Humans are considered social animals. But in the last several months of the covid pandemic, all sorts of collective behaviour was discouraged. Individuals were encouraged to remain in their personal space as much as possible and avoid any type of social interaction. So, whether it was working, studying, shopping, praying, dining or entertaining, the pandemic forced everyone to move all activity into the safety of private isolation. New tools of technology enabled people to do this.
All these efforts ended up encouraging individualism more than ever. The French political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville described individualism in terms of a kind of moderate selfishness that disposed humans to be concerned only with their own circle of family and friends. With each citizen having isolated him or herself from fellow citizens under new norms set by the pandemic, even drawn apart from family and friends in some cases, public involvement and communal attachment would tend to get neglected.
In a few months time, the intensity of the pandemic will subside. But it is clear that the world will not go back to where it was before covid emerged. For example, it is highly unlikely that many firms will insist that all workers must again brave peak-hour traffic and be in office at a particular time, or be present on all days of the week for all of their working hours. Organized religions will find it difficult to convince their followers that it is obligatory for them to congregate in a physical space at a fixed time for prayers.
The technological infrastructure that supported several new behaviours is not going to fold up once the fear of covid infection subsides. For that matter, the companies that own these technologies will only try to improve them further so that people continue to use them long after the pandemic is gone. Which means these apps and tools are going to make sure that people continue to conduct their daily routines within their personal space, physically speaking. History reminds us that it is the industrial infrastructure built by Japan to address its needs of the Korean war that turned out to be the elixir that revitalized the Japanese economy and helped create its economic miracle. What will be the effect of the sustained use of this new individualism-promoting technological infrastructure? How will the resultant growth in individualism impact the world?
Long ago, when the citizens of Greece exerted their individualism and suggested that each individual citizen should have a say in matters of governance, it led to the birth of democracy. Five centuries back, when Martin Luther, a defiant individual, decided to take on the collective force of the Catholic Church, it led to birth of the Protestant movement, which many believe led to an acceleration of capitalism in Europe and America. The Protestant movement got its impetus from the invention of the printing press, which allowed the printing of the Bible and other material in large numbers. This enabled ordinary individuals to access knowledge that had until then been limited only to the elite.
During the covid pandemic, several new technologies, such as virtual meetings, online shopping, digital payments, tele-health services, distance learning, online entrainment, cloud technology, etc, have been used far more extensively than ever before. Most new offerings are built on the strong foundation of great innovations like artificial intelligence and smartphones. So, this time around, an innovative force with several times the impact of the printing press is rapidly ushering in an all-new age of the individual.
Studies by Nobel prize- winning economist Edmund Phelps have shown that the more individualistic a country is, the better it uses its labour and capital. Phelps believes that the “spirit” of dynamism derived from individualism, vitalism and self expression leads to “visionaryism”, or the desire to create entirely new things. Geert Hofstede, the famous social psychologist, has established that there is a strong relationship between a country’s national wealth and the level of individualism in its culture. Higher the levels of individualism, the better the country’s economic performance.
The emergence and widespread use of individualism-inducing new technologies during the pandemic have another impact on the larger economy. As new technologies try to strengthen direct relationships between businesses and their consumers, traditional brick-and-mortar set-ups will surely fight back. They will change for the better to take on this new competition. They will take several steps to ease and remove the pain points in their traditional models. They will find new ways to make what they offer attractive enough for the individual to step out of his or her home and to travel to the establishment. For example, retail outlets will have to demonstrate why it is a more enjoyable experience to buy a product in a regular shop than purchase it online. Likewise, universities will have to establish why it is worthwhile for their students to attend class lectures in person.
In the past, individualism encompassed religious non-conformity and economic liberalism in various versions, including laissez faire. This produced great success models like capitalism. The individualism that covid has spawned is bound to touch several more facets of society than before. The technological infrastructure that is backing this new wave of individualism is much more impactful. What miracles might this new wave of individualism generate?