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Histories of the Great Panic.

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 23/11/2020 - 4:40pm in

How will Western historians in 2050 remember 2020? In scenario 1, “The Great Panic, a lost generation”, I sketch my best guess. Scenario 2, “A job well done” is the one I imagine many current Western governments hope is told. Scenario 3, “The dark path of the Great Panic”, is one of my main fear scenarios.

How Past Plagues & Pandemics Have Shaped Human History | PocketOne should of course not take any of these too seriously, but they do help put some perspective on matters because constructing a future history of today forces one to detach from current concerns and nominate long-term forces that might come to the fore.


                   H1: The Great Panic, a lost generation.

In 2020 a new coronavirus appeared that health authorities and the media whipped into a huge panic that went viral around the world. Forced by their populations to pretend to be in control, governments instigated lots of highly damaging restrictions on the movements of their own citizens. Whilst this did very little to the spread of the virus or the eventual death toll from it, it opened enormous opportunities to governments to extend their powers, sidestep parliaments, and rob their populations.

The ideology of the Great Panic was an echo of the Fremdkörper ideology of national socialism of the 1930s: an ideology in which the country was seen as an organism that could only function if the ‘elements alien to it’ were excised. This ideology reached great popularity in 2020 when it was directed towards the new coronavirus, but, as in the 1930s, the ideology morphed when the coronavirus ceased to be a threat to include all infectious diseases and large groups of citizens. Zero-covid became zero-other-things. Increasingly draconian and destructive policies were rolled out in the 2020s by governments eager to hold on to the power they had amassed.

After the period of initial shock in 2020, an unholy alliance between opportunist local commercial interests, the global ambitions and immediate interest of Big Tech, the virtue industry, and governments emerged that thrived on continued restrictions. The surveillance state they instigated survived the end of the actual pandemic which had run its course by early 2021. New viral threats were identified to justify massive random testing regimes, with the inspectors who could use those test to order lockdowns of whole regions becoming feared figures of derision. Immunity passports became compulsory for most international travel. Masks became compulsory everywhere outside.

The disruption and ideology inherent to the Great Panic formed the kernel of its own eventual demise. The disruption to the economy and social life lead to large-scale unrest and even civil war in poorer regions like India and North Africa. High levels of mental health disruption aggravated the collapse of the economy, which is now estimated to be 20% of world GDP loss in that period, masked in the early periods by increased government debt and money printing. The eventual inability to buy off social unrest as debt and quantitative easing ran into its limits lead to high inflation and loss of confidence in governments.

The Fremdkörper ideology eventually became the enemy of the emerging medico-industrial complex: just as populations saw the virus as an ‘element alien to it’, so too did they view new vaccines, particularly the new RNA-based vaccines. Increasingly, tests became seen as invasions of privacy and unwanted attempts at stigmatisation, with individuals increasingly reluctant to be identified with any infectious disease.

Eventually, massive popular disapproval lead to a reversal of the main ideology and restrictions in Western countries, followed by other countries. A restoration movement was dominant for a few years, including a greater role for nationalistic libertarian movements.

One long term effect was the large-scale destruction of the independent middle classes made up of shop keepers, service workers, small hotels etc.: their businesses were replaced by franchise systems tethering nearly all former independent small businesses to large corporations. This worsened inequality and lead to more feudal societies.

Another long-term effect was the disruption of the education and the ability to socialise normally for a generation of children. As a result, average wellbeing and prosperity took decades to recover.

The huge collateral death tolls and the illegality of the 2020 restrictions were not recognised in the courts in most countries until the 2040s but are now part of textbook teachings on ethics and law. When a few large countries decided in special commissions that they had been the victim of international emotional contagion, regionalisation of social media became institutionalised.

In the poorer part of the world the Great Panic lead to a lost generation whose education and economic prospects got disrupted, leading to a widespread primitivisation of their economies. The situation got aggravated by civil wars and by reductions of the aid budgets of the richer countries, leading to a large political pivot towards China in that period.

Economic historians estimate the death toll of the Great Panic to be around 70 million unnecessary deaths, making it the world’s second biggest self-inflicted catastrophe, only behind the second world war. Still, from a longer-term point of view the crisis was seen as a blip that exposed the susceptibility of existing democratic and scientific systems to contagious mass emotions. Some of the innovations and restrictions of that era are still with us, like immunity passports: though many countries eventually decided they were unconstitutional and illiberal, enough countries remained adamant about not letting in anyone without them that they became a standard feature in the tourism and business sectors.


                   H2: a job well done

In 2020 a new virus emerged of unheard potency hitherto. Though at the time not everyone was convinced of its danger, it was in hindsight definitively proven to be directly responsible for long-term problems like dementia, depression, anxiety, insolvency, terrorism, violence, unemployment, and loneliness.

