The Post-Pandemic Sweet Spot

Bringing the online world off

Nathan Tonani
Apr 5, 2020 · 7 min read
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I’m sitting on a balcony, physically quarantined from the rest of you, in between sessions of connecting with friends and family through the number of voice chat apps (the likes of which are rejoicing the beginning of an era built for them) when it occurs to me this isn’t the future I want. No, not a future of forced quarantine… but rather something likening itself to a voluntary version; a world where everyone is working, learning, caring, connecting, being, remote.

The first week, sure — I was caught up with having time for friends and family. Since then, well it’s not what I had in mind. I can only take so many virtual happy hours before I want a real one.

Sadly for these apps (and luckily for us), we simply aren’t built for a life devoid of or distant from one another — the remote life is not the life for us.

And while I’m thrilled we can stay connected with whoever, wherever, whenever, I’m also thrilled for the day we don’t need to. I’m excited to start connecting, living, in person again.

Tomorrow’s Makeover

No doubt, the distant future has burst in view to replace tomorrow. The pandemic has forced us to adopt new ways of living. To sustain some semblance of normalcy we’ve had to embrace technology in unprecedented ways. Society has gone remote.

We are leaning on Zoom for work and virtual communities; Khan Academy for learning; Twitter for breaking news; Facebook for staying connected; Twitch and YouTube for social engagement; Cloud services and ISPs for keeping everything up (and so many damn more but you get the point (you already got the point didn’t you?)). All were bordering on essential before, now there’s no question — they’re essential and there’s no turning back.

The digital age is about to be revolutionized yet again as we all realize we can (or are finally given the opportunity to) work and learn (among others) through our devices. Workspaces and classrooms will be challenged. No more wasting time commuting; no more being forced to live in a city you don’t want to live in; no more meeting time-sinks, or learning through a subpar lecture. We can take things into our own hands. Not only will these places be challenged, in some cases they’ll be replaced. Digital-first alternatives are finally seeing the light and can no longer be ignored.

But does that mean we will ride the wave of technology into a future of remote life? A future where I’m up on this balcony by choice rather than force? I don’t think so.

In the Name of Social

As I sit here, I also feel this unnerving desire to be closer to others. I miss being with people — everything about it. We are social animals, down to our wiring. And given the whole doing less in the name of more, we’ve been forced to not only think about it, but feel it. So while the freedoms of an untethered (or rather, tethered?) life are great, I’m unsure what to make of it.

I do know this though — social connection is key to our mental and physical health, our happiness and ability to find meaning, and our community’s ability to prosper. And as of now, it’s difficult to build and sustain through virtual outlets and communities. It’s great we have them (especially now — to minimize the drop in connection), and surely metaverses are coming, but virtually connecting is no match for the real world. In-person will continue to reign supreme.

So, while bets are being placed on virtual technologies, I’m placing mine somewhere in the real world; the dawn of a new era — where technology improves upon the physical world, rather than replaces it.

Freedom-bred Innovation

Fast-forward to when life normalizes, the pandemic is no more, and a new war will be waged — war on our previous normal. Between feeling zealous with regaining our long-lost autonomy and being tasked with going back to what once was, we will demand change. At minimum, we will ask for more lenience around being remote. But zoom out and what we’ll really be asking for is more freedom around how and where we spend our time. This helps us ultimately find that sweet spot — the more ways we can spend our time, the more we understand how we want to.

It’s not as if alternatives haven’t existed and weren’t gaining followings, we just weren’t prepared to let them sit shotgun. Policy and accreditation take time; and in the name of exponential, they are now going to be forced to speed up.

The location of most alternatives? Online (locationless?) of course. Something we’re acutely aware of right now. And as we know, that means more than it appears on its surface.

Online is data-driven and curated. It’s the fast lane. It’s where startups exist that invert power structures and shift paradigms; where merit and skill hold weight over incumbency (well, some of the time **shrug**). But with big corporations, universities, traditions clutching to keep their strangleholds, innovation has not always won out; as frictions around ‘what has worked’ slowed progress, we’ve been stuck in yesterday.

