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The pandemic changed everything—or so we thought

Post-Pandemic Potentials

The pandemic changed everything—or so we thought

The following text was drafted in response to the initial prompt in AN’s “Post-Pandemic Potentials” series. A subsequent response by Phil Bernstein will follow next week. Read more about the series here.

Barely a few weeks ago, while self-isolating in London during the grimmest, darkest day of the pandemic, I was among the many who saw the ongoing catastrophe as the final collapse of the mechanical age—or more precisely, of that period in the history of the industrial revolution that is now often called the Anthropocene, characterized by standardized mass-production, global mechanical transportation, and the unlimited burning of fossil fuels. We all thought that the demise of the Anthropocene would be brought about, incrementally, by global warming—which might, perhaps, have given us the time to mitigate or counteract the consequences of climate change and the exhaustion of natural resources. Instead, the end of the machine-made environment came all of sudden, the space of a fortnight, not by way of climate change and global warming but by way of viral change and global infection. When COVID-19 came, and a number of nation-wide lockdowns went into effect (around mid-March in Europe), the entire infrastructure of the industrial world as we knew it suddenly shut down: Planes stopped flying, factories stopped producing, schools, stores, and offices were evacuated and left empty. Yet life carried on, somehow, for those who were not infected, because farming, local artisan production, food distribution, utilities, telecommunications, and, crucially, the internet kept functioning.

Many, like me, had long argued that the technical logic of mechanical modernity was obsolete and unsustainable, and was due soon to be replaced by the technical logic of electronic computation. We had long claimed that the electronic transmission of information is faster, cheaper, and environmentally friendlier than the mechanical transportation of persons and goods. We had long claimed that mass-customized digital manufacturing is nimbler, smarter, and more respectful of natural and human resources than the mechanical mass-production of standardized goods. A few weeks into the pandemic we felt, sadly, vindicated: The entire mechanical world—our enemy, in a sense—was in full meltdown and had just ceased to be, as we always said it would (although nobody could ever have imagined that the fall would come so soon, and would be so precipitous). And while the mechanical world was imploding, farmers kept farming, bakers kept baking, and thanks to the internet many of us kept working, studying, and communicating, somehow, throughout the lockdown. The farmer, the artisan, and the internet: craft and computation—all that existed before the industrial revolution, and all that came after the mechanical age—that’s what kept us going during the crisis. At the same time, the office, the factory, and the airport—the very backbone of the industrial world—more or less shut down. We always claimed that digital craft, and distributed robotic manufacturing, would be our future. For the last three months they have been our present. I wish we should not have needed a global pandemic to prove our point.

Yet at the time of this writing, more than three months after the start of lockdown in Europe and the U.S., I am no longer so sure that the pandemic itself may end up proving anything at all. Let’s consider one of the most obvious aspects of the crisis—and one that has a most direct impact on the built environment and on the future of the design professions and of design education. Out of my living room windows I see the corporate skyscrapers rising from the so-called “square mile” of the City of London—glittering in the sun, when there is any, and shining at night, all lights on. Nobody has been doing any work in any of them for the last three months, other than essential maintenance crews. Yet the London stock exchange and the global insurance and financial markets never shut down. Retail banking kept functioning too, yet I could not have visited a single branch of my bank, had I needed to, for more than two months, as they all shut down in sync when the emergency started. Some local branches have now reopened with a skeleton staff. For whom? To do what? I guess that scores of cost-cutting strategists at most banks are asking themselves that very question right now. The lockdown has proven that most businesses can carry on just fine with only a fraction of the physical infrastructure that only a few months ago was considered indispensable to their trade. That’s good news for demolition teams but not for architects nor for real estate investors. As an educator, and having myself spent most of my locked down time on Zoom, I can attest that most students kept studying, most lectures were taught, most papers were written, and most exams were passed this last term, even though no one has been on the campus of my university since the start of lockdown. We now have evidence that some online teaching can work—and pretty well, too; and that remote teaching, as well as remote working, have some advantages, and even more so when the carbon footprints of commuting, travel, and transportation are taken into account.