Governments sometimes were late to heed the science but eventually all recognised that a working economy and social system needed to first focus on the eradication of this new virus. Whilst scientists were working hard at a variety of solutions, governments kept their populations safe by means of restricting their movements. A vocal minority of covid-terrorists resisted these restrictions but eventually a combination of marginalising their voices in the social media and physical containment ensured they did not prevail.

This period is now recognised as a triumph of human ingenuity, where the world went from a new disease to 95% safe vaccinations within 6 months. Nobel prizes went to the inventors, knighthoods to the industrialists who produced the vaccines at marginal cost, and lucrative government contracts to the transportation companies who disseminated the vaccines. Grateful populations voted for the governments that had more decisively protected them by large majorities, with covid-deniers like the US president Trump roundly thumped at the ballot box.

The long-term benefits of having gone through this challenge were the complete registration of the entire world’s traveling population and a fail-safe viral recognition-technology that follows nearly everyone wherever they are in the developed world, warning them via wrist-bands against the illegality of any imminent meetings that would put them at risk of infection. Quarantine camps all around the Western world now operate to intern those for whom positive tests have revealed them to have subverted the International Pathogen Safety Protocol. A new international agency oversees these camps and a large force of pathogen-marshals makes sure adaptive local protocols are adhered to, with the rule-making-bodies fed by state-of-the-art simulation models.

Though there was much criticism at the time by out-of-touch scientists of how the attention to the new virus lead to tens of millions of deaths via neglected other diseases, new studies since then proved the so-called collateral damage to be the results of the virus itself. After extensive investigation it turned out that the propensity in that period to become a dictatorship was higher in countries with the lowest vaccination rates, proving it was ongoing covid-risk that lead to the new dictatorships. Similarly, the initially claimed higher death tolls of hunger and tuberculosis where eventually proved to be because farmers with covid were less productive and hence produced less food, whilst tuberculosis was found to be more dangerous for those who also had covid. Nobel prizes went to the discoverers of these important insights as they definitively showed the importance of focusing on the coronavirus. It has been estimated hundreds of millions of lives have been saved by its eradication.

In decades following, the rational scientific approach to the coronavirus pandemic came to be seen universally as a triumph of the Enlightenment.


                     H3: The Dark Path of the Great Panic

The Great Panic of early 2020 cemented the Fremdkörper ideology around the world and lead to the demise of the international system of migration and travel that had ballooned in the decades before. The impoverishment and deteriorating health of the populations that followed was aggravated by a collapse in the birth rate in Western countries, the large-scale destruction of the independent middle-classes, and the instigation of the surveillance state. These consequences combined to create existential panic in the populations of the West.

When Western societies woke up to the enormity of the destruction, internationalism was blamed and ultra-nationalist groups fought on the streets with the internationalist activists of black-lives-matter, extinction-rebellion, and others.

The conflict between internationalism and nationalism that had been simmering for decades grew and grew. The early running was done by the internationalists: armed with anti-nationalist ideologies, the media clout of Big Tech, and the coercive power of the state in many Western countries, they initially managed to successfully push the nationalistic protest movements to the margins of their societies.

However, within a remarkably short time, the increased economic desperation of large sections of the population and the ability of nationalists to have large numbers of sympathisers on the ground turned the tables on the internationalists whose means of communication were increasingly sabotaged, with city-wide internet blackouts increasingly common in many countries. Crucial in the conflict was the inability of the internationalist to gather because of the travel bans and international migration stops.

Partnered to the nationalists, a virulent nativist movement arose that was obsessed with the low birth rate and regarded anything that was not pro-family an existential threat to their culture and population. Forced by popular opinion, state bureaucracies switched sides and started to censor ‘foreign divisive and anti-family content’ on social media. Lists of national values and habits were set up, taught as compulsory subjects in schools and universities. Without a ‘national certificate’ one could not have jobs or access social services in many countries.

The ultra-nationalist movement counted many high-profile homosexuals, ethnic minorities, and religious minorities. The victorious ultra-national movements they belonged to turned the Fremdkörper ideology away from viruses and towards what it termed ‘woke internationalism’ and anything associated with ‘anti-family values’. Re-education camps were set up for the ‘enemy within’, camps in which eventually millions perished. Among the first initial groups sent to the camps were critical race theorists, intersectionality academics, and various groups that came to be seen as inherently anti-family.

List of sympathisers with ‘anti-family’ groups and ‘enemies of the nation’ were harvested from stored copies of Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, WeChat, Instagram, and other social media sites. Special tribunals were set up for young offenders to see whom they had been lead astray by. High profile trials of crimes against humanity were instigated for the leaders of those scientific and media institutions held most responsible for the Great Panic.

The ultra-nationalist movements then turned on ‘radical’ Muslims and on foreign enemies, in particular China. Chinese minorities throughout the West, even if they had lived there more than 150 years, were forced to swear allegiance to ‘national values‘ and denounce the Chinese Communist Party. Large groups of reluctant newer waves of Chinese migrants were deported to China. There were many voices to put them in re-education camps but after several nuclear standoffs with China such plans were abandoned. The identified Muslim minorities who did not swear allegiance and who failed regular checks were not so lucky.

