The pandemic is creating future trends in time and space
Covid-19 is changing not just public health practices: it’s also altering the very philosophy of time and space.
The alteration doesn’t take a Sir Isaac Newton or Albert Einstein to understand or indeed to formulate.
As millions who used to go to a job daily still work at home after more than three months, we’re eclipsing memories of an old calendar that had five consecutive days of 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. boxed in for “working time,” with the rest set aside as “personal time.”
That has vanished with the concept of a flat earth.
Living at home, except for trips for necessities, is starting to dull the memory of weekends and weekdays. They’re now just everydays.
Moreover, work doesn’t start at 9 and end at 5; it starts Zooming by when we rise and ends at bedtime – but it’s not consecutive. For many of us, work takes longer at home than at an external site but it’s splintered into segments that differ every day, with personal time so interspersed with business that it’s hard to distinguish one from the other.
At a social gathering of the new sort – outdoors, at social distance spacing – several of us forgot what day it was. But it was indeed a work day, because one of us had to leave for a 9:30 p.m. remote meeting in Kuala Lumpur.
Meanwhile, space has compressed. We do business in the living room or bedroom, not at the office and certainly not in outside meetings or public gatherings. Government officials meet together remotely while in public.
The CEO of one of our largest employers told me he’d never thought board meetings could work remotely. Now he’s wondering whether he’ll ever convene them again in person and use up three hours on driving that now have been returned to every member of a board that meets remotely.
It’s a virtual certainty that employers and employees will agree on one thing: they don’t have to see each other face to face nearly as often as they used to. Employees will stay mostly at home, and companies won’t need office space for much of the staff. Commuters save the cost and time of the drive, employers save the cost to house them.
Thus, changes in both time and space that could be enormous for a society. Think about it.
The circle of personal contacts narrows. Mixing among ethnic groups decreases. If you never see people, it gets harder to understand and empathize with them. People we see will become more like us than different.
At the same time, individual and societal needs change. If more of us travel less outside the home, transit needs diminish, as does the need for more roadways. Thus, we need fewer parking spaces – note the current short-term trend to use on-street parking spaces for outdoor dining in urban areas.
As for where we live, we’ll need space to work where the kids aren’t in the same room. That may mean designing small offices into condos or homes, or larger living quarters. But we might not need as much parking if two-car families become one-car or no-car.
Neighborhoods and zoning could change. If we spend much more time at home with less mobility we’ll probably see more convenience stores and small groceries interspersed in residential neighborhoods within walking or biking distance of home. That’s what urbanologist Jane Jacobs predicted in her 1960s classic book “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” in the face of urban sprawl. Did it take a pandemic to prove her right?
If we can stay at home and work in a Miami office job, we can stay at home and work in a Manhattan office too. So Enterprise Florida’s leaders aim to convince payers of high income tax in other states that they can move here, telecommute from no-income-tax Florida to their out-of-state jobs and beat state and local taxation – which could lead to laws elsewhere to tax folks whose earnings spring from their areas regardless of where the workers live. Nothing is simple.
The telecommuting change could have another impact in Florida: our legislature meets just once a year for two months as every legislator moves to Tallahassee to vote and be wooed by lobbyists in a single location. But with remote meetings, the move to Tallahassee and the outdated era of a legislature limited to two months to do its work could end. The legislature could meet as needed rather than as calendared years in advance.
Imaging, with the impacts of Covid-19 and the economic downturn everywhere, Florida now can pass no new legislation to deal with it all. Even the state cabinet didn’t meet for three months in the midst of the pandemic.
It is of course possible that lessons of the shutdown will quickly vanish and changes will wash away. Possible, but barely. This year is far more likely to become a watershed in this nation in the way that 1776, 1865, 1929, 1941 and 1968 became landmarks in the past, each ushering in a new era.
Last week historians gave our readers a thoughtful glimpse of how they believe their counterparts in the future will regard 2020. But the year is less than half over. How we live the rest of our lives – for better or worse – may include a lot more 2020 experience, and history yet to be written.
Lots of time and space for change to become permanent.