During periods of great uncertainty, it is customary to hear calls for someone “with a plan.” The COVID-19 pandemic has, of course, been no different in this response. Politicians, commentators, and frightened members of the public are looking–with misplaced faith, I believe–toward places like Washington, DC, the state capital, or the mayor’s office for someone with a clear, articulated solution that will put all this behind us.
The air is thick with what-ifs, and the Internet is thick with memes mocking long-haired freaks who want to end the lockdowns…so they can get their hair cut, or on the opposite side of the transaction, so they can cut hair. What, people wonder, is The Plan? We get nervous when it becomes clear that there simply isn’t one. Some of us chalk it up to incompetence or malevolence and then go looking for someone “who can make a plan work.”
This isn’t the right way to think about planning to continue addressing the COVID-19 pandemic, however. The problem isn’t identifying and implementing One Plan to Rule Them All. The problem, such as it is, is to coordinate and integrate the disparate and often-conflicting plans of the almost eight billion people on the planet. Just as no single mind (or central committee of minds) knows how to make a pencil, no single mind (or central committee of minds) knows how to plan an epidemic response. It’s easy to speak in terms of very vague generalities like “food” and “medicine” and “shelter” and “education,” but once we get into the details, it’s hard to go much beyond that. I’ll use myself and my family as an illustration and show how no one knows how to successfully plan a COVID-19 response.
Importantly, “solutions” aren’t created and imposed by our cognitive betters. They bubble up, often in undesigned and unarticulated patterns. Software and information technology provide an important illustration. Suddenly, a lot of people had to move their operations online. This means a big uptick in use of services like Zoom, Google Hangouts, FaceTime, WebEx, and others. A lot of people get into computer science and computer engineering out of sheer fascination or a desire to make the world a better place.
Some people get into it for the money. Some are left-wing revolutionaries. Importantly, I don’t have to know or approve of people’s motives in order to be able to cooperate with them and use their knowledge to advance my own ends. They don’t have to know or approve of my own motives in order to serve me or to make use of the knowledge I have.
We homeschooled before we started sending our kids to a nearby independent, Charlotte Mason-influenced school, so we were able to make a smoother transition than some from our normal routine to schooling at home. It meant making some adjustments, and I basically turned our front porch into my new “office.”
When my classes moved online, I needed to expand my technological capabilities. I bought a pair of Apple AirPod Pro noise-cancelling headphones. A few years ago, I had gotten a pair of life-changing Bose QC-35s, which I proceeded to lose on a trip in October 2017. The AirPods have been simply incredible. They are small. They fit in my ears very comfortably. They almost completely cancel out a lot of the low rumble of urban noise (air conditioners, far-off street noise) and seriously muffle other noise (nearby street noise, lawnmowers). I can still hear most birdsong (not a bad thing), but for the most part I’m able to enjoy remarkable quiet in the midst of urban (and domestic) chaos.
Do I know how the technology works? Not without googling it, and even then I know sufficiently little about sound engineering and physics to really understand what is going on. I’ll take Apple’s word for it; in my experience with their customer service personnel, they have been pretty trustworthy (any company with a trillion-dollar-plus valuation has a lot riding on a good customer experience).
Consider the number of people who have been involved in bringing me something as simple as a set of noise cancelling headphones. First, there are the engineers. They are the ones who designed the product, and how to set it up so that it would meet my “demanding” specifications. As with a pencil, I’m able to harness and deploy knowledge I myself don’t have for purposes the engineers may not understand. It goes deeper than this, though. Someone somewhere did the basic research to help us understand the physics of sound and to make a product like noise-cancelling wireless earbuds possible.
This doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the knowledge I am able to use in response to the coronavirus pandemic. I dictated an earlier version of this article into a Google Document. I’m able to use software I didn’t write and almost certainly couldn’t write to simply speak and have my words transcribed into written text in a Google Document with a remarkably low error rate compared to what voice-to-text used to be like.
Remote technologies have also made social distancing a lot easier. In the 1990s, when I was in college, movie courses online would have almost certainly been far more difficult. The internet as we know it was in its infancy, email was still a relatively new technology, and when I needed to do homework I had to write with a pen or pencil on paper (I recall telling my professor at the end of my first economics class that I had learned never to take an economics test in pen).
Moving things online has also been made a lot easier by video sharing sites like YouTube and Vimeo. In his 2008 book Create Your Own Economy, Tyler Cowen pointed out how a lot of the job of a professor or teacher would increasingly become curation of content. Statista reports that in 2007, people were uploading 6 hours of video to YouTube every minute.
By May of 2019, they were uploading about 500 hours of video to YouTube every minute. If your full-time job was to watch YouTube content 40 hours a week, 50 weeks a year, it would take you an entire year working fulltime to watch the content uploaded in about four minutes. A lot of this, of course, is garbage, and a lot of it won’t advance our pedagogical goals (“watch these three hours of people playing Minecraft and yelling” doesn’t seem like a very good lesson plan). A lot of it, however, is absolute gold.
Finally, to use just one more example, there are financial services firms processing payments quickly and (from our end, anyway) effortlessly in automatic systems. I bought my new headphones on Amazon. The money was charged to my credit card and paid to Apple with Amazon taking their cut. The bill will be paid automatically out of my checking account when it’s due. All of this will happen without me really having to pay any attention to it–or having to understand exactly what is working how, which electrons are jumping where when, or (importantly) really anything about anyone else involved in the process.
Consider the things we use on a daily basis that have puzzled previous generations. One of my favorite examples is the iPad. When it was first released, I remember a lot of people making fun of the name–I’ll admit, I had a bit of sport with it, as well–and a lot of other people saying “What is it for? What is the point?” In asking “what’s the point,” they miss it: what the iPad is for is something we discovered over time. The platform’s tablets and smartphones make it a lot easier to live, work, learn, and play under a pandemic lockdown.
To a lot of commentators with what the economist Thomas Sowell called “the unconstrained vision,” dealing with social problems like the pandemic lockdown is, fundamentally, like baking bread. It is simply a matter of finding the right recipe, the right ingredients, and the right cook: a Great Mind (or committee of great minds).
While a lot of us have enjoyed a lot of homemade bread during the COVID-19 pandemic, the recovery problem is of a fundamentally different kind. The transition back to normal life involves the coordination of the disparate and often-incompatible plans of billions of minds–and if we wish for that coordination to make the best use of knowledge in society, we are making a mistake if we are looking for a plan.