Nowhere did the nativist ultra-nationalist movement get more fanatical than in the US. The Democrats only managed to regain the presidency after the fourth Trump term, with the second one ending in Trump senior giving the reigns to his Vice President, Trump junior. To win the White House, the Democrats promised a total war on China, a green wall with Canada, a ban on the speaking of any language not on an approved-language list, a ban on any executive job being done by someone with less than 2 confirmed children, and a strategic alliance with Russia.

In Africa and some parts of Asia, the disaster of the Great Panic lead to widespread civil wars, a population explosion as education systems crumbled, and a mass-exodus in terms of migrants. The ultra-nationalist movements in the West immediately responded to these migration streams militarily, forcing the migration streams towards neutral countries or poorly border-patrolled countries like Turkey, Iran, the Caucuses, and elsewhere. Eventually, a semblance of order was restored as Western countries and China competed for influence via neo-colonialist projects.

The main longer-term consequence of the Great Panic was thus the victory of ultra-nationalist and nativist movements in the West. It also accelerated the construction of regional internets and the polarisation of world politics into various camps, with the West and China on opposing sides with nearly completely detached economic and political spheres.

Historians disagree on whether the excess death toll of 500 million that eventuated in the 2020-2040 period should be entirely or only fractionally attributed to the Great Panic.



As said before, the first suggested history sounds about right to me at this moment. The second one is basically the history I imagine the medics within the pro-lockdown brigade tell themselves. The third one is the dark road I fear we might be on.

Do add your own scenario in the comment section.

Is Sweden the promised land for sensible covid-policies? Reluctantly. 

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 19/10/2020 - 8:13pm in

Sweden is a rich, spacious country famous for IKEA, ABBA, dark cold winters, and its unique covid-policies. We escaped London for a few days to see for ourselves what the deal was with this Scandinavian country of 10 million. It is as rich and well-run as the statistics say it is: Stockholm is full of sporty Swedes, spacious parks, shiny public transport, cyclists, and prams. Getting to talk to Swedes requires alcohol and patience, but once they do talk, you find their English is excellent.

In terms of the statistics, Sweden has had a relatively good covid-experience. The number of covid-attributed deaths is 0.06% of the population, average for the EU, without the huge anxiety and mental health disaster befalling other countries. Also, their economy is now estimated to shrink by only 3% in 2020, with the government running a surplus in September. It did not give up civil liberties and had a well-publicised large glut of infections in April-July that got them close to herd immunity. Whilst measured infection rates are rising again in the autumn, there are very few new deaths, suggesting the vulnerable population is either already immune or by now well-protected in a voluntary manner. Did this relative ‘success’ reflect some unique Swedish attribute or was it just luck?

On the one hand, Stockholm is everything a Covista wants to see. You see virtually no masks, the full pubs have minimal distancing, the generations walk together outside, the theaters are open and sold out, children play in packs, and there is a relaxed vibe in the air with people reacting in horror when you tell them of the descent into authoritarianism elsewhere. The place also has quite a few covid-refugees from the rest of Europe who deliberately came to Stockholm to breathe in a bit of sanity and fun. But….

On the other hand, football stadiums are still closed, you see signs everywhere asking you to socially distance, the crowds in shops are not that huge, distancing is stricter outside of the capital, and the city employs hundreds of covid-marshalls who check on rule compliance in restaurants and pubs. So whilst we did manage to sing to live-bands and even managed to dance, we cant tell you where because venues are not supposed to allow this. It is hence a mixed bag.

You also see this mixed bag in opinion polls and in the election campaigning. Many Swedes work from home, would like to see stricter rules on movements, and are attracted to the narrative that the whole population should give up things to protect the elderly. Ericsson, one of the biggest employers, for instance just announced its employees should wear masks at work.

The Swedes are also about the most politically-correct people on the planet, calling themselves a moral superpower, exactly the types who in other countries are at the forefront of lockdowns. The shops sell organic ice cream and oatmilk cappuccinos, and their national history museum tries to claim that the slave business run by the Dutch and the English was actually the fault of the Swedes. I think if there had been a referendum in April, the vast majority would have been pro-lockdowns and even now, many companies and groups want things to be stricter.

So what explains that the Swedes have gone the herd immunity route? I think the honest answer is sheer luck and a willingness to stick to their previous resolutions on how to handle such crises.

The Swedes were lucky that the health authority charged with running things in a health emergency was a group wedded to the herd immunity idea. It wasn’t just Tegnell, but also Giesecke and others close to the agency: they had a group of scientists and public servants strongly committed to what they sincerely thought was the right thing to do, willing to ignore the large swing in opinion and behaviour among public health people elsewhere in Europe. They have had to hide their early expressed opinion that herd immunity was the sensible long-run strategy and simply stuck to the mantra that they needed to take a long-run view and could not justify the experiment of lockdowns.

