The Good That Comes from Pandemics
Covid-19 has interrupted our world, but it’s also likely to improve it. After all, history shows that massive disruption is followed by massive opportunity. So what’s in store for us now? In this episode, we learn the surprising consequences of past crises, explore the innovations that may come from Covid-19, and try to understand why disasters are so productive.
• How the 1918 Flu Pandemic Revolutionized Public Health (Smithsonian)
• How Pandemics Spurred Cities to Make More Green Space for People (History.com)
• The Coolest Products Created During Recessions (The Street)
• COVID-19 Will Fuel the Next Wave of Innovation (Entrepreneur)
This is Pessimists Archive, a show about why people resist new things. I’m Jason Feifer.
There was a plague. Well, there have been many plagues. More plagues than you can imagine. More plagues than I had any idea about, most of them far less famous than the plague—and, we’ll get to all that later, but for now, we’re just focusing on the plague of the year 686. It broke out in the north of England, in a place called Northumbria, and it absolutely ravaged the place. There were two early Christian monasteries there—these would have been places where men of the cloth lived and studied, and where young boys would have been raised. But then the plague came, and only two people survived—there was an abbot, and a young kid. We don’t know the kid’s exact age, but… he was old enough to understand.
ANDREW 1: And so it’s interesting to think about how he must have experienced life and think about how impressionable you are at the ages of seven, eight, nine, 10, 11. at this moment when he literally sees everybody he knows except one person die around him.
That’s Andrew Rabin, who you’ve heard on this show before. He’s a professor of English at the University of Louisville, with a specialty in the law and literature of early medieval England. And, Andrew says that we don’t know for certain who that surviving kid was. There are no records of his name. But we can take a pretty good guess. Because decades later, a man in that monastery became one of the most influential writers of his time. He goes by the name Venerable Bede. And although he never writes an autobiography, we know that he lived almost his entire life in the monastery, and that he would have been a kid at the exact time that a young boy survived that plague. So… was it him?
ANDREW 2: We don’t know of any other person that it possibly could be.
And in a way, that means we can answer Andrew’s question. What happens to a young boy who experiences that level of trauma? In this case, he grows up to question the fundamentals of the world. His writing is dry and impersonal, which was common for the time, but it also was revolutionary. Back then, for example, everything revolved around Rome. The attitude across Europe was basically, if you didn’t live in Rome, you are irrelevant. You’re not worth studying, or thinking about, or even recording for history. But Venerable Bede…well he grew up and said… no.
ANDREW 3: he writes history in such a way where he makes the claim that it’s not one city that’s important to the, this one strand of history that’s important. What happens up here in the Northwestern corner of Europe in this tiny little town and this tiny little monastery that is just as important as what happens everywhere else.
To Bede, this even extended to the way we tell time. Back then, the way we counted years tended to be localized. You’d say, oh, this happened in the fourth year of this monarchy, or the 7th year of this papacy. There was no universal calendar system. But Bede said, hey, we are all part of a collective whole. We should track ourselves together, using… well, what we know now as the system of years by BC or AD. The year 686. The year 2020.
And here we can only take more guesses, because Bede himself didn’t offer much in the way of self-reflection, but you can see how the trauma of that plague might have made him think this way. He saw suffering, and he felt it, and it mattered. And if he felt it, then other people would have felt their own suffering too, and that should matter too, because we’re all in this together.
ANDREW 4: one of his claims that runs really throughout his career is this idea that what happens here, and what happens elsewhere, was just as important as what happened at the center. These deaths, the experiences of this monastery, they’re not irrelevant. They’re not meaningless. They have as much meaning as they would have. This was right in the center of Rome.
I was really taken by this, because what you’re hearing is the development of a foundational way we understand the world today. Yes, we struggle with it constantly—we are not above dehumanizing people we think of as other-ly. But at its core, our world functions how Venerable Bede wanted it to. We know there are stories everywhere. We know that individual lives matter. And if the history books have it right, we may have a plague to thank for that… because the plague forced a young boy to look at the world anew. And then he forced the rest of us to do it, too.
Today, of course, we’re experiencing our own generation’s version of this story. I usually speak to you from a nice soundproofed studio, but now I’m speaking to you from the corner of a bedroom in my parents’ basement, because I, like the rest of the world in April of the year 2020, am locked away at home as a pandemic rages outside. It’s very easy to see tragedy in all this. Turn on the news and you’ll see tragedy. That is real. But I’ve been challenging myself to see something else too. Because, you know, the very premise of this show, and the way that I think, is that change is hard and unpredictable—but that it also creates a better and more innovative world. We are better in the end.
