World, Interrupted

The twenty-first century is shaping up to be far different from what previous generations—and our younger selves—had imagined. Futurists looking ahead to the next century in the 1900s weren’t forecasting a global pandemic, political extremism, terrorism, enduring poverty and misery for vast swaths of the world’s people, and the wanton destruction of our planet. They anticipated progress—a world that would have managed to solve the big issues of the previous century and create life experiences that were heavy on convenience and light on strife.

World, Interrupted

Prognostications matter. Forecasts and fiction help to shape not just our expectations of the future but also our experience of the present. We use these inputs to establish notions of what the future will look like and are disappointed when reality fails to live up to what we envisioned, as it typically does. Sure, we can buy a hoverboard today, but it is nothing like what 1989’s Back to the Future Part II (set in the far-off year of 2015) led us to expect. (On the flipside, BttF PII failed to anticipate the internet, so maybe we’re ahead of the game.) It is hard to find a baby boomer who doesn’t feel rooked to be living in a world devoid of the flying cars and robotic housekeepers promised by The Jetsons—even if that cartoon series was set in 2062.

We pretend to ourselves, too, that there is an orderliness to time—that one second flows into the next minute, the next hour, the next day/week/month/year/era—and yet no two people’s perceptions of time are the same. In some respects, January 2020 feels like a lifetime ago. The weeks many of us spent in self-quarantine and lockdowns seemed at once cruelly slow and blazingly fast. What happened to April, to May? people asked. Did we have spring?

Poet William Carlos Williams described time as “a storm in which we are all lost.” In several ways, the two decades leading up to 2020 further distorted our sense of time. The once shining beacon of the future dimmed during that period and, in some respects, darkened to the point of being menacing. In the United States, it was projected for the first time that young people would not enjoy a higher standard of living than their parents experienced. Globally, we hurtled toward the catastrophic scenarios linked to climate change without having the first clue of how to change course. The gaping chasm between rich and poor, powerful and powerless, showed no signs of lessening. And even as the world embraced each new digital “solution,” many of us were left feeling that the price paid—the loss of privacy, time with family, community-based activities, even boredom-induced creativity—was too high.

If we can point to a silver lining of the pandemic of 2020, it may be that it stopped the human population in its tracks, forcing us to assess our degree of satisfaction with the present and reshape our thinking about the future. In my lifetime, I cannot think of another period in which trendspotting and trends analysis has been more vital. Everything is up in the air.

One thing that has become apparent is that, even though time has passed in quantifiable segments—in years and decades and centuries, according to our calendars—so much has stood still or even regressed. Until the pandemic forced schools to shut their doors in the first few months of 2020, education was still a teacher standing in front of a classroom, much as it was three hundred years ago. For all the modern marvels of the high-tech workplace, commuters in some major cities spent hours each week stuck in traffic jams. Despite remarkable advances in medicine, half the world’s population lacks access to essential health services, according to the WHO and the World Bank. In what felt like the blink of an eye in March 2020, everything changed: We had new teaching styles, new commuting styles, and a new emphasis on wellness, including a greater appreciation of the importance of staying mentally and physically fit. There was a keen awareness of age—those of us aged sixty or older were warned we were especially vulnerable—and the word comorbidity suddenly popped up everywhere, further alarming those with preexisting conditions.

Collectively, the world has spent trillions of dollars over the past twenty or so years to avert (Y2K) or clean up and rebuild after disasters, to wage wars without clear-cut objectives (or resolutions), and to promote an economic model based on overconsumption— a model that has put us on a path to ecological catastrophe while rending the essential fabric of society in the process. What progress do we have to show for those trillions of dollars invested? Aside from basic advances in the standards of living of the people eking out an existence in the most impoverished places around the globe and some high-tech conveniences for the rest of us, how has daily life improved on planet Earth? Can most of us genuinely say we are better off—and more satisfied with the direction in which society is headed—than we were in 1999?

What might we accomplish if we were to allow the catastrophic events of 2020 to serve as a reset? If we took advantage of this unexpected crisis to reconsider what we want the future to look like? What if we took the time to consider deeply the lessons of the past twenty years and used that learning to conceive a better path forward? What if we created something meaningful out of the nothingness of the start of this millennium?

We have an opportunity to start the century anew. The pandemic gave us that. It is time we reset our societal GPS, rerouting ourselves toward a better destination than that toward which we were heading at the start of 2020.