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Tech after Covid

Incredibly, we can see the light at the end of the tunnel. Here in the US, everyone will be eligible for a vaccine from May, and projections suggest that a large portion of the population will be immune by the autumn. This is obviously great news for all of us.

Clearly, we can expect the world to change. In some ways it’ll change back to how it was before: we’ll gather in groups, go to bars and restaurants, see our friends and family. Most of us will probably go back to commuting to our workplaces, although some knowledge workers will be permanently remote or on flexible schedules. Even business travel will return to normal, albeit at two thirds its previous rate.

In other words, after a year of living virtually, reality is going to bounce back hard, with a minority of people sticking to their internet-bound habits. Real, physical items and experiences will trump virtual ones.

For many internet businesses, this will be a shock to the system. We won’t videoconference anywhere near as much, for example, and it’s telling that most of us are looking forward to that. We probably won’t spend quite as much time streaming video, hanging out on social media, or consuming content overall. We’ll go to stores again in much larger numbers rather than buying everything online. We’ll buy physical art from artists instead of collecting virtual NFTs. It’s even possible that the paid newsletter trend will be hit a little, as people find more immediate, in-person places to spend their money.

I think the implications are larger than many people imagine. I’m bullish on platforms that allow people to gather and meet people face-to-face: while gathering is a terrible idea right now, people are starved for human interaction. New kinds of in-person experiences demand ways to discover and share them. There will be a lot of parties; a lot of conferences and conventions; a lot of Secret Cinema-like immersive gatherings that experiment and push the envelope of what all of those things mean; a lot less Clubhouse. Conversely, social media will recede from being the main way we communicate with our friends to once again just being the backchannel to life in meatspace.

Here’s what I’m less sure about, but I’m hoping will happen. So many of our IRL behaviors were inherited; we often did things simply because those were the way they were done. After a break of over a year, I hope we can re-evaluate those patterns and see them with fresh eyes. Does rush hour have to exist, for example? Can we please rethink open plan offices? Are endless panels at conferences really necessary? What does it actually mean to share a real-world experience online? When someone sticks their phone in the air at a concert and records it, what is their underlying desire, and can we help them do it in a way that doesn’t obstruct everyone else’s view?

Some of this relates to social infrastructure and our political system: for example, I really hope it becomes socially unwelcome for sick people to come into work, but that heavily depends on time off finally becoming mandated. On the other hand, much of it is cultural. We have the opportunity to reinvent how we inhabit, gather, and share in the real world. That has the potential to be lovely.

In the meantime, as innovators and technologists, we have to see beyond the current moment. We’re not all going to be stuck in our houses in six months time. Inventing the future doesn’t mean inventing for a perpetual pandemic; investing in the future means seeing that trend head on. Let’s be ready for going outside again.