All around you, and I know you have felt this because I admittedly have felt it too, is this feeling of uniqueness to 2020. That this year has some sort of finality to it, as if it’s the final level of a boss in a game. But I want to dispel this notion and put us, our ego and our arrogance in place. This feeling that we are somehow special or unprecedented in our current suffering compared to past times.
This is not to understate our situation, only to put it in perspective. We do face issues with evolving and newly emerging dynamics for which we are unprepared for, although God knows if we can agree on what they are; what priority they should be put in and what action should be taken. My point, very simply, is to illuminate that we, in the now, are not special, and in this case, that is a good thing.
Why? Well, to think we are in some sort of endgame is self-flagellating. There have been worse economic crises, there have been worse plagues killing far more and wiping our far greater proportions of the population. May I remind anyone of when cities were bombed to pieces, even vaporised; when populations were affected for generations by famine or war. I should inform that there was a time when one in four harvests failed and riots were put down by the bayonet and sword. May I remind that slavery was far more prevalent, death in child birth common, that the world stood on the brink of destruction and open sewage a normal thing in what is now the affluent developed world. Simply put, reminding ourselves of these sobering facts puts things into perspective and makes things seem, maybe not good or even better, but at least less bad.
Sure, travelling is wearisome today, but we have a myriad of entertainment and unparalleled comfort compared to the past, even if you just went back a few decades. Yes, war still exists, but deployed troops can communicate far easier with those back home whereas in the past one would leave and not hear from their loved ones for possibly years at a time. Great power confrontation seems to be at our doorstep in 2020 and with heightened tensions between Iran and the US earlier this year, many thought these two states would go to war. However, discourse on the matter has been around since the Iranian revolution, not to mention other points of confrontation with states such as Russia, North Korea and China throughout the 2010’s. Let’s not forget the close calls to nuclear Armageddon throughout the Cold War, interventions, world wars, colonial conquest, dynastic clashes and religious wars that have peppered Western Civilisations history.
Of course, the present is offering great challenges but even those of automation taking away jobs has been experienced before with the beginnings of the industrial revolution and the Luddite movement. The genocide of white farmers in South Africa or Uyghurs in China today has occurred before, not just with the Jews and Armenians in the 20th century, but to the victims of the Mongols throughout Asia, Greek city states like Thebes and opponents of the Romans like the Carthaginians or Helvetii.
Even if we were to witness the very collapse of civilisation itself, we would not be treading on new ground for that fate already occurred to the Bronze age civilisations of the Mediterranean and Middle East long ago. One could point to the problems we are facing with the environment and even then, not see anything fundamentally new. Go back hundreds of years and there were warmings and cooling’s with resulting impacts on the harvest, population and society (some of which have seeped into cultural myth). Go back even further and thousands of years ago we see the coming and retreat of the ice age and rise in sea levels that wiped out many population centres.
Even if we were to take in the last 12 years we have seen, among other things, the great recession, austerity, Brexit, rise in populism, the Arab spring, the Syrian civil war, interventions by Russia in Georgia and Ukraine and the migration crisis all accompanied by the air of worsening discourse, stifling of free speech, protests and riots. Are we really that special in 2020 as a pose to 2016 or 2014 or 2008? While 2020 offers new paradigm shifts, such as the great reset, humanity has faced pivotal changes to how we do economics in the past from our evolution to agrarian, industrial and post-industrial societies.
2020 has been difficult for the economies of the world and many businesses, particularly small ones, that’s obvious. However, for most of us it has involved sitting at home being bored, wearing fabric on our faces, and putting up with cringey sentimental adverts by companies. The future is uncertain for us, as it has always been, but we do face some severe issues: The aforementioned automation of jobs across all sectors; privacy and data; freedom of speech and the culture wars and in particular the emerging sophistication of AI and algorithms are arguably the most systemically pressing for our time. But they have been brewing for a while and not something contained to this infamous year.
What it is, is COVID-19. But while Corona virus is very much the theme of 2020, viral outbreaks are not, only our global response to it. So, during this response (I.e., lockdowns) we have been able to sit at home, with more free time than ever, scrolling through the dozens of social media apps on our phone and be able to absorb and cycle through the zeitgeist digitally faster than ever. It’s this, I feel among other things, that has snowballed into this mantra of 2020 being so terribly unique and that “it can’t get any worse”.
As we approach the end of this year and all eyes turn to 2021, let us not pin all our hopes on it being this magical year where everything goes away, making 2020 feel like some bad dream. We should not view the past or future with lenses that warp our vision. The fact of the matter is, it has and always will be 2020.