So I wondered—what happens when change doesn’t take the form of some specific new innovation, the way that we usually focus on in this show, but instead, what if the change is a global event? A pandemic that impacts everything we know? That’s why I first called Andrew. I mean, Venerable Bede was something of a tangent we got off on, but I was originally curious about what happened after the black plague wiped out so much of Europe. The answer, it turns out, is absolutely fascinating—it’s the beginning of the economy as we know it now. And after talking to Andrew, I just kept calling people—in tech, in policy, in law, in business—asking about other disruptions, and what happened in the more recent past, and what’s likely to happen in the near future. These people spoke of a potential for huge innovation. They said very big things, like this philosophy professor, Brian Berkey:
BRIAN 1: a crisis like this can, kind of shift the window on the options that we are willing collectively to take seriously.
And also this, from disruption researcher Hamza Mudassir:
HAMZA 1: So the change in power is going to happen and it’s going to suck for the older world
Does it get any bigger than that? A shift in what we’re collectively willing to take seriously? A change in power that will suck for the older world?
I’ll leave it up to you, to say how much sympathy you have for that older world. But I have to say, I came away from these conversations optimistic. That’s not to dismiss the terrible personal tragedies, or the great economic struggles we may all come up against. But we are now living in transformative times, whether we like it or not. We have no choice but to embrace it, to live with it, and to make the most of it, because there is truly no alternative. And what comes next just might be great.
So that’s what this episode of Pessimists Archive is all about—it is the good that comes from massive change, and how we can make sense of a world where it all happens at once. We will get to the future, but we’re going to start with the past… and it’s all coming up, after this break.
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Alright, we’re back. So, on this episode we’re exploring the good that can come from terrible things, and I wanted to start with what is really the mother of them all—the black plague. A.k.a., the black death. A.k.a. pestilence. This is the disease that killed upwards of 60% of all Europe. It was an unfathomable loss.
But to understand how it changed the world, you first need to know what the world was like at the time. Because it was an entirely different world from what we know. First of all, we today keep describing our situation as unprecedented—Covid-19 is unprecedented, the world has changed in unprecedented ways. But back in the European middle ages, an epidemic was very precedented. Like, one would blow through every few years.
ANDREW 5: a good number of them were smallpox, typhus, typhoid fever, viral hemorrhagic fever
You’ve got some cholera in there too. Maybe some Hanta virus. Basically the all-star cast of death. And people understood this problem very differently than we do now, because they would not have asked what is causing all these outbreaks. They didn’t think to ask what. The asked… who. Who is doing this?
ANDREW 6: Part of what that assumes, is of course, that these diseases are in some sense a visitation of either God or the devil. And so very much the reaction to many of these plagues is penance
We are sorry for offending you, God. You’ve punished us for our misdeeds. We will appease you. Buuuut—here’s where things get tricky, because let’s say you weren’t harmed by the disease. Let’s say someone else was harmed. Well then, you’d think—ah-hah. God spared me and punished them, and that means God likes me more than them.
And who would think something like that? Well… to start, the wealthy would. Much like wealthy New Yorkers of today who summer in the Hamptons, the wealthy of the middle ages also spent their summers out of the city. The summer was when diseases spread, so if you were able to get out, you got out. Theater even shut down, and actors performed on the road. Then a disease would ravage the poor people who were left in the city, and the wealthy would say—well, the poor must have deserved it.
ANDREW 7: wealth and privilege were very much seen as something that’s deserved, you know, we hold the station we hold in society because we’ve been put there by God.
But then, the year 1348 comes. It’s the year the black plague breaks out.
ANDREW 8: It didn’t matter who you were, how good you were, how bad you were, how rich you were, how poor you were. None of that mattered. The plague would still get you. So if you’re somebody who lives in a universe that you see is basically, comprehensible, that there is this divine being… a just God who rewards the virtuous, who punishes the sinful, who has created society along certain lines. This throws that all out the window.
And here we have our first major change—a massive shift in how the world was understood. Before the plague, intellectuals of the day like Thomas Aquinas and Dante were writing of a completely knowable world. Everything made sense to them. But after the plague, after entire families and cities suffered and died, the intellectuals of their day said… oh, we don’t understand this place at all. And you get a completely different kind of writing—writing like Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, where the knowable world is a complex, un-unified place. It’s the makings of the way we see the world now—a place of randomness.
And if that wasn’t enough, the foundation of their economy was also about to change.
ANDREW 9: when you learned about the middle ages in school, right? We all learned about the manner with the Lords and the serfs, and the serfs were owned by the land, which is basically, you know, sort of a euphemistic way of saying they’re little slaves.
