these policies and speculate on future opportunities for Europe that go beyond a defensive digital strategy.

Our observations

  • In May 2015, the European Union announced the Digital Single Market policy, which aims to remove trade barriers among EU members in the domains of digital marketing, e-commerce and telecommunications. The Digital Single Market is part of the Digital Agenda for Europe 2020. The directives on datasharing are within the scope of the Digital Single Market.
  • On the 19th of February, European Commission Vice President Margrethe Vestager presented a new package on data and artificial intelligence with a strong strategic focus on social AI and the re-use of data. Regarding the latter, it aims to establish a European data space in which data can seamlessly be shared among private and public organizations with the purpose of stimulating trade and innovation.
  • On the 17th of April, the European Union adopted the Directive on Copyright in the Digital Single Market. Similar to how the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) established individual data ownership rights, this directive aims to establish data ownership for content creators. However, this policy is more controversial, as it also goes against the an elementary aspect idea of reusing content for the purpose of user generated content.
  • The Dutch ministry of Economic affairs and Innopay did a study on the possibility of Dutch SMEs sharingdata. As a conclusion, they offered a framework covering nine important building blocks ranging from standardization, governance to rules for consent.
  • In the open-source community we can see the emergence of protocols (e.g. Ocean Protocol, Blockstack, IOTA) that aim to offer part solutions to a frictionless data exchange layer. Applications that are built on top of this soft infrastructure will be able to seamlessly exchange data as these protocols automatically handle indexing, pricing, payment, compliance, provenance, etc.
  • The Big Data Value Association, an industry-driven international not-for-profit organization that acts as the private counterpart to the EU Commission to implement the Big Data Value PPP program, published a whitepaper in 2019 in which it describes the many potential technical solutions for a European Data Sharing Space.

Connecting the dots

Currently, the internet seems to be headed in the direction of having a few actors decide the rules of our digital realm. On the one hand, we find a handful of big tech companies that have claimed the most important functions of the internet (e.g. access, storage, compute, search, commerce, entertainment) and have entrenched their position through data, network effects and political and financial power. Especially U.S. and Chinese platforms have been able to grow their platforms quickly due to their large internal market. On the other hand,we see governments that are gradually establishing their own stacks through the installment of friendlyinfrastructure, data localization, abandonment of global standards and formulating policies that allow for more topdown authoritarian state interference. In contrast, Europe has been facing fragmented data regulation among its members and has been lagging behind in terms of data availability, data standardization, data infrastructure, data quality, data interoperability, data governance and data literacy. In addition and partly thanks to aforementioned issues surrounding data, Europe has not been able to offer its own share ofnoteworthy digital champions and, as a consequence, is largely at the mercy of technologies and platforms from the U.S. In response, to regain some control over the situation, Europe has been working on data legislation and policies. In 2018, it introduced the regulatory framework GDPR to give its citizens more control over their personal data. In addition to these protective measures for its citizens, the European Commission is now also in the process of proposing an AI and data strategy in which it outlines policy measures and investments to stimulate the European digital economy for the next five years. As presented in its communication on the 19th of February, it aims to 1) introduce a cross-sectoral governance framework for data access and (re)use, 2) invest in Europe’s capabilities and infrastructure for hosting, processing and using data while also improving interoperability, 3) stimulate individuals’ and SMEs’ data skills and literacy and lastly, promote the development of common European data spaces in the domains of manufacturing, mobility, health, finance, energy, agriculture, public administration and the European Green Deal. With its AI strategy, it aims to introduce measures to develop competitive AI (i.e. ecosystem of excellence) while also taking all the necessary precautions to ensure that these systems will be human-centric and to induce trust with their users (i.e. ecosystem of trust). Although these regulatory frameworks are an important first step in outlining Europe’s digital values and interest, it is generally perceived as a game of catch-up instead of changing the global rules of the game. Many of the issues concerning data in European industry refer to a deeper-seated problem with how the internet works globally. As discussed before, because of their client-server architecture, most platforms can treat data as an asset that can be extracted from their users to then be locked away within the platform’s silo, only accessible when terms set out by the platform owner are met. 

As a result, individual data ownership and the potential collective value of data are subordinate to the interest of the platform. Investing in local cloud infrastructure(e.g. Gaia X) will not fundamentally change this dynamic, as it only determines where data is stored but notdirectly how data is governed and exchanged. Going forward, the EU could consider a more ambitious and scalable approach by facilitating the development of a soft infrastructure layer, i.e. a layer based on software protocols in which the access to computational resources can be collectively managed, and in effect could disrupt the siloed model of the internet globally. Here, the EU could find an interesting ally in the open source community, which is currently working on such decentralized internet protocols, which on the one hand aim to place data under the direct control of the rightful stakeholders through data provenance and rights management tools (i.e. data vault) and on the other hand makes these datasets seamlessly accessible to other public and/or private services through global data marketplaces in which data owners can be compensated for the use of their data (i.e. data exchange layer)These protocols will not only benefit the rightful data owners, but could generate substantial network effects and open innovation for the system as a whole, as all stakeholders stand to benefit from greater data accessibility as opposed to only a handful of gatekeepers having access. As a result we could see the rise of digital mega-ecosystems where services can frictionlessly share data and work together to meet the market’s demand. There also seems to be a natural fit with the European governance model as the decentralized nature of this type of soft infrastructure resembles more closely the Rhineland “stakeholder” model. Governance decisions can be voted on by network stakeholders while consensus protocols and blockchains facilitate trust by creating game-theoretical interdependencies in which it is very unlikely for a single actor to game the system. As these ecosystems are also open in nature, these ecosystems do not necessarily have to limit themselves to European members but could also allow other countries that want to withdraw from the more centralized stacks. Furthermore, the decentralized and thereby trusted infrastructure also creates the possibility that many of the EU digital market regulations can be programmed into smart contracts, thereby enabling automatic compliance upfront. This should solve the issue of digital law enforcement, which will become even more pressing as the frequency and complexity of digital interactions increase. The development of such soft infrastructure will not only serve an ideological cause but could benefit from systemic tailwinds and has the potential to reinstate a global internet that is based on interoperability, openness, privacy, sovereignty and open innovation.

