Could the 2020s be an era of prosperity? The pandemic has paved the way for digital, biological, and ecological revolutions.
PARIS — Within 18 or maybe 20 deadly months, we will all finally be vaccinated. We will want to live like never before. The holidays will be beautiful, the skies will be clear, and artists will be celebrated once more, just like a century ago, in the 1920s, the years nicknamed "crazy" in France, "roaring" in England, and "golden" in Germany.
It may be easier to imagine bleak scenarios. Perhaps by mutating, the coronavirus will escape the vaccines that have already been developed. Perhaps our fragile society will be torn apart, or even collapse. Maybe, by rejecting "business as usual" many companies will go bankrupt and others will be unable to invest in the future. Even worse, maybe banks and governments will run out of money, triggering a severe financial crisis.
The culmination of a revolution
A century ago, it was also easy to imagine a grim future. The war had just killed nearly 20 million men and women, and the Spanish flu killed even more. France alone lost more than two million lives from both calamities — roughly one in 20 inhabitants — and another 4 million had been left disabled. The economy was in shambles and the public debt colossal. Yet, production jumped by 70% over the decade. Paris glittered with artists, dancers, and writers — so much so that it became "the center of the world," according to American writer Henry Miller.
We will have to make sure we remember history.
But the energy of the 1920s wasn't only the result of a fervent desire to live. It was also the culmination of an industrial revolution that began just before the war. Electricity replaced steam, the Ford assembly lines multiplied, and the mass consumption of appliances and cars began.
At first glance, this appears to be nothing like today. However, three technological upheavals are at play and the epidemic has loosened the brakes that were supposed to limit their ripple effect.
The most obvious upheaval is also the one that seems the most ineffective: the digital revolution. The Internet already came into our lives a quarter of a century ago, and the computer has been around for more than seventy years. But the potential of artificial intelligence is still in its very early stages. Like the way oil and electricity didn't change our lives overnight, it might take another generation or so to test and exploit such "multi-purpose technology."
"Paris la nuit, dans un dancing de Montmartre," 1927 — Manuel Orazi
Three American economists —Erik Brynjolfsson and Daniel Rock of MIT and Chad Syverson of the University of Chicago — have called it the "J-curve of productivity." First, new technologies bring gains that we don't see: productivity seems to slow down. Then these gains become very visible. What happened for IT could happen again for AI.
The second upheaval is biology. The most obvious breakthrough has been the creation of a vaccine, in less than a year, via messenger RNA. However, this has been the focus of researchers for the past three decades. There has also been the editing of the genome by the "molecular scissors' of the CRISPR/Cas9 system, which won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2020. And the three-dimensional models of proteins by the AlphaFold artificial intelligence program of DeepMind, a start-up bought out by Google.
In emergencies, changes that seemed unthinkable before are made in 48 hours.
Next is the green energy transition. It is not some random miracle that Tesla is one of the ten most valuable companies in the world. After more than a century of using oil, the car will change energy source. Plus, immense progress has been made in renewable energy, even if questions about its storage remain. In Covid economic stimulus plans created last year, hundreds of billions of euros and dollars were earmarked for the ecological transition. Investors, too, are increasingly aware of its potential.
In these three revolutions, the pandemic of 2020 has already overcome big obstacles. On the digital side, companies have had no choice but to fully exploit the possibilities offered by new tools to organize work away from the office. Zoom has been around since 2013, but the number of users increased 20-fold over the last year to 200 million. In emergencies, changes that seemed unthinkable before were being made in 48 hours.
On the biological side, the acceleration has been tremendous for vaccines. The need to act in 2020 paved the way for new financing models that combine subsidies and purchasing commitments.
Then, on the ecological side, during this pandemic, governments and companies have been working twice as hard during the epidemic, instead of putting the subject to one side — to the surprise of some seasoned observers of the subject.
Even if the indicators of success will not be the same as they were a century ago, the new Roaring Twenties may be ahead of us. Then we will have to make sure we remember history, to avoid a situation where the happy twenties are followed by the sinister thirties.