Europe was mostly agricultural, which meant this lord and serfs situation defined the economy. And of course, the lords believed that they deserved to be lords, and that the serfs should be happy with their god-given station in life. But then, the black death kills most of the serfs.
ANDREW 10: These people who had been serfs, who had been basically slaves…
Oh, oh guys, I’m in the middle of working. Somebody’s talking to me right now.
Welp, there it is—the joy of working with small children at home all the time. It really is such a joy. Such… a… joy
Alright, back to Andrew. What was he saying? Oh yes, so, about those people who had once been slaves. Before the plague, they were disposable human beings. After the plague, the lords needed labor, which meant the old serfs were in demand—
ANDREW 11: and they can ask for actual compensation for it so they can improve their lot. Because, you know, the Lord of the Manor next door, or the Lord of the Manor, you know, three miles away… these people are trying to get them to move to their manner and offering them incentives to do so.
It’s the beginning of employment and capitalism as we know it. Labor has worth, and you can put a value to it. And now that these former slaves are free to choose their own employer, some decide—screw it, I’m an entrepreneur. I work for nobody. Then they move to the city and start selling cloth and textiles, or transporting food and wine, or trading spices or cookware, or opening banks. They form the first true merchant class.
And to be clear, it is not all roses and free-market sunshine from there. There were a series of peasant uprisings, for example, which were put down brutally. And when the lords couldn’t get enough workers, they went elsewhere… and started the African slave trade. So, no, this was not an easy transition. It was an awful transition. But all the same, we can look back to the black death, to this catastrophic loss of life, and say—this created the underpinnings of the world we know now.
And this is basically how it goes, when you look back at violent, terrible, transformative moments. There is pain, but also significant and fundamental advancement.
The Civil War gave us the gilded age and a sort of second industrial revolution, with the expansion of railroads and steel manufacturing. Around the same time, cholera epidemics of the mid-1800s led to massive urban redesigns, with wider paved streets that were easier to clean, and the introduction of parks—including Central Park in New York. A little while later, the 1918 Spanish Flu radically transformed medicine: It created the field of virology, and many governments around the world—though, not the American government—embraced the idea of free healthcare for all. Then the Great Depression was a… well, setback to healthcare…
TWINKIE COMMERCIAL: Howdy partners, come on to Hostess Twinkie town
Yes, the Twinkie was a product of the depression. But also, the depression led to the end of prohibition—which, fine, another setback for healthcare in a way, but one I’m more fond of—as well as the concept of federal disaster relief, and many other things. World War II significantly sped up women entering the workforce. More recently, the 2008 recession pushed us to rethink what we own and what it’s worth, which led to the rise of Airbnb and Uber, and a continuing shift in how we work that we’re still figuring out today.
So what’s going to happen after Covid-19?
Well, when I take all of this as a collective whole—from the black death of the middle ages to the last recession that we can all still remember—I’m struck by how at once logical but unpredictable the change is. You know, as we look at it in retrospect, it makes total sense that the black plague would lead to, like, the early idea of an employment contract… but it’s not what you would have anticipated at the time. It would have been too hard to see the zig-zag logic of it.
So now, as we try to look forward, I’m realizing that we should probably first understand how disruption tends to happen in the first place. Like, why do things change in enormous ways? Are there ways to anticipate that zig-zag?
And that, is why I called Hamza.
HAMZA 2: Hi, I’m Hamza Mudassir
He’s the guy you heard earlier, talking about how things will suck for the old world. And he should know. He’s the cofounder of a consulting firm called Platypodes, which works with companies on disruptive strategy, and he also researches disruption at the University of Cambridge. Though of course, in normal times, the disruption he’s looking at has nothing to do with pandemics.
HAMZA 3: No. it usually means that there’s a new substitute or a competitor in town that does not play by the rules.
It’s business, basically. But you know, I think that’s useful. It’s really hard to imagine what pandemic-driven disruption looks like on a global scale. A business, however, is a concrete and easier to understand thing. So let’s start by looking at disruption at that smaller level. How does a business get disrupted? Hamza says it’s when a new competitor doesn’t play by the rules, but there’s a bigger thing going on here. The competitor also often doesn’t look like a competitor.
So, to see that in action, let’s take a classic disruption case, let’s look at…
KODAK COMMERCIAL: Kodak film, for the times of your life
Kodak, the most famous manufacturer of camera film. Most people think that digital cameras killed Kodak, but Hamza says no, that’s not quite right. Digital cameras didn’t kill Kodak—this guy did.
