Roger McNamee coined the term the New Normal in the 1990s. It was a timely and prescient title for a book about how rapid changes in technology and globalization were creating a new normal in everyday life. For example, it used to be normal to make calls and write letters, and now it is normal to email, text, or send Facebook Messages.
His world-changes involved disruptive technologies such as the Worldwide Web. Not all world-changers are so enabling. We learned that on Sept. 11, 2001, when terror triggered struck in Manhattan.
At the time of 9/11, I was undergoing a series of unrelated self-changes. A few months earlier, I had sold the PR agency I started and ran to employees. I planned to take a few months off and then return to my first love: writing. I would publish and write a subscription-based email newsletter covering tech business conferences.
It would turn out to be the work that I loved, but I was about to experience a most inauspicious start. The first conference I scheduled opened on Sept. 10, 2001. That first day went well, and I was feeling the excitement of a rookie about to conquer a new frontier.
The next day didn’t go as well.
I had not turned on the car radio as I drove to the San Francisco Airport Marriott for my second conference day. The hotel is close to the airport and you can see the passenger planes at gates from the hotel parking lot. But on the road just before the parking lot, police had set up a barrier-checkpoint and were heavily armed. They demanded I step outside the car, show my license and tell them my purpose at the Marriott. With my permission, they inspected my backpack and had me open my trunk before letting me proceed. From the parking lot, I could see the airport runways, where strangely, all the planes were simultaneously taxiing away from the buildings out onto the tarmac and parking as close to the Bay and as far from the building as possible.
I soon learned about the unprecedented act of terror at the World Trade Center. Only a few of the attendees had shown up for the conference which was now canceled. About a dozen of us stood glued to a lobby TV set.
Like others in this group, I had been in the World Trade Towers recently. I knew people who worked there, including the wife of Dick Shaffer, the conference producer. The feelings we expressed were a combination of sorrow and rage.
But few of us—including me—could fully fathom how profoundly our world had just changed. Watching TV in a group that included a Muslim associate, I heard another attendee curse all Muslims. Someone else said that passenger jets had just become tools of mass destruction and should be banned. A young woman in a striking business suit sat on the floor quietly sobbing.
It was a disjointed few moments with no one really having a sense of what to do or say. Something unanticipated and horrific had happened and we knew life had changed. We did not yet know what to do about it, however.
I drove home, and until this day, have not written a word about my experiences: but I never forgot them.
The events of the day triggered a newer normal, but only a few would realize that immediately. Like me, most people just wanted to get back to their regularly scheduled lives.
I started getting hints that would not be the case about one month later.
Soldiers & Brainfood
About 30 days later, I was on a flight to Maine to attend PopTech, one of those brainfood conferences like TED. Once again, I was attending with the intent of starting my tech business newsletter.
Like other passengers, I was apprehensive about flying and felt myself eying other passengers suspiciously. There seemed to be a group sigh of relief when we landed safely at Bangor International Airport. But, as we stepped through the gate into the facility, we were greeted by armed National Guardsmen, who asked each of us similar questions to what the police had asked on 9/11 near the Marriott.
This would be my experience in a newer normal triggered by the 9/11 incident. Airport security would soon be an annoying but necessary institution. At this point, they didn’t have it quite right yet, but soon they figured out that it was more effective to screen people before they flew rather than after. But new systems always have bugs, then they get refined and they go from the forefront of our minds to just another detail of our everyday lives.
Everything Never Changes
I would get my second lesson the following night. Instead of serving up rubber-chicken in a banquet-style dinner, PopTech took over most local restaurants and mixed speakers and attendees were together for smaller interactive conversations, rather than one speaker talking while a few hundred of us listened.
I was the first to find my assigned table and chose my seat for its view of Camden Harbor at sunset. A minute later John Naisbitt sat down beside me. He is author of Megatrends, a business book written in the 1980s, that described rather accurately ten trends on how life and work would be changed by automation. I was one of 14 million people who had bought the book and it shaped my thinking as much as McNamee had shaped it a few years later.
I already aspired to be an author and to have one of the most prominent of the era sitting beside me seemed to be about as good as life needed to get for me to be happy. But I was intimidated at first and had no idea what to say to him. He proved to be easy to talk to and he began talking to me about an obvious theme: the spectacular view. We made small talk over lobster, steamers and beers. I sang nervously exuberant praises for his book and he modestly shrugged at my words.
