Will we be more aware of the risks we take? – The New Normal

An opinion piece by Yates Buckley - Founder, Technical Partner Unit9

Creative Insights

The New Normal is Nucco Brain’s recurring thought leadership series that puts forth our views on what the world will look like after these testing times. With the rapid increase in uncertainty and fluctuations in our work environment and beyond, we asked our team, clients, and partners to share their insights and opinions on what their ‘New Normal’ would look like.

Nothing now is normal. It is April 2020, and every other day you are switching emotional states between grief, giggles at the latest shareable, confusion about the economic state and anxiety on multiple scales. And the part that is most challenging to us is to look ahead, with due respect to the loss that is ongoing and global.

We have different spaces in our heads; some defend us from scary things; some are there to venture out and explore to find new treasures. Right now, everything in your digital life is suggesting you would be much better off in a cave in a remote mountain. You would be there, surviving on your own, rubbing sticks to cook a meal and frying up different sorts of insects (which inevitably taste a bit like chicken because the simulation overlords couldn’t be bothered to assign original flavours to everything).

Innovate UK | Video Campaign
Innovate UK | Video Campaign

The tricky thing about this new condition is that it is not normal and that we need to imagine being on the road to a place that moves beyond this. In even starting to pose the possibility we are walking on the graves of many. We are ignoring the pain, physical and economic of a large portion of the planet. But as a species, we are designed for this. We have always walked on our ancestors’ graves, even while we respect the energy and dedication they have put into taking us to where we are today.

When I was a child in Italy, I remember the spook from realising that poppies loved to grow on fields that once were battlefields. I had no knowledge of this continuity. I was entranced and they looked neat as flowers, they had a strange structure, floppy petals and a nugget in the middle that carried seeds. But they were also a sign of this continuity, the transformation that comes from many kinds of challenges: wars, earthquakes, tsunamis, financial meltdowns, etc. The many seeds were always there ready to move on.

What we are looking at today is the effect of humanity, not understanding how its systems work. There is a cognitive failure to make sense of timing, of exponential growth and of how infrastructure has limits that cannot handle these sorts of problems. Our societal intelligence faces a new class of problems that is unfamiliar to us.

European Space Agency | Video Campaign
European Space Agency | Video Campaign

Over the last decade, public discourse has slowly moved toward big questions. Can we deal with the risk of AI? What about automation and employment? Climate? Will we solve large scale social problems like poverty? Big questions that shift our cultural backdrop from techno-optimists to technological doomsters. We recognise that things don’t seem to be as robust as they need to be if we were to have to deal with, say a new type of virus.

But what I see in the current chaos is that humanity is just as idiotic as it is ingenious and inventive. The churn between these forces seems to lead us toward solutions that do work somehow. Carlo Cipolla’s essay on “The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity” ends with an argument as to the evolutionary value of Idiocy being that it accelerates the damage of bad decisions, so that we move beyond them quicker. I see this in much of the contemporary tragedy, but also another side. Right now, most of the planet is avoiding each other to save other people’s lives, not their own.

The simple act of stopping the planet is one of the most impressive selfless acts we have undertaken in my recent memory. We accept that other people’s lives are worth sacrificing large portions of our economy and our freedom for. One might have expected rebellious riots, protests, angry threats, but for now, we stand as a global united whole.

And as this new virus took off across the planet, our technologies have responded. We knew exactly how it was made in less than a month, sequencing its genes. We knew the structure of the proteins this thing had on its surface weeks after. We could see how the structure would bind in people’s lungs. We could run simulations to find interactions with all our existing drugs and this binding structure. And these simulations were run on shared computing resources of people around the world donating laptop times. We discovered the means of transmission within a month or so. We identified its particular very odd features, maybe up to fifty per cent with no or few signs. And that most people took some time before they showed symptoms. We have discovered the most dangerous feature that it took two to three weeks of hospital time in a large enough percentage of the infected that it would break our healthcare systems. We started changing things, readjusting our approaches. We needed time, so we shut down the world. The situation is like a sudden global diet, something unheard of in scale and complexity. At a considerable cost, but we are reacting rationally, as a whole united planet, pretty much.

Iagon | Video Campaign
Iagon | Video Campaign

I find the situation incredible. If someone had written a science fiction novel that told our real story, I would have never believed it. In the first case, how dumb some of our early decisions were. Our delayed response,  hiding results, sneaking out of lockdowns and flying around as if nothing was happening. And yet also I would have never believed the intelligence that emerges. The lists of what works, the self-moderation of scientific results, the expert voices that emerge, those that are junk, the idea of what a real fact is, the speed with which we can create, approve, and change the minds of whole governments based on one critical piece of scientific research. Somehow this weird mess we have created works. Even our Idiocy seems to have its place in making the right decisions, faster than we might do otherwise.

Now let’s imagine placing ourselves in this fall, maybe September when I rescheduled my fiftieth birthday party. What is different in the new world we discovered? And even more important, how does it compare to the world we had months ago pre-COVID-19.

McKinsey | Internal Communications Campaign
McKinsey | Internal Communications Campaign

In the technologically rushed society, what I feel we had been living in the past years is a world driven by intense volatility shakes coming from all sorts of directions. We experienced many unrealistic sci-fi novel plots because too many pieces would be changing too fast. We lived and will live in a world that will continue to be driven by the social media hype filter, where only the weird stuff floats to the top. We need to deal with constant readjustment of priorities, and we get a sense that everything is changing so super fast.

But while Memes can evolve at the speed of thought, the real physical world lags. The physical world, or nature, does not care so much about what we think our tools can do. Our sense of economic value that moves markets up and down comes from really fickle framing of what we believe is essential. But the real risks that come from certain relatively rare but dangerous phenomena lay there, waiting.

So what now, for you, and me? Well, firstly we need to think a bit beyond our immediate volatile situations. We need to allow imagination to roam far ahead, without limits. This unstable mess we’ve been living in, with new technologies, disruption, transformation is a big adaptive machine that somehow, more or less works to look after Team Human. The problem is that it struggles with understanding and responding to challenges until after they have caused damage. 

InBev | Video Campaign
InBev | Video Campaign

The new normal is going to be about being much more aware of the risks we take. We will want to have better tools to manage the unexpected, whether that be different types of insurance, smart contracts or governmental initiatives. I would like the new normal to look two steps ahead, instead of one, and look at the physical world before the ever changing one of media.

Whether that be managing your ageing, your finances, your career or a global crisis. The cost of not looking two steps ahead, we now realise, is very high. We will need to revise our safety nets, our insurance mechanisms, our idea of health, our banking, and many other fundamental pieces of working business that need to be involved in thinking ahead.

Ultimately the new normal, in a world dominated by generations that expect to live and work long lives, is to be able to find insurance and risk management tools that are real and that cover all cases, not just the loss of a mobile phone.

Innovate UK | Video Campaign
Innovate UK | Video Campaign

The advantage of this new normal is that we will be more robust as a species. I hope that the pain we have gone through for this virus realigns our sense of priorities to our future, and reduces our sense of technological doom without being blind adopters. I hope we will be looking two steps ahead, at the problems that are more important to our future.

About The Author:
Yates Buckley – Founder, Technical Partner Unit9
Yates is a founding partner at Unit9, bridging the technology to creativity in award winning digital production work. His focus is on balanced perspective in technology transfer: new enabling tools and expressive media with effective reach. Yates is involved in a diverse technical landscape: from the area of neuroscience and game-design for health and training to solving problems in space for immersive applications in built environments.

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