MARK ZUCKERBERG 1: Well, so my sophomore year at Harvard when I first built this…
Mark Zuckerberg killed Kodak. Because before Facebook, people weren’t necessarily ditching their film camera for digital cameras. Maybe they would own one of each. But then, Facebook came along, it became a replacement to the things that you do with physical photos. I mean, why make bulky photo albums that you’ll never look at again anyway, when instead, all your photos can just be organized online for anyone to see? If you buy into that, it means you don’t really need physical photos to begin with. Which means…
KODAK COMMERCIAL: Kodak film, for the times of your life
And OK, next question: What happens inside a company like Kodak, as it’s facing the moment of disruption? Like, at some point they must have realized—crap, we are in trouble. What then? Well, Hamza says that most companies make the same mistake. They fall back on internal systems that they’d designed to keep employees on task and to compete against traditional competitors. But of course, disruption doesn’t come from traditional competitors, which means that these systems are useless.
HAMZA 4: so, they try all of their systems, they all go into high gear, and they go like, okay, we have now responded. And really nothing happens. The disruptor is still added. Instead of changing, because anxiety levels are so high, the entire organization then keeps on falling into the loop of running systems and processes over and over and over again.
They panic! The system doesn’t work, so they try the system again. And they do that until time runs out.
From here I think we can zoom out and look at all of us on a global scale, facing a pandemic. Because what is a pandemic, if not a giant competitor that doesn’t play by the rules? And what are we—or what are our governments—if not organizations that at first didn’t take the competitor seriously, and then fell back upon very imperfect systems, and then, when those systems didn’t work, they basically just tried the systems again.
If that’s the case, and we’re the thing being disrupted… well, OK, then how do we survive disruption? Hamza’s answer goes back to business. It’s this.
HAMZA 5: the best way of figuring out if your business is in trouble is to check out what the end user of, whatever you produce, is doing next.
Start with what people are doing and where people are going, and then extrapolate out all the ripple effects of that change. Go where the change is. And Hamza has some interesting ideas about what could happen as a result of Covid-19—changes that will feel disorienting, but could actually create massive opportunity for people who stay out in front of it. And I’m going to give you two examples. They’re both going to sound simple but they really aren’t. So number one is that companies will want more stability than they have now. And number two is that employees will work from home. I know, obvious, right? But…
Well, let’s take the first one first. Here’s why many companies got screwed this year:
HAMZA 6: most supply chains for most companies out of a linear set of affairs
If you make chocolate chip cookies, then you get your flour from one place, and your chocolate from another, and so on. It’s keeps things simple and cost-effective. But, it turns out, we’ve now learned linear supply chains also leave you vulnerable to interruption. Cut off one part, and the whole thing collapses. So, what to do? Hamza says companies will learn from this, and build redundancies into their supply chains… so, watch the ripple effects of that. That means sourcing from multiple places at the same time, which distributes manufacturing more around the globe, which could have geo-political consequences and also means new technology is needed to keep it all cost-effective, which means new opportunities for companies big and small to serve those needs, and hey, maybe even entirely new industries.
And, okay, here is the second thing. People are working from home, he says. Again, obvious. Most people are right now. And people are discovering that it’s pretty good! Companies are discovering the effectiveness of remote workforces, which means a lot more of us will remain working from home in the future. So what happens next? Well, here’s one of the ways of following the ripple effects. People will become more physically isolated, which means that there will be a greater need for tools that build community on or offline, as well as a rise in digital mental health services. And also, managers who were used to having in-person teams may not have any idea how to motivate people or keep them on task in this new world, which means new leaders with new skillsets will be able to step up. And who are these new leaders leading, exactly? Well, that is a tricky question.
HAMZA 7: talent is only going to get, uh, scarcer and scarcer as time moves on, especially with people who are working from home. They can, effectively be working for three different companies at the same time because they’re so productive. How do you make sure you get enough of the timeshare back?
I mean, hey, not to get myself in trouble here, but I am at home, and I have my full-time job, and I’m also… making this podcast… sooooo, how are you gonna manage me?
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So anyway, that’s Hamza’s story of disruption. But hey, while we’re talking about people working from home…
HEATHER 1: while I imagine some people like me are wasting a lot of time and trying to figure out how to do workouts at home with two dumbbells. What a lot of other people are doing who are smarter and more dedicated is they’re writing the next piece of sector defining software.
That’s Heather Meeker. She’s a partner at the law firm O’Melveny & Myers and also a venture capitalist at a fund called Open Source Software Capital. And, given the fund’s name, you might not be surprised to learn that she spends a lot of time thinking about open source software… and she says it is about to boom, because most open-source software development takes place among collaborators who work remotely. These are the ideal conditions for open source, she says. In fact, when she looked back at 50 companies that were unicorns in the open source space, she found that 75% of them were originally started during down markets.
