Time was, you could go to work, take classes, visit relatives, and maybe even watch a movie, all without staying at home. In the COVID-19 era, these have all become online activities. Leaving home is reserved for shopping (which we can also do online) and -- in extremis -- going to the hospital. For everything else, there's the internet.
We've been living with (and on) the internet for three decades now, but so far it's always been a supplementary reality, a little something extra that spices up our otherwise humdrum offline lives. Not anymore. Now, the tables have turned: the important things in life are mostly online, while the formerly 'real' world is relegated to the less essential activities of not exercising enough and eating too much.
If the coronavirus crisis represents a turning point in history, this is it. Forget geopolitics, neo-nationalism, and that hackneyed bugbear, the future of liberal international order. The big coronavirus moment is virtual. Before the virus, the offline world was primary, the online world secondary. Since the virus, the online world has become the real reality.
The offline world has been reduced to the status of a residual, legacy reality that is on the way out but must still be maintained because many people and organizations have not updated. When the pandemic has passed, the default option will be to stay online. Only those who can't manage or can't afford to upgrade will stick with the old ways of doing things. And they will become increasingly marginalized as the 2020s move forward.
Take meetings. Who will want to go back to conference rooms, having already made the transition to Zoom? It took two decades for online forms to replace paper ones, but just two weeks for online meetings to replace in-person ones. The transition to online meetings was already in progress when the coronavirus struck, but take-up was slow. Now, having made the switch for social distancing, we'll keep it for efficiency.
The home office? Anyone who worked from home one day a week at the beginning of 2020 will be working from home four days a week at the end. As with meetings, the default option is shifting. Pre-pandemic, virtual-paper-pushing professionals were slowly making the transition out of the office. Having now made the transition, they won't go back.
It's the same story in education. Wherever a class consists mainly of watching a lecture, it makes much more sense to watch a video that you can start and stop, pause and rewind. Online course delivery has been slowly taking over as the preferred mode since the turn of the millennium, but the coronavirus is the tipping point. Online will be the default option starting this fall, with offline used only for high-end and specialty courses, for example in laboratory science and medicine.
Want to see a doctor? There's an app for that. Many apps. And unless the online screening and follow-up video interview suggest that there's some special need for you to come down to the clinic, why expose yourself to all those other sick people? For run-of-the-mill coughs, colds, and infections, its far better to dial it in and have your prescriptions delivered to your doorstep. And better for everyone around you, too.
Like legacy transportation networks and legacy computer software systems, the legacy reality of offline business, education, and healthcare will be with us for a long time to come. But virtual reality is now the default reality, even when it comes to maintaining many of our closest personal relationships. The coronavirus pandemic didn't cause this change-over, but it did precipitate it. A transition that might have taken a decade will be consolidated by the end of summer.
So don't listen to the alarmism of pundits. When this is all over, life will, for the most part, return to normal. Business will bounce back, borders will reopen, and politics will be as confrontational as ever. The only difference will be that instead of living 60% offline and 40% on, we'll be living 60% online for 40% off. The physical world will still be there, but anyone who doesn't update will be left behind in a legacy reality that is no longer being supported or maintained.
Salvatore Babones is an adjunct scholar at the Centre for Independent Studies and an associate professor at the University of Sydney.