The Swedes also got lucky with their constitution which I understand forbids the kind of compulsory social distancing and lockdown policies the other countries in Europe and America went for. The thing the Swedes can be proud of is that during the height of the panic, they stuck to their constitution whilst in other countries they did not: my current understanding is that many American governors and European governments have violated their constitutions, though it will take a while for that to be widely established by constitutional courts (several cases been lost already though by governments, such as in Germany and Pennsylvania).

In short, I think the Swedes are reluctant poster-children for the Covistance. Their policies are not as sensible as those of the Tanzanians or South Dacotans, but they are a shining example to the rest of Europe anyway.

The gathering Covistance, its promise and its main enemies

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 14/10/2020 - 6:32pm in

Those who already in March foretold the folly of lockdowns and social distancing did not dream we’d still be in the same place after 7 months. Only slowly has it dawned that the panic would become an enduring business model. For a long time, we believed sanity would soon prevail and all we had to do was argue the case and let the prophesised damage speak for itself.

Yet there now is an emerging Covistance: a resistance to the covid-mania and its business model. It’s main message is that the vast majority of the population should immediately return to normal life and enjoy themselves. Throughout the world you see critical civic society groups emerging that share this message, involving medics, lawyers, economists, journalists, businesses, and the general public. In Australia, that Covistance is relatively high-profile with particular television networks, former PMs, and newspapers openly resisting the covid-mania. Brave insiders like Sanjeev Sabhlok have shown zivilcourage. The same is true in the UK, the US, Germany, France, Spain, and many other places. But not everywhere. In consensus countries like the Netherlands and New Zealand, for instance, the Covistance is low-profile with only a few doctors, lawyers, and the odd economist popping their heads above the parapet.

In an intellectual sense, forgive me for saying so, the Covistance won the argument a long time ago. I don’t say this because some 500,000 people and 20,000 scientists signed the Great Barrington Declaration (GBD), or because the experience of Sweden really does show that you dont get Armageddon if the population behaves normally. I also don’t say this because the WHO’s special envoy on Covid implicitly agreed lockdowns were a bad mistake and that the WHO’s own modellers think the virus is no more harmful than a nasty seasonal flu after all, which it admitted when it let slip it thought 10% of the world was infected already (implying an IFR of 0.13%). Nor do I say this because the covid-mania policy objectives keeps changing radically from “delay infections” to “eradicate the virus” to “the miracle vaccine is coming”. I don’t even say this because the Covistance is basically advocating a return to the scientific consensus of before the covid-mania of march 2020 and thus has scientific gravity on its side.

I say the intellectual fight is long-won by the Covistance because the actions of both governments and populations reveal them to secretly agree. Just look at how short-term all the economic measures were and still are: they have been designed to last months, hence predicated on the notion of a return to normality when the virus has run its course. Ask yourself how many governments are openly planning to live for years with lockdowns and hence really thinks their policies can continue for years, which is the timeline on the Phase III trials of the vaccines? Why do you think many governments still use and publicise exaggerated projections of deaths and cases instead of accurate numbers if realistic numbers were honestly deemed proof enough? Why the continued censorship and harassment of demonstrators by the authorities if they believed their case was strong enough to keep the population onside anyway? Many governments are simply going from one short-run plan to another, displaying a lack of any real belief in their actions.

You see the same revealing two-faced attitude now increasingly in the general population. Many still say they want harsh measures, but join raves in the woods, full beaches, secret parties in homes, and forget about their masks and social distancing as soon as they’ve had a few. The tv and films they watch are showing normal life. The education their kids are getting is oriented towards normal life. So their actions betray they don’t truly believe in a “new normal”. Covid-mania has for many become what listening to sermons in the church used to be: you really believed it Sunday mornings, but ignored it the rest of the week.

So who is the natural enemy of the Covistance? Who is committed to the fear-mongering such that they will give no quarter? As usual, the question an economist asks is ‘cui bono’: who is benefiting? Unfortunately, the answer is that the group of beneficiaries has grown over time and is very powerful.

A very important unexpected beneficiary is Big Tech. The Nasdaq, which is the share market for the Big Tech companies like Google and Facebook, shows you the story: in March, the Nasdaq plunged just as much as the Dow Jones and other industrial share markets. So Big Tech analysts did not expect it to win. Yet, by mid-April it became clear that while the industrialists were indeed losing business, Big Tech was actually making a killing from the lockdowns. People too frightened to go to stores or to the office worked from home and shopped online. Katching for Big Tech! The Nasdaq is hence now substantially higher than before the mania, whilst the other share markets are much lower.