HEATHER 2: People are going to be starting projects that are going to be extremely interesting and valuable in a year or two.
Once again, there is the zig-zag logic. Like, in 10 years, you could look back and try to figure out why there’s so much great open source software, and the answer was… because we were locked away in our homes, trying to avoid a deadly virus. I mean it makes sense. But it’s not obvious.
OK, so. We’ve talked about disruption, and how it could alter the way we work and build and… That’s heavy stuff. I feel like… I dunno, after that, I think I need a drink … If only there was somewhere we could go.
Tell me about the last time you went to the bar.
STEPH 1: It was yesterday.
This is my colleague Stephanie Schomer, deputy editor at Entrepreneur magazine. She lives in Brooklyn, and to get out of her apartment these days, she and a friend will go for what they call walk-tails. You know, cocktails you can walk with. Aka, door-to-door bar hopping.
STEPH 2: you just go to the front door and they’re standing there with their square tablet and they will give you a, cocktail in a coffee cup or a, plastic cup with a straw and, send you along.
This was not legal in a pre-coronavirus world. But like many states, New York’s state liquor authority changed its rules to help bars and restaurants survive. So now, people in New York can put their masks on, stay six feet away, and get some refreshment for their mental health. And, uhh, I think people are supposed to take these drinks home, but—
STEPH 3: Everyone’s walking around drinking.
Do you think that when this is all over, people would want this.
STEPH 4: I mean, I wanted this before this situation happened. And it’s not like anyone’s rowdy. It’s very polite outdoor drinking.
Which makes you wonder… honestly, why was this illegal to begin with? And when this is all over… why can’t it stay this way?
Which brings us to the next phase of our exploration of how our current crisis may lead to good things. Hang on to your disinfectant, because it’s time to talk…
Policy, policy, policy!
ALEC 1: I’m really optimistic that if we permanently waive these regulations, you’d see large benefits
That is Alec Stapp, director of technology policy at the Progressive Policy Institute. And he’s been closely watching the way that very fast changes in government policy have impacted innovation.
So for example, telemedicine. I’ve seen doctors online many times before, and I love it. With my insurance, I pay $5 out of pocket and within minutes I’ve got someone telling me to say ahhhhh to the camera—which is infinitely better than schlepping to an office, filling out a mountain of paperwork, and sitting around reading a 6-month-old copy of WebMD Magazine. And I’ve always wondered, why isn’t telemedicine something everybody does? Is it just because it’s new and scary? But the answer, it turns out, is more far complicated than that.
ALEC 2: two main barriers to telemedicine is one… rate regulation. So, reimbursement rates for doctors in the past have been, higher for in-person visits and so that obviously disincentivizes doctors from investing in or incentivizing their patients to use telemedicine. There’s also HIPAA regulations. That’s the privacy rules around your healthcare data, limiting video conferencing, um, from occurring between doctors and patients.
Which is to say that, until recently, it was illegal to talk to your doctor on Zoom or FaceTime. But then coronavirus came along, and it made all the sense in the world for patients to see their doctors quickly and remotely, and so those barriers were removed. Doctors can get paid more using telemedicine now, and they can use a wider range of tools. And it isn’t difficult to imagine what comes next. Greater adoption leads to greater innovation—I mean, we’re seeing that already, with telemedicine startups releasing new products and features, and the company Teledoc’s stock going on a rocketship ride, and by the time we’re out of this, it’s likely that the old rules just won’t make any sense anymore, and our experience of seeing the doctor will be changed forever, for the better.
But policy isn’t the only thing Alec is thinking about these days. He’s also thinking about another super sexy word…
Incentives, incentives, incentives!
So okay, consider this: most people’s lives are very heavily digital right now. I mean, you are going on Zoom dates, you’re watching Tiger King on repeat, you’re tweeting nonstop about this awesome podcast you’re listening to. Well…
ALEC 3: I think people don’t often think of the infrastructure that underlies these services. As this changes the economy and changes the incentives for businesses to sell certain kinds of goods and services will change the incentives to invest in this infrastructure even further.
When more people use something, there’s more incentive for businesses to invest in and innovate those things. So if we’re all suddenly in need of better digital infrastructure, that could mean that there’s a lot more incentive to create better cloud computing capabilities, and better broadband, and an accelerated roll-out of 5G. And what will that lead to, aside from some crazy people that are claiming that 5G is spreading Coronavirus, which is not true? Well, huh, I mean the possibilities are endless. Like, oh, oh! Oh OK. I’m going to give away my billion-dollar idea here, so… can you promise not to steal it? Actually, I don’t trust you.
