A Quarantine Lesson – One Month In

I think we can all agree that March 2020 lasted approximately 11 years and that April lasted about 11 minutes.  Seriously, what happened to April?  Why did time seem to absolutely whiz by while just a few weeks earlier it felt like we were waking up on March 78th?  Perhaps it has something to do with the rate at which we consumed information: in April we watched a lot of Netflix, found a food delivery pattern, and wore pyjamas, while in March we were fanatically reading every post, watching every briefing, and planning for what the next six months would be like.

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Average American, circa March 2020.

That speedy consumption of information made time seem to drag on, like a hummingbird watching a human move.  But it also meant that we took in vast amounts of information.  Some of that information was crucial, some of it was valid, and far more of it was totally useless or even harmful.  April, slower and more settled, was not exactly a time for insight or analysis, because everyone was so burned out they apparently took a month to recuperate — which explains why household stocks of Ben & Jerry’s soared and new car sales plummeted.

But it’s May, now, somehow, and so it’s probably time for some thoughtfulness about what has worked and what hasn’t.  The cadence of remote schooling and remote socializing make everything we do a little wonky, so there’s no reason to belabor those points.  In the same way, let’s not forget that we’re in the midst of a life-altering, fundamental change in how society functions, so, you know, there’s that.

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“I hadn’t even noticed.”

The Lesson: Connected Does Not Mean Efficient (At Least at First)

It’s not easy to admit it, but sometimes the Internet can be…ineffective.  The received wisdom is that, by putting it on the web, we’ll instantly be able to do a task faster and with a wider reach.  But that’s simply not true for every case.  Think about the first time you used a search engine.  If you’re like me, the first query was something like “how did they get the aliens to play basketball in Space Jam?”  The results were completely useless, and brought me no closer to an answer.

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No, I’m absolutely sure my first search wasn’t about “Singled Out.”  What an odd question.

Why?  Because I was on the very initial slope of a steep learning curve.  I knew how to access information from traditional sources, and I knew (vaguely) that the Internet had answers and information, but I had absolutely no idea how to pair my existing skills with the available tools.  I had to forge skills and develop a little neuroplasticity to find ways to get the information I wanted.  At the same time, the Internet itself needed to get a lot better at structuring data, making information available, and generally not running on servers in your mom’s basement.

That combination of my developing skills and infrastructure improvements hasn’t really changed.  When the first smartphones came out virtually no one knew how to use them and their functionality was entirely limited.  Why?  Well, for starters, websites weren’t designed for tiny screens.  We didn’t know how to navigate it, but we soon got better, particularly after we  spent a great deal of time learning the contours of Apple’s “bounce screen” feature to let us know that we had reached the bottom.

Incremental Changes

The same concept applies now.  Moving to ecommerce or remote interactions requires the creation of entirely new modes of operating, and that’s a process that takes time.  It’s also the case — given the very visible failures of some of the most important platforms of the remote working economy — that the infrastructure is lacking.  And why should that surprise us?  The minimum viable product (MVP) for most systems is often pretty similar to the end product, and MVP rarely envisions as massive shift in usage, use cases, or purpose.  Zoom never anticipated being used by schools and the government, to say nothing of 50 million users all at once.  Naturally, things fall apart.

This is why it’s so crucial to take the position that the changes underway now will become part of our way of operating, even if things ever do go back to the status quo ante.  It’s easy, in an emergency, to justify extraordinary or extreme measures in order to just get by on a daily basis — governments do it all the time.  But actually processing the idea that some of the changes we’re experiencing will need to be long-lasting carries some serious operational — not to mention psychological — weight.  Muddling through on a mediocre videoconferencing platform or hoping that a shoestring privacy/cybersecurity budget will suffice for a few weeks?  No big deal.  But assuming that those same half measures will get you through the next two years?

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Even sarcasm sounds better when he says it.

Obviously, it’s not helpful to take on more than you can in the name of making progress.  Progress isn’t meaningful without the ability to sustain it, which is why (as we said earlier) we needed April to come down after the frenetic pace in March.  But incremental steps matter, and finding ways to improve processes and systems now is the baseline necessary to continue to grow as the year carries on.  Picking a single communications platform, relying on a trusted ecommerce vendor, finding the right approach to securing new customer data — these are things you can do this month and then never have to worry about again.  And, because you’ve incorporated good privacy, data, and security practices from the start, you’ll be less likely to need a costly retrofit later.  In other words, get on the learning curve now, even before the technology improves, by learning what works best for you and what needs discarding.

Can any of this make the lockdown, quarantine, or pandemic go away?  Certainly not, and that’s why you have to keep all of this in perspective.  We’re going to be grappling with uncertainty for a long time, and this first month can only provide so much insight.  But if there’s only one lesson to draw right now, it’s that adjusting to all of this is going to take time, but because it will take time, we have the time to help each other do it right.

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