Reflections of the Last 454 Days

California is "Reopening" today.

454 Days ago Governor Newson issued Executive Order N-33-20, ordering “all individuals living in the State of California to stay home or at their place of residence except as needed to maintain continuity of operations of the federal critical infrastructure sectors.”

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In those 454 days, 117 million people around the world were infected by Covid-19. 3.8 million people were killed by the virus, including 615 thousand Americans. 114 million people lost their jobs. We also developed a vaccine and a rapid global supply and distribution chain that’s administered 2.26 billion vaccinations. Almost half a billion people are now fully vaccinated against a disease that didn’t exist 20 months ago. It’s hard to describe, in normal speaking terms, the scope of what we all just went through. So I won’t try. Today California removed Covid-19 restrictions and is “re-opening.” I thought I’d share some observations I’ve made over the last 454 days.

Starting with the obvious:

The modern education industrial complex is far less about education than most of us were willing to admit. And that’s fine…until it’s gone.

My experience from inside the blast furnace of special needs parenting in the pandemic was an extreme one. But it’s the extreme situations that show the raised edges of the world we live in. When it comes to schools, once removed, we learned that we depend on them for some very important societal things.

You’ll notice I didn’t say education. I said schools. Schools are different from education. Schools are places with lots of resources (food, recreation, child care, physical and mental health…etc.) that serve a critical purpose of leveling out what’s required to have children and provide them with a reasonable opportunity to grow up and be functional parts of society. They’re imperfect and there are certainly ranges of experiences that are dependent on socio economic or regional realities, but through a school, we generally and effectively standardize three things:

1-A scalable way to provide a safe environment for our children, 6-8 hours a day, five days a week.

2-A place outside the home where children have opportunities to understand how they’re to behave and progress through a results based experience with consistent, real time feedback.

3-A basic academic education with on ramps to expand that into advanced education.

We closed schools for the better part of a full year. When that happened we lost #1 completely, #2 nearly completely and we greatly diminished the standardization of #3. We also learned that schools can’t just be run by educators. Because frankly they proved they don’t quite have the operational rigor over the logistics of the operation they’ve run over the last century and a half because they had zero answers to disruption in the system.

When we think of schools we think of teachers. But the teachers are the part you can scale with technology. The other things you can’t. So schools aren’t really about just teachers. They’re about the rest of it. And I’m not sure teachers were ready for that reckoning.

Higher education also showed that it’s organized at least as much to generate revenue as it is to further the minds of America’s youth.

The U.S. Federal government is at least 20 years behind the technology curve on distributing money and benefits to its constituents.

There are groups that do this, at scale, really well. Broadly, we should be able to distribute money, emergency health care and other services through technology much more effectively than we can. We don’t need new technology or progress. We simply have to apply existing technology towards the goal of emergency distribution of critical resources. The political debate needs to start at “should we distribute this?” and not, “should we have the ability to distribute this?”. Infrastructure grows poorly made in a crisis.

We didn’t cooperate our way out of this. We technology’d our way out.

Marc Andreessen wrote a good piece on what happened in technology during the pandemic. I won’t try to do a better job to describe it. But the reality that we were working against to solve the hardest parts of what we were going though was made more difficult because it was painfully clear that some people can’t be told to do anything by anyone. And there are enough of them where political factions could gain strength by amplifying their perspectives. Which meant that had we not figured out some critical technology problems like remote presence and RNA vaccines, we were going to kill a whole lot more people (millions and millions more) and collapse some societies well before we were willing to cooperate against the virus.

Imagine making wearing a facial covering indoors during a hundred year pandemic something that constitutes a red line of “I just won’t”. That political debate is now a salient mainstream one.

There’s no reckoning for anyone who is proven to be on the wrong either. The most vocal opponent I know of any Covid-19 measures from my hometown Facebook connections died in his house from Covid-19. The result was that, out of respect, no one talks about how he was wrong.

America is still very regional and local politics are deeply important.

You can trace vaccination rates along the lines of how Collin Woodard divides up the regional cultures of America in his fantastic 2012 book American Nations. I have friends in the Midwest who had different experiences than anyone where I live in California. The Southeast wasn’t going to miss a college football game at any cost. I could drive to the next state over, Arizona, and live in a different world, unless it were Tucson.

The point is that experiences were regionally variable because the most impactful measures were driven and enforced by state and local governments. So as much as we continue to focus on national issues to drive our political dialogue, our lives are much more deeply impacted, appropriately so, by local policy makers. But we don’t talk about anything below the governor in any of the channels I spend time in. The result is some gap in accountability. The insufficient performance of the elected school board in my district impacted my life more than anything else. And I couldn’t pick one of them out a police lineup.

Work from home is scalable and possible…not wholly sustainable as the future of work.

We’re evolved to wander out of the cave and go do something. I sit on 8-10 hours of Zoom calls a day…still…and it’s killing me slowly. We have learned we can retreat to Helm’s Deep until the threat passes. But we also learned that this is not the way to live.

We’ve learned many things about how much of what we did before simply didn’t matter. The idea that I felt that I had to travel to a place to have an important discussion for instance, seems kind of silly now. So does a meeting of 20 people taking place in a conference room around a table where we all looked at a screen of slides while one person presented. We’ve definitely opened up the aperture of where we’re willing to recruit talent from by not making them move to where the hubs are. But we’re not all going to sit in the place we sleep and do work. There’s something miserable about it that I learned from working on a ship. And I’m excited for that to be over.

Online friends are real friends.

There’s a handful of people I’ve connected with online that I’ve never met in real life and I’ve spent more time engaging with them over the last year than anyone outside my family. These are healthy, productive relationships that would survive public scrutiny that have replaced emotional and intellectual connection with people directly. And they’re with people all over the globe. In the same way that the pandemic disrupted regional talent markets for work, it’s also disrupted regional markets for friendship. This is the highest best purpose for social media.

Twitter is the best app for news and information.

When I hear something from someone in real life, Twitter is where I can verify whether it’s a thing. Not necessarily whether it’s true. But whether it’s a “thing.” And then I have a network on that platform that does the hard work of verifying salience and truthfulness for me. I find that my intellectual world lives on Twitter and my family/social world mostly lives elsewhere. The latter lags the former substantially in time and accuracy.

If I had another 454 days, I’m sure more things would pop up. And I’m sure more things from the last 454 days still will. But that’s enough for one newsletter.

Now on to high times and fortune. California is “open”.