Letters from Lockdown: The impact which seems to me most important and incalculable is the domestication of the office, writes Joseph Rykwert
The Spanish flu pandemic lasted nearly two years (1918-1920) and killed between 20 and 50 million worldwide – but since its impact ran into that of World War I, it fused into a combined disaster whose effect on society was certainly as catastrophic as the events themselves; and greatly beneficial, in fact, even if it did not prevent another and more violent World War from which the social fabric again emerged more equitable; and seems to have resulted in more than half a century without any worldwide conflict. Nor was there talk after then of a ’return to normal’.
The coronavirus pandemic may be an isolated disaster, and its victims seem accountable in thousands rather than millions. Although it coincides with no international conflict, it does with a rapidly growing worldwide consciousness of the environmental crisis.
“It has created a new sub-proletariat of warehouse operatives and increased the demand on postal services”
The various ‘temporary’ measures to prevent the spread of infection may well point up the critical conditions of some habits which seemed to have become ‘permanent’ features of the social fabric. So, the quick rise of online shopping has depressed the use of the out-of-town shopping centres, created a new sub-proletariat of warehouse operatives and increased the demand on postal services, as it has given new vigour to small-scale high street shops.
The impact which seems to me most important and incalculable is the – enforced – domestication of the office, which reduces travel times (and so the demand on transport services) radically and brings us nearer to the ‘global village’ working conditions, long forecast by AI theorists, and so shelters him and her from the increasingly intrusive state-sponsored surveillance, developed during the current pandemic.
How these rather different tendencies will interplay, as the threat posed by coronavirus recedes – as we hope it will in a matter of months – must remain the subject of hopeful speculation.
Joseph Rykwert, April 2020
Joseph Rykwert, CBE, is Emeritus Professor at the University of Pennsylvania and author of numerous books. His new work, Body to Town is as Town is to World, will be published later this year