James Wallman

James Wallman: Pax Covidica and a new golden age

The author of Time and How to Spend It shares his reasons for being hopeful as the world begins to emerge from the Covid-19 crisis.

James Wallman

So here we are, more than a year after it all began. Who’d’ve thought it would go on so long?

Actually, anyone who’d stopped to think about it for a moment, looked to history for clues, and considered the pandemics of the 20th century. They tended to last a year or two. The infamous Spanish flu ran from 1918 to 1920, from February ‘18 to April ‘20. And the Asian flu was only 1957–1958 - no one mentions ‘59, and the Hong Kong flu was 1968-9 - no one mentions ‘70. So though each of those killed a lot of people. And they did kill millions. They were two years at maximum. And they didn’t even have lockdowns. In ‘68 my parents travelled to Paris when the riots were on. And they didn’t have the mass vaccine programmes we have now.

So one reason to be hopeful is: we’re probably almost there!

Another, even greater reason is an idea I’ve started thinking of as ‘Pax Covidica’.

The coronavirus has had all sorts of major impacts on our world. It’s decimated industries like travel and hospitality and events and high street retail. For some sectors, these are just (very big) blips. Who can’t wait to travel and go to the pub and a festival again? For others though, it’s sped up an underlying trend: the move away from real world shopping, for instance.

But while the coronavirus has stopped some sectors, it’s been an incredible catalyst for others, like online shopping, digital events, working from home and video conferencing.

'During the pandemic, video conferencing has rocketed like a spaceship on its way to Mars.'

During the pandemic, video conferencing has rocketed like a spaceship on its way to Mars. There are now 200 million people around the world meeting on Zoom every day, up from about twelve before. And then there’s 100 million on Google Meet. And 115 million on Microsoft’s Teams. We can’t just add those numbers up and say there’s 415 million video-conferencing. Some of those people may be using more than one of those systems. And those statistics don’t show all the people making video calls via Cisco’s WebEx or BlueJeans or Skype. But there’s one thing we can be sure of from those statistics: there’s a lot of humans meeting up virtually each day.

What the stats also don’t show is where those people meeting are. That’s a shame, because that strikes me as potentially very interesting.

Here’s why. Maybe I’m some kind of slowcoach but every real world meeting I’ve attended has always taken me about three hours. An hour to get there, an hour - at least - of actually meeting, and an hour to get back to my home office. So while I mostly loved meeting people, and they’re essential, I’ve always sort of dreaded meetings. Because each meeting takes up almost half a day - a tenth of my working week - away from other work.

But when I work from home and do Zoom meetings, I can do three or four calls in the same time I could have done one. It doesn’t take a maths whizz to figure out that this has also poured rocket fuel into my productivity - actually, scratch that, not productivity, ability to meet other people.

'Who knows where this might lead? That’s the magic of innovation, you never really know till it’s happening.'

So in the time it would take me to have one meeting with someone in Kings Cross, I could have three calls with people in, say, Shanghai, Sardinia and San Francisco instead. And that’s exactly what I’ve been doing while stuck at home during our lockdowns.

Stuck home, unable to go round giving keynote talks and workshops based on Time And How To Spend It (Penguin, 2019), I was forced to pivot dramatically. Instead of using the insights in the book to tell people how to spend their time, and design time for others, I’ve connected with many of the world’s leading experience designers, and set up the WXO - the World Experience Organization - to foster connections from Buenos Aires to Helsinki, from San Francisco to Shanghai.

And there’s no way this is just me. I’m not the only person with Zoom fatigue.

This heightened opportunity to connect with people who are a long way away may seem like a small thing, about as interesting, say, as your neighbour painting their wall another colour. But actually it’s huge, as impactful, over the long term, as a crack team of builders knocking down every house in your street and rebuilding them taller, bigger, better, with huge picture windows, manicured hedges, and newly painted front doors in olive green, battleship grey, and postbox red.

Is this simile over the top? I don’t think so.

As history shows us, more than anything, the exchange of ideas is the catalyst that has led to artistic, creative, commercial, and societal innovation and progress.

Consider the exchange of ideas made possible by the pax Romana, the pax Mongolica, the pax Americana and any other pax you’d like to mention. Each made it possible for very different people from the other ends of the Mediterranean, Eurasia, and the world to come together.

And when ideas within a shared civilization clash, magic happens that benefits everyone.

Because - to borrow from the world of improvisation - “my obvious is not the same as your obvious”, so when people with different ways of thinking meet, their ideas become parents to new ideas. Many are just plain silly. Some are just playthings of the rich. But out of the wreckage of a thousand experiments, a few of those new ideas fly.

The safety of the Pax Mongolica, for instance, opened up a vast superhighway for people, ideas, and goods to flow from East to West and West to East. As caravans brought horses, porcelain, jewels, silk, paper, and gunpowder along the Silk Route, so they also brought new ways of thinking and doing. From the Far East came brilliant ideas like paper-making and printing. From the Islamic world came unheard-of approaches to maths, astronomy, and science.

So here we are in today’s Pax Covidica. The virus holds us fast in a physical sense. But we’re able to fly around the globe thanks to today’s superhighway, the internet. And Zoom and the other video conferencing software are caravans and ships of today’s Silk Route.

Who knows where this might lead? That’s the magic of innovation, you never really know till it’s happening.

So don’t worry too much about how long this pandemic goes on. The Pax Covidica, with its 21st century caravans and Silk Route, is generating millions of connections, conversations, and ideas - good ones, bad ones, hairbrained ones,and ones that, given time, may just change our world.

What did you think of this article? Email editor@penguinrandomhouse.co.uk and let us know.

Reasons for Hope is a series of essays to mark the one year anniversary of the Covid-19 crisis. The author's fee for this article is being donated to the National Literacy Trust. Read more of the essays here.

Image: Alicia Fernandes / Penguin .



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