One would therefore be led to surmise that, having learned to work remotely during the emergency, when obliged to do so, most reasonable people (and institutions) would keep some work remote even when free to go back to the old normal, in order to keep profiting from some of the advantages that today’s communication technologies can offer. Yet there are already signs that this may not happen. Let me cite only a few instances I am anecdotally aware of. Back in the middle of the pandemic, in a school of architecture I know in a European country I shall not name, a group of teachers started a vociferous campaign against remote teaching, arguing that education requires the presence of teachers and students in close proximity to one another and in the flesh. As a result a number of students at that school, who had laboriously prepared sleek, professional video presentations for their end-of-term exams, originally meant to be online, will now have to screen them before a socially distanced, mask-wearing audience, congregating in a likely overheated, poorly ventilated classroom. More of the same: On June 2 the leader of the House of Commons of the United Kingdom decided that in that House, seen as the metaphorical body of the Nation, all voting should be performed “physically” and in the flesh by contiguous human bodies, and electronic voting forbidden. All 527 Members of Parliaments were thus recalled from their constituencies, and obliged to travel back and forth across the country in the middle of the pandemic to cast their vote by lining up and shouting their names full throat in front of a clerk. The vote was about the suppression of electronic voting in Parliament, and it was approved by an overwhelming majority. On a similar note, on June 17 the Minister for innovation at the Department of Health of the United Kingdom announced that the project of a mobile phone app for contact tracing, designed to warn of exposure to active carriers of the COVID-19 virus, was being postponed, perhaps indefinitely, because “the human contact is the one most valued by the people.” (The minister was apparently referring to voice communications by contact tracing employees, not to human contacts between healthy and infected persons.)

Less anecdotally, and more historically relevant, the most gigantic example of the irrepressible power of physical proximity has been, for the last three weeks, the wave of BLM demonstrations against racism and discrimination that have spread like wildfire throughout many Western countries. When demonstrations started in London a few weeks ago, we were all, legally, still under lockdown—having been told for weeks to “stay home to save lives.” Then people—mostly young people—around the world decided to take matters into their own hands, and take their voice where it could be heard: in the streets, which had been empty for weeks before they came to occupy them. And one reason—one additional reason why their voice was heard, stronger and louder than ever before, is precisely that this happened at a time when we were all expected, or sometimes mandated, to stay home, and stay far from one another, to save lives. BLM demonstrators in the streets of London were nearly all wearing masks, thus making it clear that they knew the risk they were taking: a statistically calculable risk to their life, that of their friends and families and communities at large, in a country where at least 40,000 people had already died due to a still raging contagion. They rationally concluded that it was a risk worth taking, so that their voice be heard.

But the police confronting them were not wearing masks. Nor were the politicians casting their vote by shouts in the Houses of Parliament nearby. For them, as for many political leaders around the world, the pandemic doesn’t matter; what matters is business as usual. Many will die, societies and economies will self-organize—they always do—and sooner or later life will restart as before; in fact, likely better than before, for those who can afford to shelter in place or work from their country houses for as long as needed. What can we, as design professionals, say at this point? Aversion to science and technology—hence to design, which is a way to marshal science and technology to improve our built environment—has many roots and different causes, both cultural and ideological, and manifests itself in many ways. The coronavirus crisis has shown that, in front of an unprecedented catastrophe, some countries were capable of pulling together, acting as a political body, and for these countries the crisis will prompt a new quest for design solutions that will change architectural and urban design forever, and for the better. In these countries, the crisis will accelerate technical change. These countries will leap forward. Other countries, frailer from the start due to their social imbalances, may not survive the coronavirus emergency. They may fall apart, or in the best-case scenario regress to the inherent unsustainability of their already obsolete techno-social systems. What can we, as designers, do or suggest in such nefarious settings? Not much I’m afraid. Perhaps build bunkers—or go work elsewhere.

Mario Carpo is the Reyner Banham Professor of Architectural History and Theory at the Bartlett, UCL, London. His latest monograph, The Second Digital Turn: Design Beyond Intelligencewas published by the MIT Press in 2017.