Lawyers, come protect me in an obnoxious way.
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I feel better. So, you know when it’s the dead of summer, and you’re lying in bed trying to fall asleep, and theb suddenly:
It’s a mosquito that got into your room, and you’re like, ahhh, kill kill kill!
But you missed it, and now it’s somewhere in your room, but you can’t see it, so your only choice is to go to sleep and wake up with five bites on your forehead, and isn’t that the worst? So I had this idea—a way to solve this problem. And it goes like this: What if there was an app that could find a mosquito in your room? Like, the app uses the camera on your phone, so you take the camera and scan your room with it, and the app is programmed to recognize the mosquito’s shape in a dark corner somewhere, or its flight pattern if it’s moving around. And it’ll tell you where the mosquito is—it’ll show it right on the phone, like, right there, by the closet! Then—
Wouldn’t you pay for that? I’d pay for that. So last summer, I emailed a friend who works in tech and asked if this could be made, and he was like, cool idea bro, but technology is just not there. Like camera technology? Not there. Data processing? Not there. Buuuut, and now you can see where I’m going with this—yes, Alec was just talking to me about how coronavirus could lead to a massive load on digital infrastructure, which could lead to new investments and innovations in digital infrastructure, and so, I did tell Alec about my killer mosquito idea, and he said…
ALEC 4: from a technology perspective, I immediately think of things like machine vision. So in that situation, your smartphone would be the machine, and it’s using camera to recognize objects in the room. And uploading that image file or the video file to the cloud, processing it, using some kind of machine learning algorithm, and then sending that file back down to your phone requires a huge amount of bandwidth, and having, uh, more mobile broadband infrastructure would facilitate those kind of services.
And that is the zig-zag logic of what Alec is proposing here. The demand on digital infrastructure right now leads to far greater infrastructure tomorrow, which makes possible a new wave of digital technologies that we cannot even imagine… or well, maybe you can’t imagine, but I have already imagined.
ALEC 5: what I have set up here is a world in which 10 years from now I can kill a mosquito in my room because of coronavirus. Exactly, exactly. Then you’re going to prevent the next, you know, malaria or something. That’s exactly right. Right, And then it nicely loops back on itself.
Expand this outward and you see the endless opportunity. It is easy for this to feel like a time of shrinking potential and absolute devastation—but as I hear from people like Alec and Heather and Hamza, I start to think that THESE are the moments where we move fastest; where we take wild leaps over barriers both cultural and technological, and build better things as a result.
Which makes me excited… and then, makes me feel bad for being excited. Because, you know, many people are not in a good place right now. There’s economic devastation, personal tragedies, a trail of ruin. And so… how are we to make sense of that? How can we reconcile the good that comes from bad? I mean, not to sound too bleak about it, but this is something we’ll all have to wrestle with if we’re fortunate enough to survive.
So, to find a way to think about this, it’s time to talk to people who think for a living.
MICHELLE 1: Well being human is a complicated thing
This is Michelle Moody Adams, a professor of philosophy at Columbia University.
MICHELLE 2: There has to be an effort to strike a balance between the readiness to preserve what’s familiar and traditional and known and understood and, and an openness. To what is unfamiliar and what’s new and what might be challenging or even initially mysterious.
You want to understand what we’re really in for next, and how to process it? That means taking a cold, hard look at what makes us human… and why we’re so fearful of change… and yet, how we’re ultimately adaptable and resilient. So that’s what we’ll do—coming up after the break.
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Alright, we’re back. So, now we are wrestling with what I think will eventually become the big question of our time. How to make sense of the good that comes from bad.
We haven’t mentioned this yet, but one of the largest positive outcomes to come out of one of the worst things of all time was how the movement of international human rights came out of the holocaust. But, here’s the weird thing about that. The idea of human rights was not some brand-new idea, says Michelle Moody Adams of Columbia University. You can find it in religion and philosophy going back centuries.
MICHELLE 3: Why did it take that for human beings to try to put it down in international law and to hope that the laws of particular societies would adopt the same stance? I don’t think anybody knows.
But here’s what we do know. Crisis changes the way people think. We missed or ignored things before, but crisis changes us going forward. So if we’re going to wrestle with the outcome of change, I suppose we should first ask—why does a crisis change us?
BRIAN 2: one hypothesis might be what large scale crises do is they can make certain issues hit home for a large enough group of people in society that collectively we, are led to enter into more serious conversations of the issue than we otherwise would have.
