Yuval Harari, the Israeli academic and hero of mine, said in an interview with Channel 4 news recently, that his university had been working on transferring its courses on line for years. With no effect. Then, in one week, courtesy of the coronavirus, everything moved on line in just one week. Harari’s university isn’t alone. In the space of two months, virtually the entire capitalist world has undergone revolutionary and lightning fast change in the fields of social interaction, civil liberties, the role of central government, economic aid, personal finance, employment, medical care , food supply logistics, personal safety, societal prioritisation and, well, pretty much every aspect of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We have become more innovative, more inventive, more tolerant and humorous, more caring and sharing with one another. We have become fitter, we use our time more profitably and we are re-appraising both our personal priorities and our societal values as a result of being in enforced contemplation. It is an acute case of necessity being the mother of invention.
The last time societal change happened at this break neck pace was World War Two, during which enormous leaps in science, engineering, medicine, encryption, computer design, weaponry, civil mobilisation and gender roles were concertina’d into six short years. The need to utilise the brightest brains amongst us broke down class barriers and reversed centuries of “it’s not what you know but who you know”. The need to ratchet up industrial production to max blew away sexual stereotypes as women flooded in to the workplace. Outmoded social mores were swept away by the need to win. This, surely, is how society evolves and individuals grow? A global or personal crisis, whilst very unpleasant, has extraordinary, galvanic, catalysing effects on our behaviour.
All of which makes me ponder how we really create behavioural change. In the last twenty years, the vogue has been for “nudging” – changing societal behaviour by making small changes incrementally over time. It argued that you achieve change by nudging people gently in the desired direction. Many government programmes in the field of public health were predicated on this theory. But the opposite viewpoint is that cataclysmic events cause seismic changes of behaviour. The corona virus has caused vast changes in behaviour almost overnight: social distancing, working from home and Zooming, to name but three. Even the planet is benefitting. Until coronavirus monopolised our news agenda, the debate was all about climate change. Remember Extinction Rebellion? Coronavirus not only knocked it off the front page (in fact, all the pages), but it has done their job for them by giving the planet a much needed rest period in which to recuperate some of its strength. No flights, less pollution. Deserted streets, cleaner air in our cities. Closed shops, less landfill. A moratorium on manufacturing, fossil fuel demand dives. All round good for Mother Nature. A much needed break.
Not a nudge in sight.
No one could nudge me into becoming digital. No one. And they tried. I remember booking a lunchtime session with a lovely man called Ross Sleight who was the head of BMP Interaction – the brand new, pioneering department within the advertising agency I worked in (BMP) consisting of, er, Ross. I had heard there was this internet thing and he knew all about it. As the head of the agency’s new business efforts, I felt I should know more. As Ross started up, I nodded off. Literally fell asleep. Since then, a multitude of colleagues, friends and partners have tried to turn me on to the digital world. I have defied them all.
I am a technophobe. Machines don’t like me. And I feel decidedly hostile towards them. We glower at each other in a resentful, reluctant relationship of mutual antipathy. But then came lock down, and everything changed. In a sort of Stockholm Syndrome proxy, I find myself not only in debt to my phone and laptop, but also in thrall. Forced to earn my money through electronic interfaces – my conventional method being to earn through face to face facilitation, coaching and speaking – I have, like so many others, been forced by this virus to make friends with the virtual world. Seven weeks ago, I was in the habit of casually asking people who I wanted to meet to send me a calendar invitation – a ruse to disguise my inability to schedule anything electronically as a willingness to fall in with their timetable. Today, I flit between filters on spreadsheets, think nothing of uploading a couple of pictures and hastily typed documents to my Google classroom ‘Share screen’ seconds before the session begins, schedule multiple Zoom meetings, publish blog posts on this blogsite (which hitherto has lain dormant since 2016, when it was built for me), created a website for our company, written and edited the manuscript for my new book ‘Catalyst’ on Google docs and started recording podcasts. I am no technophobe. I have had, if not a Damascene conversion, then certainly a Silicon one.
Everyone, it seems, is like me: on an accelerated path to learning new skills. This cataclysmic pandemic has catapulted us all in to a new world of capabilities, expanding our horizons and pushing us out of our comfort zones. Which is good for us. Yes, of course, it has had devastating consequences for so many. But it has, like all cataclysmic events, also had many positive unforeseen consequences. In a showcase event at the beginning of May, Eddie Izzard talked about the need to see the positive in a negative. He cited the creation of the NHS as a positive consequence of World War II. All the positive consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic are yet to reveal themselves. But it has done what all crises do: forced change on us and made us change our own direction as a result. Change happens with a zoom, not with a zzzzzzzzzzzz.