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17 Apr, 2020 06:04

Covid-19 has made shaking hands a symbol of ‘You’re an idiot’ – Google’s top-rated futurist

During times when it’s hard to say what next week will bring, one thing is certain – the world has changed. What will it be like after the Covid-19 pandemic? We talked about this with Google’s top-rated futurist, founder and executive director of the DaVinci Institute – Thomas Frey.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Thomas Frey, Executive Director and Senior Futurist at Colorado DaVinci Institute, great to have you with us. So much to talk about. So all of us are convinced at the moment that things after the pandemic will never be the same. Like, so there was the post 9/11 world, right? There will be a post-corona world. But why are we so sure? Because thinking back, the world after 9/11 didn't really end up being that much different... 

Thomas Frey: Yeah, there are several factors that make this different. First of all, the global economy was never designed to just shut down and be restarted again. We're gonna start seeing all kinds of holes in things when we start up again, our supply chains are gonna be all messed up. When people go back to work... a lot of people have had time to think about what their job was and what they were doing. And a lot of people are going to decide that they don't want to go back to that same job. They want to do something different. And so this is going to be the biggest job transition in all history. So overall, when you factor in all of these things together, I think this ends up being the most expensive crisis of all history. From an economic standpoint I think it actually rivals WWII. It's just going to be hugely expensive as we start trying to put all the pieces back together again. Once that engine stops turning, to get it started again we're going to start seeing all these cracks in there. So many of these little small businesses that were out there that were thriving, that are just days away from just collapsing completely. And I think a lot of them will go away. On the same token, we're seeing that we can actually see the digital economy, people working on digital products, online things and services, subscription, whatever, - those things are going to thrive. And digital technology, I think, will continue to progress throughout all this. But anything in the physical world that requires a lot of people gathering together, that's going to take a long time to get restarted. 

SS: We're going to talk a lot about that. But another thing that I'm thinking [about] is the massive surveillance that we have in place. Will the measures deployed during these uneasy times remain in place when the crisis is over? Because you know what they say, nothing is more permanent than the temporary. 

TF: Yeah. So there's a phrase going around that we're in the post-normal era, that all the rules of the past - some of them may or may not apply anymore and we have to figure out which ones they are. Any technology that's created with all of the best of intentions can be abused. It can be used in the wrong ways. And so we always have to guard against that. Now, in so many respects, the governments have stepped in and they're very heavy-handed in how they behaved. It's all a matter of top-down decision-making to force compliance, to make sure that people are doing what they want them to do, to stay indoors so that we're not infecting each other. On the same token, that surveillance comes at us in lots of bad ways as well. And we're going to start micromanaging a lot of people as a result of this. And I think that that's where we run into lots of resistance. I'm not sure, but I think we run into what I call the backlash. The backlash is coming. I think it's going to be coming in a big way because people are falling through the cracks. There's different programs and everything to support small businesses, the individuals to help them out. I think too many of them are going to fall through the cracks. And then that's when we have the rioting in the streets that we have, a lot of people protesting. Lots of things go wrong at that point. 

SS: So I was reading just recently, maybe like a week or two ago, it was a big article by Yuval Noah Harari, you know him. And basically the point of the article was about the fact that we don't have to choose between privacy and our health. So my question to you is, do you really think we can have both? 

TF: See, there's lots of people that think we'd be better off in a radically transparent world, that if we knew everything about everybody, that we'd all live in a much safer world. Now, the flaw in that thinking is if I know everything about you, then I know what your credit card numbers are, your bank account numbers, your passwords, and suddenly we lose our ability to own things. And that ownership ability is foundational to the way the world works. And so, we all need some sort of a privacy bubble around each of us. But what that looks like hasn't been defined legally, it hasn't been defined culturally or technologically. And so, each time some new technology comes along, it tends to pierce the privacy veil, so to speak. So it's gonna be a challenging situation to find the right balance, to find the right mix. And I think we're a long way from that. 

SS: Here's another aspect of everything that's going on. We sort of stand united in this battle. As one virologist has told me, it's a race for humanity, not for nations. So countries push aside their differences, share information, findings, send help where it's needed. And this is remarkable proof that we can actually truly consolidate in the face of a global threat. But will this solidarity last once the pandemic is over?

TF: So we're very united in this single cause, but conflict will always arise. We're always going to have conflict, and whether it's between regional groups or between nations or between companies, we're always going to have conflict. And the way that we resolve that conflict is going to continually morph and change over time. So as we have large corporations that are fighting other large corporations, the tools that they use for waging these battles are going to morph and shift. Our ability to hack into things and to essentially rewrite history because we've created this whole stream of fake news that causes the world to think differently, that shifts the global opinion against this company or that group of people. Those tools are going to get radically different. And so we're going to be struggling with trying to deal with this whole kind of these mind games that we've never played in the past yet. 