Big Tech thus became a powerful ally in the censorship programs of governments. It already ‘followed the WHO guidance’ and brushed out conflicting advice, which was a tough job since the WHO kept changing its mind on things like face masks and  lockdowns. The collaboration with covid-mania turned even more blatantly anti-scientific when scientific sanity returned in this debate in the form of the GBD. In most countries, but not the US (!), Google stopped allowing the website of the GBD to pop up in the first page when you googled “Great Barrington Declaration”. I saw that change for myself and you can check the screenshots of people in different countries. On Bing or Duckduckgo you do see the actual website of the GBD. Try it yourself to see if this censorship holds where you are. What I got this morning on the first page in London from Google were links to silly conspiracy stories surrounding the GBD. Reddit has also banned GBD in some of its forums.

Big Tech is powerful and not easily dismissed. Even most of the Covistance uses Facebook, twitter, Reddit, Google, and all the other mainstream communication platforms. If Big Tech makes life sufficiently difficult for the Covistance, then that Covistance would have to turn to other providers of technology, which is a big cost many wont easily make. It is not all bad though: Big Tech is revealing its hand and showing a group of privileged people who otherwise would not notice what these companies are prepared to do. We are learning the hard way that Julian Assange has been right about them all along.

Another group of beneficiaries is made up of the medical advisers around most governments. In their panic of march 2020 they ditched the contingency plans available and went with the totally unproven experiments of lockdowns and all the other things they advocated subsequently. They have been found out to be no more than copycat pretenders, for whom admitting their mistake would likely spell the end of their careers. The same is true for many economists who jumped on the initial bandwagon. They are now doubling down too. In for a penny, in for a pound.

An even more committed group are the businesses and bureaucrats employed by covid-mania. Think of the covid-marshalls in the UK who tell random people how to live. Think of the purveyors of masks and tests. Think of the companies that have sold billions of vaccines even before they are produced. Think of the hordes of regulators that dream up tiers, levels, flow-charts, and action-plans relating to covid. Think of the companies delivering home office supplies, home internet services, and sanitisers. Think of those who initially couldn’t have dreamed they would be in higher demand, like dog breeders and second-hand car salesmen.

The longer the covid-mania lasts, the longer the list of commercial entities predicated on its continuation grows. At a certain moment, the old economy is simply gone whilst a new one to replace it would still take years to fully absorb the workforce. Yet, that new economy is less productive and would of course collapse if the restrictions ceased because the old desires supporting the old economy (like entertainment and travel) would once again kick in. We could have a decade of recessions: from the old to the new and then another one when we go back again.

Last but not least, of course, the beneficiaries include many politicians. Their power and popularity has soared beyond previous levels, and whilst the popularity slips away the power is still in their hands. I know you might hate to hear this, but power is very, very addictive. Our literature, from Faust to Macbeth, tells us of its lure and what people are willing to do for it. Well, hordes of politicians have been handed power by covid-mania and have used it to expand that power. This makes them formidable enemies of the Covistance that wants them to let that power go.

So, these are then the enemies of the Covistance: many governments, an emerging industry of public-sector oriented profiteers, an emerging industry oriented towards the commercial new normal, Big Tech, and all those who staked their reputations and livelihoods on the covid-mania.

I deliberately did not put the media on this list, despite the fact that one can certainly say their have been culpable in the emergence of covid-mania and are a key tool of governments in maintaining it. That is because media has no real horse in the race: if it changes its mind and its tune because it sees the population change its mind, it will not matter much to their business. Many journalists have clearly enjoyed being fear-mongerers, but as an industry the media is not a big beneficiary and hence not really the natural enemy of the Covistance. They are potential allies, particularly if they see the tide changing.

I also did not put the general population or any segment of it on the list. That is because every segment is such a clear loser from covid-mania in the long-run. The economic and social collapse is not to the benefit of any large group in society. Even the elderly will not win from being starved of contact with their friends and family for years, with their health services and pensions diminished. Some groups have been convinced they benefit from the mania, but since they do not really benefit, I regard no major demographic as natural enemies of the Covistance. They are to be convinced.

Apart from the committed enemies, there are also roadblocks put up along the way. All the myths and superstitions surrounding covid are of that ilk. Examples are the myths that overflowing IC units spell Armageddon for the population, that children are as much at risk as the elderly, or that long-covid is just as important as risks of death. A new myth is the idea of a “circuit breaker” of 2-4 weeks, by which they mean a repeat of the failed European lockdowns lasting 2 months first time round. The constant stream of unopposed garbage coming from governments and hangers-on adds to the roadblocks facing the Covistance.

What are the chief weapons of the Covistance? Of course the Covistance has good arguments on its side, but we should realise that we have far more powerful weapons in our arsenal than science and reason.

The Covistance offers hope and fun. We dont fear the virus and hence laugh, sing, dance, share, and dream together. The covid-maniacs must at least pretend to be isolating and pessimistic. They have to advocate poverty and prudishness for all whilst the Covistance promises Christmas, Carnaval, busy pubs, and long nights.

So “bella ciao, bella ciao” my fellow Covistas. Not only do I believe we have truth on our side, but also fun and hope. Even Big Tech can’t win against that.

