In the 1918 flu pandemic, human-centric systems maintained their centrality in social and economic life, because there was no alternative to intelligent humans. Under COVID, in a desperate attempt to mitigate short-term problems, energy and money are shifting ever-more rapidly into digital realms—particularly robotics and cyberspace—at the expense of natural, human-centric systems. This is a break with the past. The rapid embrace of these paradigm-shifting technologies carries almost unfathomable consequences for the longer term.
During COVID, intelligent machines, machine-learning algorithms, and robots have taken the place of human contact, replaced workers, and displaced vital human institutions, at a distance and in cyberspace. The systems now coming to dominate our economy, accelerated by COVID, are not human in their nature, but innately inhuman and unnatural.
While the short-term consequences of COVID—jobs lost, social interactions curtailed, cultural practices forestalled—are well known, the long-term impacts of this period, when in less than a year humanity has been pushed across a transformational social and technological threshold, remain unexamined. In the confusion of the pandemic moment, we are making these transformations with no time to understand what we have done or to ask about what is being lost. As decisions are off-loaded to algorithms and work transferred to apps and robots, the social spaces where humans live, work, consume, recreate, converse, learn—classrooms, offices, sports arenas, theaters, museums, restaurants and cafes, even our living rooms—are depopulated, replaced by mediated virtual spaces, with unknowable consequences for culture, values, institutions, humanness itself. After COVID, surely we don’t expect that our machines and their profit-maximizing owners will naturally reprioritize human-centric social and cultural spaces that we have ceded to them?
Is it possible to resist this digital distortion of human-centric cultures? Our leading cultural institutions, government, business, academia, religious organizations, labor groups, and philanthropies must come together to develop the policy, law, ethics, and norms that will “civilize” the increasingly capable machines and intelligent algorithms that will populate the realms of robots and cyberspace. The challenge is upon this generation of leaders to ensure that the post-COVID era will not privilege the digital machines and the small group of people who own them, but promote a reinvigorated, natural, human society.