Memo: When The Dust Settles

That summer’s flight was the last that I took before things changed forever. It was a pleasant trip but, knowing me, I found a way to complain about a minor inconvenience. The simplicity of walking to my gate and the ease of being unconcerned about domestic flight safety were privileges that I didn’t know that we had until they were gone. For a while, I thought we’d see those privileges again but I was wrong.

The next time that I’d fly out of Providence, Rhode Island, it would be to see my family for Thanksgiving 2001. By then, everything was different. As a global culture, we moved 20 years in just two months. The new customs were tolerable because we thought that they would be temporary. They weren’t. The new customs set like concrete. We adjusted.

Industrialism implies technology and the cutting of time into precise fragments suited to the needs of the engineer and the accountant.

Harold Innis, Author of “Changing Concepts of Time”

Welcome back to the sensation of the autumn of 2001. Eventually, the planes will take flight. Anxious consumers will roam their local malls. Colleges will salvage what’s left of their value propositions. And work in offices will be the default for some.

Though the signs are still up, your spin studio or fitness shop won’t be taking any new clients. The economics no longer support the real estate costs. Your favorite independent restaurants will be in a fight for stability. Your place of worship spaces the chairs six feet apart; the sense of community is lost. The strip malls that adorned every suburban corner appear the same as before but the activity reflects a disruption. The signs are there but the employees and customers are not. At the big box stores, you’re surveilled as though you’re a shoplifter. In reality, you needlessly touched a few items, setting off a quiet alarm that notifies the manager-on-duty. Your temperature is tested on the spot. The consequences of this type of in-store behavior are more severe than the penalties for shrinkage.

Your neighbor’s children play their sports but only after digital temperature measurement each time that they leave the field. You hug your neighbor but you do so with an eye for what onlookers may think about you. Dining out is reserved for the most exclusive restaurants, the type that can inforce price minimums that begin to address a lacking volume. Functioning movie theaters are rare in September 2020.

The middle-class is on edge. It’s harder to sell a home in a community ravaged by idle storefronts, shuttered amenities, and skeleton-crewed local governments. It’s even harder to buy one of those homes. J.P. Morgan Chase set a standard that other major lenders followed: 700+ credit scores and 20% for down payments. Only the wealthy can stand up to those requirements in an economy with double-digit unemployment.

Traveling is intrusive. Even a visit to the gas station elevates your heart rate. You’re watched as you pump gas to assure that you cleanse the area. This is a new social contract. This is September 2020 and nothing is the same. The second wave of viral infections has arrived but – by then – there are ventilators awaiting the distressed. We made a decision to pump the economy in May 2020 and the result was a free for all. The sentiment shifted from “we’re in this together” to something closer to “whatever it takes to survive.” Between the economic pressures of supporting a family and the real dangers of viral contraction, the word “survive” is no longer figurative. There will be two existences living chaotically together: the prepared and aloof. If you’re reading this, you’re the type to prepare.

Two forces are positioning for a primary role in this near future. Government stimuli and initiatives are in place to aid a return to a sense of normality. This is the traditional normality, the one that we remember from January. Over-retail was the norm and 88% of the shopping was done with a physical cart, in this version. Technology companies planned an enduring version of the future but the transition from one to the other is expected to be violent. Casualties are involved  Again, another word that is no longer figurative.

The truth is that the long-term advantages are held by the digitally-natives. These are the cultural customs, businesses, and institutions that operated as a layer atop of society for decades. By September: these tools, platforms, and experiences will no longer sit atop of society – awaiting their turn. Rather, society will be reliant on many of these tools. Call it an operating system or infrastructure but when the dust settles, these digital tools are the equivalents of our new roads, our new stores, our new theaters, and our gathering grounds. In September, these elements may not be absolute or even primary but their collective presence will be felt.

So which September will you prepare for? In the previous weeks, I’ve heard “What will the autumn of 2020 look like?” “How do we position ourselves to survive it?” “Is growth possible? If so, how?” Business books issue dictums on preparing for the future. But no one discusses the practicality of operating in the in-between. It can be difficult to predict what unemployment will be in September or how steep the curve will appear on government PowerPoint presentations. But in ways, the autumn is a second chance.

The winners of September 2020 have already begun preparing. Like the autumn of 2001, things will change in an instant. But this time, we can see it coming. The catalyst won’t be a broadcasted surprise on a Tuesday morning. And yes, there will be an untold number of variables that go unmanaged. There are dozens of scenarios, ripe for quantitative analyses. But the larger themes will remain in nearly all of the potential outcomes. When we’re given the order to return to normalcy, it will act as a recoil that brings us back and shoots us forward – all at once. Some of our old customs will return as though they never left. These customs will serve as a comforting facade. But when you’re waiting in the slingshot, the position is never permanent.

The spring months will ensnare communities but the autumn will define us. I suspect that the advantage will go to the digitally-natives: the retailers, the utilities, the communities, the entertainment models, the fitness providers, the essentials (and the non-essentials), and the professionals who are defined as such. What was once a layer atop of society, eCommerce will become its core functionality. That’s what you’ll see when the dust finally settles.

By Web Smith | Editor: Hilary Milnes |  About 2PM

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