Will busy offices return eventually? Of course they will.

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 07/09/2020 - 9:22pm in

[message: the “stay at home” firms will see their bored and lonely good young staff jump ship to the hip, drunk, snorting, and cavorting hard-work hard-play offices everyone loves to complain about.]

The Office revives small town Scranton, but it wasn't taped there – SkiftThe estimate from Transport for London is that 72% of workers are still not back at their office this week, which is why the coffee clubs, eateries, bars, and restaurants are still empty and central London feels like a ghost town.

Its the same all over the large cities in the UK: 50% of workers of all industries were still working remotely first week of August and public transport remains shunned like the plague.

Its slightly more “back to normal” in other European countries that ended lock downs sooner than the UK, with around 80% of all workers back to their previous place of work in France, Germany and Italy by August.

Still, nowhere has office life yet returned to the previous levels. More than half of office workers have indicated they would like to work more from home than before and many major employers have indicated they do not expect office life to return to pre-covid levels any time soon. This is fueling widespread speculation around the world of how work is going to change forever and that the nature of inner cities will adapt. You get plenty of visions of workers dialing into virtual offices from their forest homes whilst big cities become terrace-filled pedestrian zones dominated by tourists.

I think its too soon to expect the old office life to be gone forever. Its demise has been prophesised before and quite a few tech companies with the know-how have tried to do away with the office in previous years and failed. Whilst it is true that there has never been such a massive shock to office life as we’ve seen the last 6 months, and so the “new normal” might feel to many like it is sustainable, one can only understand whether one should really expect the “old office life” to be gone forever if we understand what the economic and social reasons were behind the old office life. Why did companies fork out hundreds of billions of dollars per year for decades to afford very expensive places in the middle of cities, forcing their employees into highly wasteful commutes? What made that expense and effort worthwhile in the first place?

There are strong economic forces that made regular office life an equilibrium, with firms that did not comply losing out. Firms that have a regular office life have three things going for them that “from home offices” lack: they offer the staff a venue where they have to socialise; they lead to a rat-race culture that encourages over-working; and they offer a place where clients/suppliers come to visit, come to see up close whom they are dealing with, come to be impressed, and come to be entertained.

So firms with a regular office will pinch the more ambitious, more fun-loving, more socialising workers and clients of firms without a regular office. These disadvantages do not hold if all offices are forced to work from home, which is why they were not so relevant the last 6 months and a different culture seemed sustainable, but they will re-emerge as soon as some offices go back to regular functioning. The “stay at home” firms will see their bored and lonely good young staff jump ship to the hip, drunk, snorting, and cavorting hard-work hard-play offices everyone loves to complain about. Ditto for their richest and most dynamic clients. To put it as simply as possible: you don’t make real friends on zoom. 

One of the central mistakes many commentators thus have about work and office life is that humans are solitary animals only offering their labour time for money which they use to buy stuff online. Its the kind of thing only a half-trained economist can believe. It is just not true. Humans are group animals, first and foremost. They work because they are in competition and in partnership with their colleagues and people around them. They get aroused and motivated via close contact with other humans. Stop offering them an office in which they are a group and you will eventually find they lose all interest.

A related economic force that will lead us back to the office is that offices impress. In old economic parlance, offices burn money and that serves as proof that a firm has something to lose if it doesn’t keep to its contracts. Offices gives contracts and promises credibility because one can see there is a physical place and  social position firms stand to lose if they dont stick to promises and get taken to court. In more normal speak, a big shiny busy office shows you have skin in the game and an adoring tribe to boot.

A nice recent discussion of the basic psychology and sociology of office life is by Randall Collins. Let me just copy the best bit of his quite long article, which discusses failed previous experiments in abandoning offices and also has as the bottom line that online doesn’t arouse people and thus is doomed to death-by-indifference:

Working Remotely

There is disagreement whether working remotely is effective. Some people prefer working from home. What they like about it are: no commuting; reduced meetings which they feel are a waste of time; and fewer distractions in the workplace. Some dislike working at home; what they dislike are more distractions in the household; less team cohesion; and technical and communication difficulties. (Wall Street Journal, May 28, 2020: based on a survey of hiring managers) Similar points were made by the head of a state judicial unit, who emphasized that much additional time by management personnel was now spent on meetings, and attempts to keep up morale by remote contact; meetings were often frustrating because considerable time was wasted trying to get the communications technology working for all participants. (repeated interviews during March-June 2020)  She sometimes went  to her office in order to use secure communications, and found it refreshing whenever encountering a colleague in person. Efforts to re-open court business, with social distancing and masking precautions, were welcomed by part of the staff and opposed by others. The characteristics of one group or the other are unknown; a hypothesis is that the those more committed to their career and professional identity want to return to their customary work setting; those for whom work is more of a routine prefer to stay home.

