The rapid spread of the COVID-19 virus has led to noticeable shifts in the social governance of the communities affected by the epidemic. The virus may well become a trigger for the introduction of new technology in management and politics, as well as their further improvement. Many of these technological innovations have already been known for a long time, and, to one degree or another, have been put into practice. However, inertia is characteristic of human nature. History knows many cases where well-known inventions were unable to achieve widespread adoption until a particular crisis necessitated their implementation. In addition, an emergency situation allows for the pursuit of unpopular measures that had previously been thought to contradict the law or morality. Force majeure circumstances justify tough steps and new means of governance, which otherwise may have led to public opposition and protests. Like any epidemic, COVID-19 is a temporary phenomenon. But the arrival of an emergency, however fleeting, can provoke changes that will remain with us for a long time.
The first and most obvious is the widespread use of distance learning and working. Modern information technology has facilitated remote work for a long time. There are advanced platforms for online courses, databases, a wide selection of software for the remote interaction of large groups of co-workers and the management of the projects they attend to. Of course, in a number of industries and specialities, it is impossible to make do without personal communication or people being physically present at the workplace. However, where remote work had been possible, modern society was nevertheless held back by an envious conservatism.
This pervasive inertia was also dictated by perceptions of status. For example, the status of a company without an office, in the eyes of customers or partners, may well compare poorly with the usual “office” setup featuring an on-site staff. In the perception of managers, the very notion of the availability of jobs and visual control is a familiar attribute of status and influence. It’s also more common for employees to “go to work” and identify the home as personal space rather than as a work space. Prior to 2020, there were many business pioneers who had nevertheless mastered new forms of work. Online services are firmly established in the commercial sector and are even provided by clumsy government agencies. However, prior to the current crisis, a radical change had not occurred. This change is very real today. And COVID-19 provides an excellent pretext.
Within several weeks, and possibly for a period lasting months, many organisations in Russia and abroad will have to switch to remote work. The economy is already suffering enormous losses.
Remote forms of work represent a suitable means to preserve the activities of many enterprises and structures, where the specificity of their work allows. The longer the quarantine and the need for isolation, the more habitual (but still not widely accepted) methods of organisation will become a habit. The worse the impact of the crisis on the economy, the more incentives business will have to cut costs. Costs for expensive offices and work infrastructure are a primary concern. Why pay extra if other ways of organising labour are possible? The epidemic will simply force the mass testing and implementation of such forms, zeroing out or changing the status representations of the past. In the near future, companies that do not move to a new organisation, where it is physically possible, may become a black sheep.
It’s also possible that employees may demand changes. They stand to gain more time – many modern cities force their working population to spend several hours a day just commuting to work. But here a chain reaction will take place in other areas of human life. Changes will alter the very ratio between personal and work spaces. Modern man will have to face ultramodern and pre-modern structures simultaneously. The ultramodern structure comes with the new technology. However, it is accompanied by a pre-modern context – workers will need to return to the traditional form of separation between home and work. The modern city, with its limited living space, is simply unsuitable for such a symbiosis. The capitalist logic of cutting costs and introducing new technologies is likely to lead to tremendous frustration and psychological discomfort. The institution of the family will have to be changed. People will be forced to re-learn how to spend time with each other; not just during weekends, but all their free and non-free time in general. A significant increase in the number of divorces in China against the backdrop of the COVID-19 epidemic is an alarming symptom. However, new realities can lead over time to the creation of a more comfortable urban and domestic environment. Why huddle in a cramped and noisy city if you can work with the same success in a country house or a more comfortable space? They may revisit the question of national borders and migration. Access to brains and competencies abroad will be much easier. The brain drain will also happen quickly.
If changes proceed from such a scenario, they will have serious consequences for the functioning of the system of government and state institutions. Modern technology provides great opportunities for social control. Until now, private and public life have been quite rigidly separated by morality and law. Technically, the state could have long ago entered into the personal space of many citizens. Businesses have moved a little further in this direction, with their targeted advertising and other activity based on the data mining of social networks. Now this intrusiveness may become the norm. “Control over the body” or an all-pervasive micropower, about which Michel Foucault once wrote, threatens to take on new gravitas. The state of “alarming supervision” – a feeling of constant surveillance (which could be carried out sporadically and for completely pragmatic reasons) becomes a real possibility in such a society.
In turn, the organization of the nature of power will also generate new forms of politics, including methods of self-organization, proliferation of ideas, protest or other behavior. The combination of such changes with transformations of the urban environment and lifestyle can produce bizarre and non-linear results that are far beyond the imagination of science fiction writers.
First published in the Valdai Discussion Club.