That’s Brian Berkey, an assistant professor in the legal studies and business ethics department at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. And the way he sees it, a crisis pops people’s bubbles—very much like the black death shook the wealthy of the 1300s, because they’d previously been able to avoid the waves of disease. These deaths didn’t matter to them that much before, because they weren’t affected by them. No matter the time period, people like being in their bubbles. And the big problem is, the people in power are in the most powerful bubbles. Social and economic problems rarely impact them, so they’re rarely sympathetic to calls for change. But then crisis comes along, and it gets inside their bubbles, and suddenly it’s like they’re seeing something for the first time.
Brian says we had a version of this—a very different version of course, but a version nonetheless—during the debate over gay marriage a few years ago. You had conservative politicians oppose gay marriage, but then discover that their own children or family members were gay—
BRIAN 3: And then all of a sudden, they’re willing to take the issue more seriously and maybe change their position. For somebody like me, this is just such a source of frustration because, you know, it seems like the right thought is, well, you know, these people should have been willing to at least have the conversation and take seriously these arguments, without it having to affect them. Right? I mean, they should care about other people’s lives and their suffering and the injustice that they face.
I also find those turnabouts frustrating to watch. In fact, no, more than that. To be honest with you, when someone opposes something that I support, and then they change their position and agree with me because of a personal experience, my gut reaction is to hate them. Boiling, raging hate for them. I think: Well, you just admitted that you can’t understand people who are different from you, and that seems disqualifying for power. But then I have to stop myself and think… well, what do I really want here? I spend all this time making this podcast, and giving talks about the importance of change, and writing about it, and isn’t that what I want? For people to find the will to change, however they can?
And let’s not forget, change is scary. It’s a challenge. It’s a challenge we must all face in our own way. The philosopher Immanuel Kant tells us that.
MICHELLE 4: He wrote a wonderful essay, Kant did in 1784 called: What Is Enlightenment? Famous for the line in Latin is sapere aude. Translated, it’s “dare to know”, don’t be afraid of what might come from your efforts to know and to understand the world in a new way.
Dare to know. It means admitting you don’t already know. Maybe there’s a limit to what you can know, to what any of us can know, and so the best we can dare ourselves to do is make as much sense of it as we can, knowing that our understanding will be imperfect.
This un-knowable-ness, this state of being in a world of invisible forces, reminds me of something that Andrew Rabin said to me—he’s the medieval scholar we heard from at the beginning of the episode. He was talking about how terrifying a virus is, in part because it’s so un-knowable. We can try to avoid it, but it could be anywhere, coming from anyone, at any time.
ANDREW 12: I can do the best I can to prevent it, but ultimately that’s out of my hands. That’s an aspect of my mortality that I can’t control. And that’s terrifying.
When he said that, something clicked for me. And so I said—
ANDREW 13: Also if you expand that outward, that is the, that is the way in which we get through the world is to, is to just accept that, um, we can’t possibly avoid all the bad things.
And that goes for everything. Everything! I mean, in past episodes of this show, when we’ve focused on people’s fear of new innovations like the elevator or the car, I’ve wondered—how did we ever actually get people to use these things? The earliest elevators routinely sent people falling to their deaths. In the earliest days of the car, pedestrians were constantly hit and killed. How do we get through that? I mean, really! How do we tolerate it, collectively, and get through to the point where these things are relatively safe, and transform our world into the one we know today?
And the answer is that… the unknowable is just built into the world.
ANDREW 14: there is a kind of unavoidable badness that we just have to become accustomed to and hope that it doesn’t get us personally. Um, and, um, because we know that on the other side of it is something that’s, uh, that’s, I suppose better. I don’t know. I’m working that theory out as I go, but what do you think? Well no, I mean, I think that’s absolutely right. One thing I was thinking while you were just talking, back in ancient Rome, if a general is particularly victorious: if they have a particularly great accomplishment, they’re granted a trial, which is basically a holiday in their honor. They, there’s a big procession. They, you know, have gold and slaves and you know, all of the, sort of, profits of their military expedition. This, this is the highest honor that the empire can bestow upon a general. But as the general is riding through the city, there’s also supposed to be a slave right behind him, whispering into his ear: remember that thou are human and not divine. And in some sense, from a philosophical standpoint, that’s exactly what an epidemic does. It reminds us that, you know, here in the United States, as privileged as we are, as much control as we think we can exercise on world politics, the world economy, on our own health, on our own experience of life, there’s always this little reminder, this voice that says, remember that we’re human and that not divine, you don’t have control of things.