Hollywood film professionals said they liked spending less time on planes flying around the country; and less high-level meetings which they considered more habitual than necessary. [Los Angeles Times May 3, 2020] One producer said: “I don’t think video conferencing is a substitute for being in a room with someone, but it is better than just talking on the phone. There are so many ways you communicate with your expression… when it’s delayed and small, you just lose all that. My feeling is it’s 50% as good as an in-person meeting.” [p.E6] In the actual work of making movies, most emphasized that it is a collective process, and some insisted that spontaneous adjustments on-set were the key site for creativity. They also reiterated the point that live audiences are the only way to reliably tell whether a film is coming across, and larger audiences amplify both comedy and drama (i.e. via emotional contagion).

Some businesses have tried to compensate by having “virtual water-cooler” sessions several times a week, where any employee can log in and chat. It is unclear what proportion took part,  how enthusiastically, or with what pattern over time. Some managers reported that company-wide “town-hall meetings” to reassure employees lost interest over time [Wall Street Journal, June 6, 2020]. DiMaggio et al. (2019) however, found that on-line “brainstorming events” for employees in a huge international company were consonant with some patterns of interaction rituals; this research was carried out in 2003-4, long before the epidemic. The degree of involvement and solidarity in town-hall meetings is a matter of scale; the court administrator reported that feedback about morale was positive after on-line sessions involving group of around 10; but in larger groups it was hard to get a Q&A discussion going. This is similar to what any speaker can observe in ordinary lecture presentations and panel discussions; even with physical presence, most people are reluctant to “break the ice” after the speakers have been the sole center of attention; but once someone (usually a high-status person in the audience) sizes up the situation and says something, it turns out that many others find they also have comments to make. This is a process of micro-interactional attention, which is especially difficult to handle on remote media.

Many managers said that innovativeness was lost without serendipitous, unscheduled encounters among individuals. [Wall Street Journal, June 6, 2020] In a PricewaterhouseCoopers survey, half of employers reported a dip in productivity with on-line work. Longer trends, going back before the coronavirus epidemic, indicate that the promise of on-line work was not highly successful. During 2005-15, the era of the high-speed Internet, the percentage of persons in the US regularly working from home increased slowly;  those working from home at least half-time reached a pre-epidemic peak of only 4%. []  During this period several big corporations, initially enthusiastic, tried to shift to primarily on-line work but abandoned it after concluding it was less effective. In the market-dominating I-T companies, the trend instead was to provide more break rooms, food, play and gym services to keep their workers happy on site. This was abruptly reversed in the coronavirus period.

Zoom fatigue

Popular video-conferencing tools such as Zoom attempt to reproduce F2F interaction by showing an array of participants’ faces on the screen, along with one’s own face for feedback in positioning the camera. Reports on how well it works in generating IR-type rhythm and solidarity are mixed. CEOs of high-tech companies tend to claim that it works well. Among rank-and-file participants, however, complaints are widespread and it even acquired a slang term, ‘Zoom fatigue.’ [Wall Street Journal, May 28 and June 17, 2020]  Achieving synchrony with others is hard to do with a screen full of faces, delayed real-time feedback, and lack of full body language. Since there is a limit to how many individual faces can be shown, in larger meetings some persons are seen only occasionally, and leaders looking for responses often find they get none. Some of the ingredients of IR (not necessarily under that name) are now being recognized by communications specialists; these include fine-grained synchrony and eye movements. In ordinary F2F conversation, persons do not stare continuously at others’ eyes, but look and look away (Tom Scheff made this point to me in a personal communication during the 1980s; for detailed transcripts of multi-modal interaction see Scheff and Retzinger 1991). Thus seeing a row of faces staring directly at you is artificial or even disconcerting. Some readers responded with advice: cut off the video to reduce zoom fatigue, go audio-only. Some found hidden benefits in zoom conferencing: once the round of social greetings is over, turn off the video and your mic and do your own work while the boss goes through their agenda.

Continuously seeing one’s own face on the screen is another source of strain. Of course, as Goffman pointed out, everyone is concerned with the presentation of their self, in terms of status as well as appropriateness for the situation. But one does not have one’s image constantly in a mirror; and when interaction starts to flow, one loses self-consciousness and throws oneself into the activity, focusing more on others’ reactions than on oneself. Those who cannot do this find social interaction embarassing and painful.  But enforced viewing of one’s own image feels unnatural.

Prolonged video conferencing as a whole seems to have about the same effects as telephone conference calls. In my experience on the national board of a professional association, our mid-year meeting was canceled by a snowstorm, and a 2-day conference call was substituted. The next time I saw the board in person, I polled everyone as to whether they liked the conference call: 18 of 20 did not. Lack of shared emotion was apparent during the event; for example, when it was announced that we had received a large grant, there was no response. No wonder: applause and cheers are coordinated by looking at others, and it is embarrassing to be the only person applauding. [Clayman 1993] Work gets done remotely, after a fashion; it just lacks moments of shared enthusiasm.

Could lock-downs lead to a baby boom in several Western countries? If so, why?

