As I am writing these words on the first day of my daughter’s school lockdown, unable to see my family, including my 93-year old grandma back in Europe in person, and uncertain about the future, I really want to look for the light at the end of the tunnel and seek positives, unlikely as they may seem.
This is not to treat the situation lightly. The current pandemic is unprecedented in modern times, and it will likely wreak havoc for many of us and it has already taken or permanently impacted the lives and health of too many. COVID-19 will likely bankrupt more people than it will kill, and it will have a significant impact on businesses, the economy and the stock market.
Yet, while not diminishing these horrible outcomes, it may also be worthwhile to think about how we can unite, rise up to the challenge and return stronger. COVID-19’s strike has led to a rapid acceleration of peer collaboration online. We can observe:
The pandemic is speeding up a process of digitizing our work and private relations enormously.
Remember Wikipedia? The largest social movement in humankind history, the fifth most popular website on Earth, and arguably the coolest encyclopedia in the Universe, which is going to turn 20 next year? The bane of the professoriate, we should learn to love? Even though the peer production movement, which Wikipedia, as well as open-source, are good examples of, have not revolutionized capitalism, as early researchers of the phenomenon hoped, it has proved beyond any doubt that computer-supported cooperative work can bring results on par with the paid professional outcomes. The way scientists are cooperating in fighting COVID-19 is drawing from early learnings from open collaboration communities, such as Wikipedia. The current pandemic may serve as a tipping point in the revolution of collaborative discovery and decentralized science.
The behavioral changes resulting from COVID-19 spreading accelerate this process dramatically, and many will likely stay with us much longer than for the time of the pandemic, and reach beyond just the academic world, too. While my hopes are high for improving the handwashing routines, and I keep my fingers crossed for normalizing Vulcan greetings instead of handshakes, I am even more excited by the changes to the organizational workplace. More significantly, many organizations are finally fully embracing remote work, a method proven to be very effective, and improving employee productivity, creativity, and morale. It is also often preferred by employees, while sometimes dismissed by managers because of simple inertia and neophobia, as well as, admittedly, legitimate concerns over loneliness and isolation. Since 2005, the increase in remote work exceeded 159% though and the current crisis will likely push the trend beyond the point of no return.
Online meetings are substituting in-person ones, air pollution drops, and children as young as third-graders are transitioning to virtual classrooms for daily learning. Granted, the whole process is rapid, stressful and introduced in critical circumstances. Nevertheless, the skills we, as a society develop, and the confidence in virtual collaboration we are going to build, will hopefully outlive the nasty little bug by years and centuries to come. The collaborative society is coming: in the near future, we will be drawing from the experience stemming from our forced isolation, and use technology and communication platforms to cooperate much more.
We used to meet physically with our noses in the screens, now maybe we’ll start looking at each other, albeit virtually.
It is a small consolation. We do not appreciate the Black Death just because it spurred the Enlightenment, and I really wish we did not have to face the catastrophic challenges that are ahead of us. But here we are, and I really could use some silver lining. It is pretty much up to all of us to what extent we can keep the collaboration going and build on the unfortunate circumstances we have been thrown into, rather than turn on each other, as in recent mad supermarket raids. Live long and prosper, everyone!
Dariusz Jemielniak, professor and head of MINDS at Kozminski University, a faculty associate at Berkman-Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, co-author of Collaborative Society (2020, MIT Press, with Aleksandra Przegalinska).