Deep into our bones, into our DNA, even if we don’t realize it, and even if we don’t feel like we have access to it during a time of crisis like we have now, we have already reckoned with the world as it is. We know that our only option is to move forward, through an ever-evolving series of potential disasters, and our only hope is that tragedy doesn’t come for us too soon.
Imagine what that does to us! It forces us to make sense of chaos, to create patterns where there may be none, to close ourselves off to the needs of others, to figure out what the safest path is for ourselves first. We know we’re human. We’d prefer to be divine. And so we spend some time convincing ourselves that we’re sorta divine, even maybe just a little divine, because it helps us walk through this minefield a little easier, forgetting that there’s danger around, forgetting that others have fallen and need help, and instead focusing on where we want to go.
Then we build systems based on our limited understanding. And then, when crisis comes, we’re shaken out of it.
MICHELLE 5: It is in fact, moments of crisis that show us, I think, where the ways we’ve been doing things regularly, actually do hinder our existence. They hinder our success in life, and they challenge human wellbeing, in problematic ways.
If I’m being charitable, I’d say this: We didn’t mean to build things poorly. I mean, a few of us did. A few of us are rotten at our core. But the rest, I think, were just trying to make sense of the world, as selfish as it might have been.
MICHELLE 6: It’s not that you want crises to come, but it sometimes can be the thing that wakes people up
So, back to my big question. How do we make sense of the good that comes from bad? I think the answer is: the good and the bad are nothing new to us. We’re always experiencing good and bad. Sometimes we do it to ourselves, sometimes it’s done to us by others, and sometimes it’s a force that nobody can control. Sometimes it’s large, sometimes it’s small, but it’s always there, a mixture of the two. The best we can do is make the most of it—to take those moments of clarity, where we see the world a little more for what it is than what we’ve convinced ourselves it is, and we say, we’re human, not divine. And that’s OK, because being human has its benefits. It means we get to explore, to discover, to build, and revise, and change, and learn from that change, and become better because of that change, and hopefully, hopefully, have the opportunity to move forward, and to bring others along with us, because that’s our history. It’s messy and cruel and full of crises and war and epidemics and pandemics, but we always build something better as a result, don’t we? Because we’re human.
And humans can become better.
And that’s our episode! But hey, remember how we started this episode with the wise and world-altering perspective of Venerable Bede? Well, not everything he said had to say was, shall we say, as veterable. I’ll explain more. But first…
Do you like what you’re hearing? Do you have an idea for a future episode? Well get in touch! You can also follow us on Twitter at @pessimistsarc, where we’re always tweeting out the ill-conceived words of pessimists throughout history. We’re also on Instagram, same handle. Our website is Pessimists.co. It has links to lots of things discussed in this episode, and also an archive of historical pessimism searchable by innovation! Our email address is firstname.lastname@example.org, drop a line , I will respond. Also, we’d love your help in reaching more people, so please—tell a friend about Pessimists Archive, and give us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts.
We were recorded at the Feifer household in Boulder, Colorado, and by the way—big shoutout to my parents Barbara and Roy, whose help with childcare has made this episode possible. Pessimists Archive is me and Louis Anslow. Additional research this episode by Britta Lokting. Sound editing by Alec Balas. Our webmaster is James Steward.
Theme music by Casper Babypants. Learn more at babypantsmusic.com. Pessimists Archive is supported in part by the Charles Koch Foundation. Learn more about the Foundation at CKF.org/tech.
OK, so. Here is a fun little outtake from the work of Venerable Bede, great thinker of the 7th century. Andrew Rabin was telling me about the work Bede did on calendars, very important work, and threw in this aside…
ANDREW 15: one of the things that bead does is he develops the means by which Easter was dated for a good thousand years after his death. Interestingly, the, uh, the book in which he does this, the first chapter on the other hand is how to count to a million on your fingers.
Uh… say what now? I went searching for some more details on this, and found a deeply researched book about math called “Alex’s Adventures in Numberland,” which explained that Bede’s system of counting to a million was “one part arithmetic, one part jazz hands.” Different fingers, in different combinations, would mean different units of measurements—tens, hundreds, thousands—and they would go up or down depending on where on the body you held them. According to the book, the number 90,000 was a particular doozy—Bede’s instructions were to “grasp your loins with the left hand, the thumb towards the genitals.” So, you know… sometimes a pandemic changes your worldview, and sometimes it gives you an elaborate excuse to grab your crotch. Ehh, you know, I think we can all relate.
Alright, that’s it for this time. Thanks for listening to Pessimists Archive and I hope that you are safe and healthy wherever you are. I’m Jason Feifer, and we’ll see you in the near future.
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