Only a few months into the Covid-19 pandemic, its disruption of our lives might still seem to be no more than a giant pause — global in scale and unprecedented, yes, but nonetheless temporary. But what if, as some experts reckon, this pause lasts years? What if there's no return to normality even when it's over? Maybe this pandemic isn't an interlude, but a reset.
A reset to what? My guess is that it'll amount to a great simplification. A simplification of our lives, priorities, schedules, memberships, finances, relationships and maybe even world views. But also a simplification of our societies. That's because one of the side effects of Covid-19 is to expose the accumulation over decades — at least in the wealthy West — of untenable complexity in the individual, political and economic spheres of life.
In the individual context, the symptoms of complexity have been hiding in plain sight for years. One word for it is clutter. During that age of innocence that ended around January 2020, it was just too easy to buy stuff, and too hard not to. So things were piling up faster than we could organize, store or dispose of them, and certainly faster than we could enjoy them.
The proof includes the stunning success of somebody like Marie Kondo, a Japanese lifestyle guru who promises to help unclutter your home. Her approach, she says, is inspired by Shintoism, for who understands simplicity better than the people who also brought you Zen? In practice, Kondo wants you to look at all your stuff and keep asking: "Does it spark joy?" Usually, the answer is no, and out it goes.
The same clutter, until recently, extended to the rest of our middle-class lives. It was becoming hard to manage our calendars and travel, whether for trips overseas or around town. But we put up with the hassles because we were more afraid of missing out on opportunities of all kinds: professional, romantic or social. Double- and triple-booked, those of us fortunate enough to have good incomes have stressed over trade-offs between a gallery opening, a dinner party, a lecture or the gym.
Something similar was happening in the societies of rich countries. We kept adding layers of complication: new bureaucracies, legislation, divisions of labor, tax loopholes, and so forth. The European Union is one example, but the U.S. is arguably worse. According to one influential thesis proposed in 2013, America has become a "kludgeocracy."
"Kludge" is a term from the software world for a clumsy patch that doesn't solve the bigger issue, thereby creating even more complexity and future problems. This is easily observed in America's contemporary governance, or in its systems of health care, education and taxation. Ask, for example, any new visitor to the U.S. what the following gibberish could be about: 401(k), IRA, Roth IRA, Keogh? Nobody would guess it has something to do with retirement saving.
Such byzantine decay is in fact a recurring historical phenomenon, as described in 1988 by the American anthropologist Joseph Tainter in his book "The Collapse of Complex Societies." By his count, complexity and an inability to simplify brought down some two dozen civilizations, from the Mycenaean and Minoan to the Hittite and Mayan, as well as several Chinese dynasties and the Western Roman Empire.
Collapse isn't necessarily as scary as it sounds, by the way. It's merely a society's rapid and involuntary simplification. Yes, some collapses have segued into "dark ages," but they needn't have. The alternative is to embrace simplification and call it innovation, if that helps.
Thanks to Covid-19, we may now be at such a turning point. As a first sign of rapid simplification, global supply chains are dissolving, and often being reassembled in much more rudimentary ways. Simplification may also cause upheaval in our health care, tax and welfare systems, as it becomes clear that those who rely most on medical or financial help cannot even navigate the complexities of getting it. In some countries, the reforms may come through populist revolt; the better way is to do it deliberately and thoughtfully.
Closer to home, many of us have already begun to simplify. If we used to fear missing out, now there's little to miss out on, which is the best excuse for staying home with the family. Frivolous connections are being pruned, while meaningful ones are revived and cultivated during "happy hours" on Zoom. Prodigal and exotic travel is out, so nobody feels bad about "staycations." In everything from diet to medicine and fashion, "simple is the new black."
What many of us are realizing in this pandemic is that we need much less than we thought we wanted only a few months ago. Does it spark joy? If not, out. We may one day look back at Covid-19 with gratitude.
Andreas Kluth, is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. He was previously editor in chief of Handelsblatt Global and a writer for the Economist.
This article first appeared on Bloomberg.com, and is published by special syndication arrangement.