Zooming Ahead

Over the past two days I was immersed in two Zoom meetings, one for 6 1/2 hours and another for 7 hours. The first was a National Academy of Engineering convocation, which I helped organize. I was one of the two speakers who wrapped up each half day. The second was a Division of Behavioral and Social Science and Education advisory committee meeting of which I am a member.

The people I interacted with in both meetings were thought leaders from academia, industry, government, and foundations. They were all very interesting and articulate. Both meetings addressed the intersections of people, organizations, and technologies for health, food, electric power, finance, national security, mining, etc.

These were productive meetings because I could timeshare between the ongoing presentations and discussions and other tasks that I needed to complete. This is seldom possible in face-to-face meetings.

It helped enormously that I knew many of the people in the two meetings. On the other hand, there were no side conversations and no shared meals to catch up on each other’s lives. When today’s meeting ended, the chair commented, “Normally, we would now adjourn to a reception for cocktails and hors d’oeuvres. Today, you will each have to find your own cocktail.”  I did.

There were 30 people in the first meeting and 400+ people watching online. The second meeting included 40 people. In both meetings, each of the 30 or 40 people was able to engage and speak, typically several times. These meetings worked.

It is rather different to see people in their homes, typically home offices, but some were outside, and some used Zoom backgrounds, for example from Hawaii and San Francisco. I used a background from the National Zoo. Some people were clearly perched in odd corners of their homes such as guest rooms where various things was piled.

These meetings worked pretty well. I have taught class like this, often with 100+ students in the classroom. Of course, it might feel quite different if they were in 100+ different locations. On the other hand, maybe it would not, as in the past two days people were spread across four time zones.

Would I find it reasonable to only have these kinds of interactions?  Intuitively, my answer is “No,” but I am hard pressed to explain why. Perhaps it is the shared stories, lunches and dinners, and receptions and cocktails.  I do feel that my intuitive negative reactions to this idea are weakening.

What if commuting to work and business travel were eliminated?  Productivity would substantially increase and costs would significantly decrease. Vehicle sales, gasoline purchases, parking fees and airline revenues would decline precipitously. Going out to lunch would make less sense, as would after work drinks and appetizers.

This is the experiment that we are currently conducting!  Sheltering in place has resulted in these consequences. Unemployment is soaring, tax revenues are plummeting, and the GDP is headed south.  Further, this has all happened so quickly that there has been almost no time to adapt.

Our whole economy depends on people consuming. Enormous numbers of jobs depend on this, both directly and indirectly. Corporate revenues and profits depend on this. Federal, state, and city tax revenues depend on this. Organizations have made huge investments premised on the sustained consumer economy.

These circumstances are also disrupting education.  Many faculty members and students are finding that online education works pretty well, perhaps not for everything but maybe for some of the larger freshman and sophomore courses. Much of executive and professional education can likely be online as well.

Various pundits have suggested that the new normal in higher education will differ significantly from the old normal. Students will still seek the “campus experience,” but less so for instruction, and primarily at the junior and senior levels. Many faculty members will be recruited, typically as adjuncts, for their online performance skills, not for disciplinary research credentials.

My many decades in academia might cause me to lament these trends. However, the “cost bubble” in academia had to burst in one way or another.  With student loan debt eclipsing national credit card debt, tuition increases are vulnerable to disruption. The pandemic has done just that.

So, disruptions are currently pervasive. All sorts of unfortunate consequences are playing out. We will inevitably adapt.  As Winston Churchill observed, “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing, after they have tried everything else.”  In the process, we will discover — indeed invent — the new normal. If we are thoughtful and prudent, the new normal can benefit everybody.

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