All it was going to take for the grip to loosen was for people to feel free to make decisions they felt were best for them, and for those to be recognized. Now that everyone is being forced to see the potential, not only will these alternatives be acceptable, they’ll be reputable, favorable.

Queue spikes in swapping 4-year universities with online vocational schools and 9–5 office gigs with remote-first startups. And while not every industry is, will ever, or even could ever be prepared, they will be forced to innovate in an attempt to keep talent in their pipelines.

Regardless of how this plays out, there’s a problem: Remote work and online school are missing a key element of being human and that’s the social one.

So while at first sight it seems like we’re preparing to go online, I see it as preparation to bring online off — the heavier demand for alternatives to traditional ways of life will brew innovation, and because real world outlets have an inherent advantage, the physical world, rather than the virtual one, will be the frontier of that innovation.

We can take social technologies as an example.

Social Technologies — Full Circle

We’ve now had a decade of social technologies at strength. Their impact, especially social media platforms, can’t go unrecognized as they’ve played a large role in shaping the world we live in.

The reason we can use them as an example is they were born with far less regulation and oversight than work and education: They were born online. That allowed them to move fast and for adoption to happen organically. They were our canary, showing us what the impacts of going online were, especially given the nature of the business (how connecting permeates all of what we do in life).

And one thing over the last year or two was becoming abundantly clear — they weren’t making people feel socially connected. The mere fact that we’ve become lonelier while having the most connections (being most ‘connected’) is a clear red flag of our misdirection. And people have been feeling it.

The pandemic interrupted what was becoming a heavy emphasis on physically connecting again. Facebook was leaning into Groups, Meetup was showing promise, AirBnB expanded into Experiences. Social technologies saw that what they built wasn’t sustainable — the attention economy wouldn’t work once the end-user understood the game. A new economy centered around value (in this case, social connection) was beginning to emerge, and that playing field was becoming the real world.

And while the pandemic did interrupt it, it also reinforced its need. We miss being present with one another. No more questioning. Like I said, we’re feeling it.

Synthesizing the Duality

In many industries and for many reasons (some I fully support, others I don’t), the online world has been kept separate from the physical world. Slowly it’s built a suite of universes all driven by their own needs. This multiverse is surely to get more crowded (multi?) and rich following what’s transpired, as people have taken a liking for virtual communities — you‘ll be going from 0–60 soon, in avatar count. Which is great, they have their place, but we mustn’t see them as the end-goal. They supplement our lives. We aren’t uploading our consciousness to the cloud (like Yorkie and Kelly) and until then, the physical world will remain in charge.

In order to do that, it’ll need a makeover.

And sorry to the purists out there, but this makeover’s foundation is made of technology. Personalized for each one of us. The duality of the data-driven, curated online world and the data-absent, happenstance physical world will synthesize into something greater than either alone (they too are tired of being quarantined from each other).

In some form or another, data and computation will influence our physical experience, even if that means not using data or computation at all. Not ‘our physical experience’ collectively, but individually. What was streamlined and generic (one size fits all), will become personalized and curated (one size fits one).

Say goodbye to 20th century classrooms and workspaces built for yesterday, where cold hard output made decisions. Meet tomorrow, where value is in charge. The center of that value? You. Right now. No matter if you’re the student or teacher, the employee or employer, patient or caregiver, friend, partner, spouse. We all matter. And more than before, we realize how much now matters too.

We have been asked to do less in the name of more. It’s left us with a lot of time to fill. Time we aren’t used to filling. And in trying, we’ve been forced to sit down and confront what’s important to us, some of which we haven’t given time to in a while. Unknowingly, we were leaving things behind. We’ve been heads-down working for a better tomorrow without realizing we could do it with a better today. As unfortunate as this has all been, it’s been a needed reminder.

We don’t want antiquated, nor do we want virtualized. We want that sweet spot.

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