The pandemic changed everything. It’s only now that we’re coming to understand how much things changed, and what those changes mean for us.
Simply put, the pandemic drew a line under most of the practices that had become habitual over the 20th century.
We got interrupted. Our rhythms lost. Dead in the water.
And when we went back to it again, well, we could do it – muscle memory – but we wondered why we were doing it.
The pandemic gave us a moment of reflection, a pause that was enough to allow us to completely change direction.
The starts and ends of historical periods are rarely hard-edged. Things begin gradually, and they taper off gradually. Cultures are never replaced wholesale, in a single moment. Instead, another culture rises up along side them, engages them, and changes them, until the old culture looks a lot like the new culture that replaced it. This has been going on for as long as we care to look back in the historical record – and probably a great deal longer than that.
The pandemic was short, sharp, sudden, and total. The ten weeks commencing from the 23 of March 2020 – the beginning of When the World Stopped – through to the start of June comprise the most compressed period of change in the entire scope of human history. We saw a decade or more of change compressed into those ten weeks – and this at a moment of time when history’s tempo already moves more rapidly than at any time in our past. We were already accelerating toward the future and then got a sudden push into another dimension: a brief moment of faster-than-light travel that left us much further from home than we’d ever imagined.
When we got here, we tried to act as though nothing had happened. But the environment had already changed so much any attempts to just ‘act normal’ failed almost immediately. This new world is not the world we were accustomed to. But its roots do stretch back into our world – in some cases, they stretch back well before the beginnings of our ‘modern world’.
That means this present – really, our future – contains a mixture of elements that are old (sometimes very old), normal , and new. That’s always been the case, but this mixture is not like the old mixture. The pre-pandemic world of 2019 had its own mixed of old, normal and new, and this post-pandemic world has an entirely new mixture. Why? Because the present is always a reflection of the people living in that moment, the culture they create, and the world they inhabit. The world had already been changing – profoundly – prior to the pandemic, but culture and people had not reflected much of that change. Post-pandemic, the world is changed, people have changed – and so culture must follow. It does so reluctantly; people locked into habits can be liberated by crisis like the pandemic. A culture has an enormous inertia, embedded in behaviors and expectations and systems and beliefs and a massive material base that can change only quite slowly. People and environment raced ahead of culture during the pandemic years, and now, in the post-pandemic period, culture will adapt, transforming all of this very new and very old into something that once again seems perfectly normal. We need that normal; operating in a culture poorly adapted to support us and our world keeps us on edge. While that is good for brief moments in time – such as this one – in the long term it will tend to weaken the cultural cohesion needed to confront the many challenges of the deep 21st century, of a time when we drop the ‘post-’ because we have adapted to The Way Things Are.