Implications

  • Europe could represent the third model of the internet, next to China’s state-driven model and the US’ industry-driven model to the internet. There is the possibility that these three models will become complementary and compensate for each other’s shortcomings.
  • A global data exchange layer will gradually develop, at first in the form of ad hoc data dumps between , then as agreement frameworks within industry sectors which will then be further abstracted and formalized into soft trustless infrastructure as the underlying technology becomes more scalable.
  • As with inequality and climate change Europe could also take the lead in developing a human-centric internet
  • A European stakeholder approach to the internet could strengthen alliances with countries that are also stuck between the digital hegemony of China and the US (e.g. India, SE Asia, Latin-America)

Residential energy storage systems

What happened?

Residential energy storage systems, i.e. home batteries, appear to be taking off across the globe. In the United States, annual installations grew from 2.25 MWh in 2014 to 185 MWh in 2018 and growth continued in 2019 as well. For Europe, analysts believe a doubling of installations, to 1.2 GWh per year, will have taken place by 2024.In Germany, with the highest electricity prices in Europe, already half of all households that invest in solar panels order a home battery as well. It is thus no wonder that battery producers (e.g. Tesla, CATL), traditional energy companies (Shell) and suppliers of conventional generators (e.g. Generac) are jumping on this market.

What does this mean?

Most households use their home battery to store solar energy during the day so they can use their “own” power after sunset as well and minimize their utility bill. This is especially relevant in areas where consumers receive a low price for the excess energy they supply to the grid or where “time-of-use” tariffs make it expensive to use grid power during peak hours. These factors, in combination with purchasing subsidies for the (ever cheaper)batteries, make that solar-plus-storage can already compete with grid-power. Aside from lower costs, households may also seek to become as grid-independent as possible. For some, this is a rather romantic ideal, for others, it is increasingly a necessity, as events of extreme weather are leading to more frequent power outages (sometimes power is shut off on purpose, to prevent wildfires).

What’s next?

The transition to renewable energy power generation will require ever greater capacity to store excess power for later use. These home batteries already play a valuable role on the level of individual households, but there are also attempts to leverage them to balance supply and demand in the wider energy system. Storage capacity aggregators (e.g. utilities or dedicated companies) are developing “bring your own battery” programs that pay consumers a premium to have their batteries provide energy to the grid during peak hours. These initiatives fit with ideas of a decentralized energy system, but it remains to be seen whether they can actually compete with the kind of large scale battery projects that have also enjoyed rapid growth in recent years.

Our changing structure of feeling

What happened?

A recent study shows that pop songs are in a downward emotional trend, consisting of more emotionally negatively valenced and fewer positively valenced lyrics. Similarly, two films that address that modern society is rotten from within: The Joker (rampant inequality and lack of social security) and Parasite (capitalism induces greed and leeching off others). At FreedomLab, we are interested in grasping our Zeitgeist. Coming from the German philosopher Hegel, the term refers to the general spirit of our time, which manifests itself in cultural patterns and structures of social recognition. In accordance with Hegel’s philosophy, we believe that this expresses itself in pre-theoretical utterances, such as religious imagination and the arts; in pop songs and Oscar-winning movies, for instance, but also in horror, videogames, and dominant narratives.

What does this mean?

There is fierce debate on what could be called “the state of the world”. On the one hand, there is a deep belief in the developed world that things are changing for the worse: rising inequality, ecological degradation, an authoritarian China that will end Western hegemony, digital technologies that cannot live up to their promises and are turning the world into a sort of eternal “panopticon”, or culture wars that are ripping apart the socio-moral infrastructure of societies. On the other hand, many popular books have been published in recent yearsthat stress that things are not as bad as they look, e.g. Harari’s Homo Deus (e.g. man is on the brink of eradicating hunger, disease and war and gaining immortality and superhuman abilities), Pinker’s Enlightenment Now (showing the major progression of human wellbeing in recent decades), and Rosling’s Factfulness(presenting ten reasons why the world is in a better state than we think).

What’s next?

Hegel learned that we only come to grasp or “philosophically understand” something when it has become history: when reality has turned it into something fixed and has moved on. As such, we should stay attuned tonew “structures of feeling” that emerge, as material progress does not reduce our “sentiment of crisis”. Indeed, in our times of uncertainty, we should pay attention to signs that show intrinsic development instead of extrinsic material progress. This often comes from speculative and experimental arts as well as pop culture. In his book Nordic Ideology, Hanzi Freinacht writes that metamodernism overcomes both the naivety of modernist rationalism and nihilism of skeptic postmodernism and stresses that the inner spiritual development is essential for solving and managing society’s problems. As such, the arts could come to play a much more important role in navigating the future and finding new alternative narratives at the return of history.