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 18/08/2020 - 12:38am in

For months now, demographers and other social scientists have been predicting a covid baby bust because marriages were postponed, pubs were closed, anxiety levels were up, measured fertility intentions were down, sexual activity went down (in some reports), and economic uncertainty was up.  The dominant story of lock downs and babies so far has been (also for Australia) that the genders cant find each other, can’t close the deal, and think its a bad idea to have children in these circumstances anyway. Historically also, recessions are bad for babies.

And yet, whilst cycling through the Netherlands during the family holidays, I was struck by a story in a regional newspaper that said the local mid-wives expected a baby boom. The article said they had many more inquiries and bookings. There is a similar (but somewhat inconclusive) report from New Zealand that the mid-wives are overbooked for some of the coming period.

Mid-wives are only part of the pregnancy story though and the reports for individual mid-wives prove very little. How about hospitals? Well, some hospitals in Switserland are also reporting an increase and, like in Australia, more pregnancy tests sold in shops. There was another such recent report from the National maternity ward in Ireland. So we have indicative reports from four countries of a possible baby boom, plus national data from at least two countries on strong increases in pregnancy tests. Not conclusive, but still. What could be going on and how would it affect the tally of the pros and cons of lock downs and social distancing?

It is early days, as one might say, and it might be true that there is a left-field explanation for the hospital and midwifery reports on an impending baby boom. Maybe we’re not hearing from the under-booked hospitals. Maybe pregnant women are now more anxious and have more time to book their hospitals and mid-wives in advance. Maybe newspapers are just keen on “good news in times of lock down” stories. Maybe many midwives are unusually busy with other things, like helping out lone mothers or with looking after their own children, leaving hospitals and particular midwives to be overbooked. All four reasons are eminently possible, though they seem a little far-fetched to me, particularly given how the boom stories coincide with the pregnancy test increases (up 30% in Australia), which is data that is representative of whole countries.

We’ll know with more certainty soon, but it does now seem possible that a baby boom might actually be underway in lock down land. That could, if it truly materialises, be very important for an assessment of the long-run consequences of lock downs.

I doubt the reason for more babies is that people have had more sex, basically because it doesn’t take much sex to have babies and if people don’t want to have babies, they will find ways not to have them even if they do have more sex. I also don’t buy the argument that hordes of pregnant women wanting an abortion are too afraid to go to clinics and hospitals and so reluctantly choose to have babies anyway: I just can’t see that being true for the Dutch and the Swiss who are quite comfortable with the idea of abortion pills and where the vast majority of kids are planned. Besides, lock downs were relatively short periods in those countries. If there is a boom, it would have to be because many couples have decided they actually want more children.

The best reason I can think of for a possible boom is that the lock downs and social distancing might have made people more family oriented. If one is forbidden from closely interacting with those outside the home, make some more inside the home!

A similar potential explanation is that the covid period has made careers seem much less important than they were before. Filling one’s life with kids makes more sense if the alternatives are less admired.

Neither reason would have held in previous recessions so are not invalidated by the historical record. Both these potential explanations are specifically due to lock downs and social distancing.

If a covid baby boom happens in particular Western countries, I would certainly count it as an important silver lining of lock downs and social distancing, particularly if the boom happens because careers and getting rich have reduced in importance. We will find out soon!

Meeting Moby Dick

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 24/07/2020 - 11:03pm in


Dance, moby dick

Even if you haven’t read Herman Melville’s classic American novel, Moby Dick, you are probably quite familiar with the concept of “the white whale” — an obsessive search for a goal that is not attainable and might ultimately lead to your demise. Continue reading

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Epic Performances from the Middle Ages into the Twenty-First Century

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 06/03/2019 - 8:59pm in


Film, Dance

A discussion about the book Epic Performances from the Middle Ages into the Twenty-First Century. Part of 'A Book at Lunchtime' series This volume represents the first systematic attempt to chart the afterlife of epic in modern performance traditions, with chapters covering not only a significant chronological span, but also ranging widely across both place and genre, analysing lyric, film, dance, and opera from Europe to Asia and the Americas. What emerges most clearly is how anxieties about the ability to write epic in the early modern world, together with the ancient precedent of Greek tragedy's reworking of epic material, explain its migration to the theatre. This move, though, was not without problems, as epic encountered the barriers imposed by neo-classicists, who sought to restrict serious theatre to a narrowly defined reality that precluded its broad sweeps across time and place. In many instances in recent years, the fact that the Homeric epics were composed orally has rendered reinvention not only legitimate, but also deeply appropriate, opening up a range of forms and traditions within which epic themes and structures may be explored. Drawing on the expertise of specialists from the fields of classical studies, English and comparative literature, modern languages, music, dance, and theatre and performance studies, as well as from practitioners within the creative industries, the volume is able to offer an unprecedented modern and dynamic study of 'epic' content and form across myriad diverse performance arenas.