The Pandemic Is Ending, And The Optimized, Ever-Distant Future Is Probably Coming Back

Because there was no end in sight, the pandemic paused the idea of a future where the tech disruption would end, the economy would level out, and we'd ascend to our final post–social media forms. And some things looked ridiculous inside.

In out of the darkness of the pandemic, you can feel the future coming back, in the relative calculations of people’s lives.

The all-encompassing nature of the pandemic subtracted the future for at least a year. And not just in the literal way, in which weddings got displaced and the holidays went a little hazy and you never really knew when you might return to school or the office. The pandemic also paused a certain idea of the future.

Specifically: The pandemic discouraged thinking of the present as an under-construction version of a golden, optimized future, where the economy would finally click into place, the disruptions would level out, and we’d move forward on firm ground. The future-free year: Nobody knew exactly when the dire situation would end or how, so there couldn’t quite be the reasonable expectation of what would come next, in which x and y choices, sacrifices, and calculations would deliver z in the future, or feel worth it, like you’d made the smart call.

We all sacrifice in the present for the future: That’s human nature and good business sense. But you can see this idea of the optimized future shaping elements of entertainment, business, and culture. Disney and Marvel built a 23-movie enterprise that’s become the predominant shared cultural property — one in which each element leaves you spiritually hanging, waiting for the next property to deliver on the promise of the setup. Uber turned taxis into a domination pursuit where eventually, theoretically, its scale would crush all competitors, and profits would pour forth. Pro baseball and basketball teams seem even more willing to tank games or trade away the present for future assets; both games have totally reshaped themselves chasing a new understanding of statistical efficiency. Despite being the real channels through which life and business get conducted, Twitter, Instagram, etc., feel — on some level — temporary, like a phase everyone's going through before we get back to real biz.

The underpinning of that middle-distant future is the idea/reality that there’s a subterranean level of data flowing all around us. Since the publication of Michael Lewis’s 2003 book Moneyball brought advanced baseball analytics to a wider audience, iPhones have turned each of us into walking box scores, interacting daily with platforms that have brought business metrics to a wider audience. The data’s just waiting to be bottled up and turned into better analytics that will explain the past, reveal the present, identify market inefficiencies, and help forecast the future. Today is merely part of the great A/B test in the sky.

Then the pandemic dropped a concrete wall between the present and the “after.”

This isn’t like one of those The Secret, Precious Gift of This Period arguments, where you would see a single word adorned with flowers in a pink Instagram frame. There are obviously no secret, precious gifts given by the pandemic, which will hopefully be the worst thing to ever happen to so many of us. The pandemic was like jamming ice picks in a glacier that’s already sinking. We all know we’re never getting that year back; it’s just gone.

And maybe prior to the pandemic, you were living linearly in the present, in which each decision existed in the sparse echo of its own weight, one thing leading mysteriously to the next. But for a segment of the population, and arguably in some of our business affairs, some of us lived in the present in part as a service to the future.

In that light, where the moving parts of people’s lives stalled for a year, the ethos of an optimized future where the economy would finish changing and the disruption would end sounds absolutely ridiculous. The idea of a baseball team waiting for five years from now to win, or trading their star player for prospects; or a company achieving such scale that the economics will finally make sense; or one of these apps that employs contract workers who don’t make much, for a company that doesn’t make money, against small businesses who also lose out... What are we doing here? When we live in a world where we might just lose a year of our lives? Fewer than 100 days into a new presidency, MSNBC has a reporter in Iowa with “DECISION 2024” on the screen! It’s ludicrous. Even casting aside more utopian aims, what exactly are we doing in the present if we’re not even winning games and making money?

While trying to articulate this admittedly nebulous feeling about the present vs. the future, I ended up reading about Uber and Instagram, a baseball team, a basketball team, a novel about lying, a memoir about Silicon Valley, and The Innovator’s Dilemma, one of the business texts behind the economics of disruptive technology. In that last book, originally published in 1997, the late Clayton Christensen argued that strong businesses thrive on sustaining technology — the little advances that improve the products you already use — and those same businesses miss the disruptive technology that destroys them. Disruptive technology creates new markets, usually with just-good-enough technology pitched toward a new need. Good management wasn’t any help; good management responded to the paying customer rather than anticipating a nonexistent market at lower margins. Successful companies set up companies within to resist those pressures and seek out new markets.

Twenty years later, the book offers a lesson on the relative nature of The Future: Many of the case studies concern the disk-drive industry of the 1980s and ’90s during the development of the desktop computers that nobody much owns anymore. Other chapters tell the story of discount retailers like Kmart cutting into the business of Sears; in 2021, the vacant, old Sears properties are serving as vaccination sites. Christensen writes of inkjet printers and the personal digital assistants that preceded smartphones, objects that you can imagine disappearing from a house with little pops. Case study: the temporary nature of triumph. Case study: inevitability. Case study: standing in the ocean and trying to fight the waves. “Not only are the market applications of disruptive technologies unknown at the time of their development,” he writes, “they are unknowable.” You usually can’t see the end.

It’s weird, though: As millions of vaccinations roll on, we might arrive at an actual, observable ending. One day soon, hopefully, suddenly, we’ll be ourselves after the pandemic.

You can feel that chaotic pulse running now as more and more people get vaccinated. Opening your phone can be like opening and closing a door to find: a person crying for unclear reasons, then two people in hysterics, then one despondent, then one celebrating their vaccination. The world's like boats waiting in the locks. Who knows, exactly, what any of us will be like after a lost year. You might let the pandemic year slip under the waves and return to the way you were, or go hard this summer, or live more fully but quietly, or get stuck behind in the mental prism of the pandemic, or oscillate between different states.

For the rest of our lives, once there’s really an ending (and who knows exactly when it will be deemed Over), we’ll read aggregate studies of and data points about how health, education, and business changed throughout the pandemic, and what COVID-19 did to this country. But could the most advanced analytics explain what happened to you during the pandemic?

If you and I were baseball players or presidential candidates, there would be a set of metrics, regressed into a series of complicated analytics with a singular value about what I’d contributed, and maybe a public-facing forecast about how we’ll do post-pandemic. You’d be able to track where a model of six factors and ancestral data about how those similar to myself have performed after a year of their life disappears. To get weirder with it, if I were a tech company or a social media platform, like the actual entity, you’d consider whether there remained more growth for me or whether I’d fall away, washed by new disruption and a market inefficiency I’d left untended.

And this is where I could write one of those bloodless dirges about how tech’s turning everything the same, and with it, a little bit worse. I don’t rigidly believe that, because that argument sometimes runs along highbrow lines (drones lining up to take the same, monotonous Instagram photo), when in reality a lot of people are just having some fun (taking goofy photos with friends, watching superhero movies). But just as athletes and politicians are living humans who can mean so much more than they do in a statistical model, you wouldn’t want your life or livelihood to exist solely on paper, or only within the box of your phone, pegged endlessly to your future potential.

But for a time, the entire machine broke down and one could see the ways in which living with a foot in the future (whether in how it will look on the phone, or toward the metrics, or toward a jackpot profit that nobody really believes an unsustainable business will produce) saps some real life and logic out of the present. And since only the present is guaranteed — since things can end without you even knowing it — you want as much life and logic as possible, all the time.

So, then, on this one front alone, the pandemic is like when a passing car’s window catches the sun and blinds you — temporary, painful, and vivid — before your vision returns to normal. ●

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