Return to “Normal”?

February 27, 2021

An ongoing topic as I write this is when and how we will return to “normal” education at the school, here. Since March 13th of last year, we have taught our students online because of the pandemic. It seems to me that, at least as we are currently configured, we are better able to deliver our best educational services to children through face-to-face gatherings. A lot is lost when we teach online. That said, we have also learned a great deal about online education, and along the way I think we may also have honed skills that will serve us well once we return to “normal”.

Likewise, there are big challenges for workers and employees in this world of “whoops! now we all suddenly telecommute” that many find themselves in today. But there are also certainly benefits.

And with all this going on, I, like many others, have been really thinking a lot about what all this will mean in a “post-COVID-19” world. Have you noticed all the “scare quotes” I’ve been using? If it gives you the sense that I don’t expect the “normal” we return to be the same as the normal we had before the pandemic, it’s because I don’t. We are going to see some of these changes in how people work stick around even after the events that forced them on everyone have subsided.

One of the biggest reasons telecommuting didn’t become generally widespread is that there is a disadvantage to being one of the few people not actually coming into the office, and so there was built-in resistance even for those who were most inclined to give it a try. Plus, businesses in general were reluctant to allow it for fear of lost control. But with the outbreak of the pandemic, masses were suddenly forced to all switch over together. And a lot of us are finding we like it, even with the new challenges it brings.

And with the now accelerated telework revolution many are finding themselves in, we should expect to see a domino effect of other changes. The biggest one I’ve heard talked about recently is the decoupling of our careers from where we choose to live. In a telecommuting world, finding a new hometown where the Internet access is fast, cheap, and reliable may become more important than a location that has a good job market. Because the job market for many (but certainly not all) industries is going digital, just as many other marketplaces already have.

This means changes for the digital workers, of course. They can choose to live in places that better serve their needs in the areas of friendships, family, recreational activities, culture, lifestyle, climate, etc. It will mean changes for employers, too, possibly seriously reducing overhead costs associated with leasing or owning real estate, among other things. And perhaps most interestingly, it will bring about changes for the physical locations themselves. It seems obvious that real estate prices will shift everywhere, but also consider the social impact: small communities will experience less of a talent drain, in ways that I have to imagine will be mostly positive.

My instinct is to be cautiously excited by these changes. Partly because I am a very change-friendly person by nature, but also because I see a lot of potential good in it. I think a world where many more occupations are decoupled from location than ever before is exciting and possibly much healthier for civilization in the long run.

But. But…I also worry greatly about the loss of intangible value that will come about from a reduction of semi-random social interactions. The Internet has no public spaces. Everything belongs to someone. Every online space is there because some government or corporation is providing it for a specific purpose, and these spaces are designed to be efficient.

There’s value in bumping into a friend when standing in line at Starbucks, but my love affair with ordering ahead on their mobile app and skipping the line is a powerful thing. Chance encounters with strangers while waiting for a bus have deepened my appreciation of humanity. I play a lot more chess against serious opponents now that I can find a game at any minute of any hour of any day from anywhere that has cell phone service, and yet some of my favorite moments playing competitive chess come from conversations with other chess players out in the lobby outside a physical tournament hall.

And I remember how I felt about the first Internet revolution back in the 1990s. I helped build this world. As a cofounder of one of the first web development companies, I was an excited evangelist for how the Internet would free us from the shackles of space and time, allowing people who felt lonely in their ultra-niche interests to go out into the new online world and build communities with the one thousand others on earth who shared their interests and passions. I was extolling everything that is great and convenient about shopping online before e-commerce was really even a thing. And I was right…but I also severely underestimated the powerful dehumanizing elements that would come with this kicking free of the earth from beneath our feet.

And now we live in a world where the loss of local institutions has caused us all to be constantly glued to national politics in a wildly unhealthy way. We live in a world where lunatics and fanatics instantly network among themselves in powerful feedback machines. Heck, even the sanest among us are more and more getting stuck in informational echo chambers that inevitably radicalize us, even if just by small amounts.

Churches are in serious, serious trouble in this regard, and therefore the human race is. Churches, when they are healthy and fulfilling their purpose, provide three things: meaning, purpose, and connection. A church should be a place where a person goes to learn, so that they can better understand themselves, their neighbors, and the universe and what all this might be about. A church should be a place where a person goes to be inspired to rise above selfishness and materialism, and to find ways to contribute to the good of others outside of themselves. And a church should be a place of community: a place where one gathers, not because of language or ethnicity or race or politics or economics or age but because of a common view of spiritual purpose and meaning.

But if our churches retreat into the online-only mode that some others seem to be headed toward, then we will become purely about information. We will continue to preach messages about meaning, but that’s just the information leg of the stool. Online church so far does not seem to be much good at service or community. We try, but the bandwidth for human contact and emotion is just too thin, even with live multi-way video. And action leg and the passion leg are both missing from “online church”. This worries me deeply.

And yet, I’m still mostly optimistic about the new future we are building. I just want to be sure we are thoughtful and intentional about it, rather than just letting it happen to us however it unfolds. Change is inevitable. We can either react to it, or we can figure out how to position ourselves ahead of it so as to maximize our ability to pursue our mission. Or at least we can make some educated guesses and then do our best to prepare.

Mac Frazier, Pastor
Washington New Church, 2021-02-19

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