At about the time of our third beer, Naisbitt asked me my thoughts about 9/11. I wanted to impress him with something profound or brilliant but came up empty. Finally, I told him that it “changes everything.”
There was an awkwardly silent moment. Naisbitt gazed at the Harbor, then at his plate and when he responded, it felt like he regarded me as a slow-learning sixth grader.
“Everything never changes,” he said. He paused as if to see if these words were resonating with me. Slowly I realized that was a key point of Megatrends. He looked at his watch and started making moves to leave.
As he got up he turned back to me: “Everything never changes,” he repeated. “But some things do. This table and this restaurant probably have been exactly like this for 50 years. People have always sat at this table and talked about the view. This will probably be true for another 50 years at least.”
“But something has changed: 9/11 has happened and we are sitting here talking about it. People will continue to talk about it for a very long time. 9/11 changes some things, but not everything. Everything never changes and it is important to understand that.”
And thus ended my evening with John Naisbitt.
He was right of course, and from 9/11 until the terror of Covid-19, we have continued in that newer normal. There have been many new megatrends such as social media, the rise of modern China, the dynasty of the Golden State Warriors and the abomination that is Donald Trump.
But it’s all been part of the post-9/11 era as I see it: At least until now.
The Newest Normal
COVID-19 is the first event that will have the magnitude of global impact that 9/11 has had. In the US, we have been losing more lives on many days than we lost when the World Trade Towers were incinerated.
We are still in a period of devastation and there is much debate as to when and how or even if we will recover: But, we will recover. If humanity managed to endure the Bubonic Plague that wiped out 60 percent of humanity in Asia and Europe, we will most certainly endure the new coronavirus.
But it is a flex point on the continuum of humanity as was 9/11 or the explosion of the first nuclear bomb. We will recover as sure as day follows night, and everything will not be different—but some things will be different.
At some point, hopefully, in the near tomorrow, we will enter a new Post-Pandemic Era. It will be marked by megatrends that are just now forming but will change a great deal. I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about them. I’ve been trying to spot early trends that will make a big difference. What will lastingly change work and life and what old trends and habits will remain as they were before?
So far, I have found three that are fast-forming into Naisbitt-style megatrends. They are likely to impact you:
1. Part 2: Work-at-Home. This is an obvious trend. It is a lot bigger and impacts more than just the explosive popularity of Zoom. So far Twitter and Microsoft have announced that their workers can stay home forever if they choose. Other areas such as education, entertaining and conferencing have changed in dynamic ways that I believe will be permanent. But that’s just the tip of an un-melted iceberg. In the coming years, I see many millions of people working from homes far from where they formerly might have been required to work. As I see it, this has huge implications to where people live, air quality, cultural norms and the customer reach of home-based businesses. It will also transform entrepreneurial opportunities.
When years distance us from COVID-19 and memory fades, will the world be a smaller, safer, cleaner place or will it degrade into the sort of stark isolation that Alvin Toffler talked about in Future Shock because the speed of change exceeds our ability to adapt?
I will explore these and related issues in Part 2 of Life in the Post-Pandemic Era.
2. Part 3: Robotic Devices. The current pandemic has defined areas where robotic devices ensure the health and safety of humans by stopping the spread of viruses with Ultraviolet cleaning of infectious areas as well as the questionable practice of using drones to catch people not practicing social distancing.
I see a whole new generation of robots, chatbots, autonomous machines and other devices and technologies powered by various forms of Artificial Intelligence emerging faster and with greater acceptance in the Post-Pandemic Era. I see more good than bad—but it could go either way.
3. Part 4. Transportation. After 9/11, people regarded planes and to a lesser degree ships and trains as potential weapons of mass destruction and they remain so. Now, COVID-19 is teaching us that mass transportation carriers can become inadvertent tubes of death.
Yet, there is no way that modern life could endure without these vehicles and carriers. I will report on ways that technology can make them safer perhaps to the extent that people will once again want to enjoy a cruise ship—although I would not recommend investing in Carnival Cruise Lines.
4. Part 5. Other. I see many tech-driven changes in the coming era involving diverse categories including health, cybersecurity, AI and a few things I have not even considered so far. When I see a trend forming, I will write on the topic.
If you have ideas about tech-driven changes in the coming Post Pandemic Era I would love to hear from you, please let me know.
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