SS: But is there any hope for at least a little better, more cooperative world after COVID-19? I mean, I know that the Spanish flu in 1918 didn't really change much, so it didn't boost cooperation. But I'm thinking maybe we've evolved or maybe we've learned something and I'm really hoping that humanity is better than what itused to be. Do you think that maybe we could be better off coming out of COVID-19 in terms of helping each other and warring less with each other? 

TF: Yeah, we're much more globally aware than ever before. So a lot of people got caught off guard with the speed of change with this. There are so many things that happened so fast that suddenly we had shortages just everywhere instantly. Now, the fact that we're aware of what's happening in China, what's happening in Russia, what's happening in Australia, in South Africa, we instantly know what changes are being made in all of these places. This is different. This instant awareness gives us a commonality, a feeling that we're in this together. So will this set the stage for kind of a better grade of humanity? I always wish it could, but I'm sceptical on that front. So in the political world, there's too much value in having a common enemy. And that makes it challenging. So as an example, in Hollywood, we have all the movies, we have all the television shows, we always need a bad guy. You need a bad guy in every scenario and every story that's being told, you need a bad guy. And so that's kind of the way we've been raised from birth to think that there are good people and bad people and somehow we separate them that way. I think we can move beyond that but I think it's going to take a whole new level of consciousness.

SS: Well, what about our values and the way they're changing? Because we talk a lot about this pandemic in terms of the values that are going to be changed afterwards. The last decade has been marked with a boom in consumerism, consumer society. I mean, we binge-buy stuff that we don't really need. What do you think will happen after? Will we go back to this unreasonable consumption of stuff? Or on the contrary? 

TF: So if you were asked the question, what were your goals six months ago and how those goals changed in the last six months, you're gonna find that a lot of the things you thought were so important six months ago are pretty frivolous. Those are things that "wow, that seemed really dumb to be caring about that" or "I'm more in survival mode today, I'm more into knowing where the food's going to come from", "can I get facemasks to wear in public", "am I going to have enough money to pay for the food and the rent and water and all of those things?" All of these priorities start to change and so it's hard to say. We're speculating on so many fronts right now as to what changes permanently and what changes temporarily. I mean, I keep going back to when do we get back to the place where we actually have, you know, a thousand people can get together in close quarters and have conversations (like we were doing last summer) and we could have a concert, a festival or parade down Main Street, where all of these things that you just are scared to do right at the moment, how long before we return to that? I think it's going to be a while. 

SS: You know, over the past couple of years, I've heard many digital futurists saying that online communication is gradually losing steam and people are sort of re-evaluating human contact because some of them were saying that unless we re-evaluate it human contact is going to be the most expensive thing in the future. So let's not lose it. What about this pandemic now - is the coronavirus reversing this trend? Will human contact be something we'll try to back off from where possible? 

TF: Yeah, I often get asked the question of how long before a virtual meeting is as good as meeting somebody in person. Meeting somebody in person - there's lots of sidebar conversations, there’s lots of body language, there's that little bit of sweat that comes down somebody's forehead that you miss if you're doing a virtual meeting. And so I've kind of come to the conclusion that once a virtual meeting is as good as meeting somebody in person, we're still not going to go there. So somehow the virtual meeting needs to be better than meeting somebody in person. And so, if you can answer that question of what constitutes better, then I think that that's going to radically change the equation. And so I think somebody will hand you the keys to the kingdom if you can answer that question. 

SS: But is it even possible? It's like, you know, the difference between falling in love with a perfect robot with AI or a human being. I mean, these things that human contact entails may be unexplainable things. It is synergy, energy, chemistry. How can you get that online?  Is there an irrational self that can't really be encrypted in code. 

TF: Right. There's no replacement for the human touch. And as humans, we're social creatures by nature, we want to be around other people. Right now, shaking hands with somebody has become a symbol for "you're an idiot". I'm a big hugger. I love to hug people. 

SS: Same here. I can't wait till this is over so I can hug everyone. 

TF: Right. And so all of these things are taboo right at the moment. And somehow we need to get back to that, because we start craving this interaction. I especially want to hug my grandkids again. I haven't been able to do that for over a month now. And that becomes extremely challenging. So there's no replacement for these things. Somehow we need to get past this fear and the anxiety about possibly catching something and get back to humanity as it was meant to be. 

SS: What do you think will happen to the freedom of travel? I mean, you can spot a terrorist right now at a security check with, I don't know, let's say, a metal detector, but you can't really detect a person carrying a potentially deadly virus. Will we now have to test for all known and unknown viruses before we choose to go abroad on vacation or business trip? 

TF: Yeah. See, that's such a great question. So the next time you get onto a bus or on an aeroplane or on a train, has somebody gone through and scanned for possible viruses in that environment? I don't know that we have the technology for doing that yet. Somehow we need to get there. We need to be able to find that. Can we get to a point where maybe we can have a coating on our skin that makes us impervious to that? Can we somehow get dipped into this vat of liquid and we get pulled out and suddenly we're coated in a layer on our skin that makes us so that we're impervious to any disease possible? Now we just have to cover our face somehow. All of these things raise a lot of interesting questions, but I think it's going to spur so many kind of ingenious new technologies to come out of the woodwork because whenever there's a problem, there's an opportunity. And the really smart people are looking for where the opportunities are in all this because that's where the money is. That's where all the attention is. So I think we're going to create a whole new breed of heroes as a result of this.

SS: Testing is for people who are already sick with something that we know how to detect. How do we deal with preventing an outbreak of an unknown illness in the future? I mean, we've learned how to predict earthquakes, election results, the weather - will we learn how to predict a pandemic? 

TF: Yeah, that's a great question because pandemics can come in all different shapes and forms. I get asked a lot if I had predicted this pandemic and almost every futurist out there has a whole list of wild-card scenarios of things that can go wrong in. One of the things on the list is always a pandemic and we always look at that. But the thing that was missing, the thing we couldn't predict was the particular ruleset that came along with this one, because the next pandemic could be a sexually transmitted disease, it could be passed from mother to child. It could pass through our hair follicles. It could come off of the sweat on our body. Any number of rules that could change, it could affect the children more than the adults. And so, understanding these particular rulesets and what a virus will look like or a pandemic of any sort in the future, - I think they're going to challenge us on a lot of fronts. So, yeah, again, there's an opportunity there for somebody that could come up with some sort of a universal detection system that we could instantly scan the airports, scan aeroplanes and scan buses and trains and cars and all of that. We're a long way from that though.

SS: Do you think this is the end of the era of mass terrorism? Will people be afraid to travel in crowded aeroplanes and airports from now on? I mean, I can't possibly imagine striving to find myself on Piazza di Spagna where people are basically on top of each other. 

TF: Right. So when we open a world back up again, what does that look like? If you go to a sporting event, is it that you just have one person on every third seat or every fourth seat? Do the airlines spread out all the seats and put people in windows and aisles and not in the centre seats? So you go down the list and you start asking all of these questions. Are we requiring masks, a certain type of mask before you get on to any place in public? And what is it that would make you feel safe in a crowded environment in the future? And if we can't figure out what makes it feel safe to us, then we're not going to go out in public again. I think we're going to be starving, we're going to get cabin fever. We want to get out, we want to be around people. Somehow we're craving that interaction. But we also have this fight or flight part of our brain that's telling us “Oh it's going to be scary’, “we're gonna catch something, we might die because of it”. 

SS: A lot more predictions of what may be the outcome of the pandemic. Some say, a baby-boom by the end of this year. Others say, divorces will hike. What will Corona mean for our demographics? 

TF: I definitely think we're gonna have a baby-boom. A lot of Christmas-New Year babies as a result of this. 

SS: They call it Corona-babies, Coronials. 

TF: Coronials? Yeah, that's a good name. One thing I think is really interesting is everything that was produced by Hollywood, the TV shows, the movies, I think this is a huge dividing point. The stories that were told up to this point are going to seem dated instantly and we're going to have a whole new generation of storytelling moving forward. Our very definition of what a hero is, what a villain is, what success is, all of that changes moving into the future. Our whole value system has suddenly shifted and changed. So I would imagine the writers, the storytellers are pitching people in the movie industry right now on a whole new line of stories that are going to come out of this and we as consumers are looking for these storytellers to lead the way. We're looking for them to give us some semblance of what the new normal is going to look like. 

SS: And I'm also thinking of the impact, in the way a very good impact the pandemic had on cleaning the air. Thanks to a world put on hold the air is cleaner. Animals are coming back to public places, the environment is healing itself really quickly. And it's hard to imagine that once corona is dealt with we're all going to sort of not use our cars or planes. So we're going to hop back in our cars, start polluting again. Will the post-corona world try to preserve this environmental advance? Will there be new standards for pollution or limits on the volume of air and car traffic? 

TF: Yeah. Great question. I've actually considered this notion that maybe sometime in the future that we decide to have a holiday that's one week long and every year we just shut everything down for a week and then we take a break from everything we're doing... That gives us a new metric to work off of because suddenly we have the ‘before and after’, this giant pause, this reset button that we hit on society every year. Is that going to come out of this? I don't know. But I'm not the only one that's talking about something like that. So there's so many interesting positives that... I think we're going to have a lot of studies that people that are studying and surveying all of the changing attitudes right now. I think this is a period in history where we have the greatest number of cynical people that come out. We're going to have all these conspiracy theories that creep up and this will be the biggest source of conspiracy theories in all history that we've got to point to somebody. And so this is the big boogeyman that we can all point to as who started it, who caused it and who screwed up along the way and who is leveraging it to their advantage and a lot of things like that. 

SS: Thomas, thank you so much for this wonderful peek into our possible future. I wish you well, stay safe, stay healthy. And I guess I wish you to be able to hug your grandkids very, very soon.

TF: I hope so too. All right. Well, thank you for having me. Appreciate it. Thank you.

SS: Thank you.