Every major event has significant consequences. 9/11 shook up the world’s geopolitical matrix.
Covid19 will undoubtedly result in some paradigm-shifting consequences.
Major events do not trigger events ab initio. Instead, they accelerate and strengthen existing if incipient trends. Samuel Huntington’s concept of a clash of civilization was a severe concern among policy wonks way before the towers came down. Events like 9/11 or Covid19 are like the apocryphal straw that breaks the camel’s back.
What will be the aftermath of Covid-19?
The economic after-effects will need Governmental and socio-political action at a scale never seen before. Before Covid19 (BC?) there were already significant changes and shifts in politics across the globe. Nationalism, populism, anti-globalism, and the resultant nascent wave of liberal backlash were clear trends before Covid19.
At the end of the Covid19 tunnel, we might see a paradigm shift in how the world is governed and politics conducted. It could entrench populism, nationalism, and conservatism way deeper. Or it could do the very opposite. Who knows? Anyway, we already have a lot of eggheads speculating and writing about that rather knotty issue.
I, on the other hand, want to point to a possible upheaval at a more fundamental level. That is at the socio-cultural level where all of us live. The way we live. The way we interact with each other. The way we build and nurture our self-image. The way we aspire. The way we work and create.
Many believe we live in the flagging years of the American Century. The American Century is the American Century, not just because of America’s economic and military might. As central, if not more, the American Century found its global traction on the back of American soft power. Generations of the worlds young, post-WWII have consciously or sub-consciously modelled themselves on the central theme of America’s socio-economic construct — The Culture of Personality.
At the end of the nineteenth century, American life shifted from a Culture of Character to a Culture of Personality. While at an earlier age Wordsworth wrote admiringly about Newton as “a mind for ever/ Voyaging through strange seas of Thoughts alone”, in the 20th century TS Eliot in his 1915 poem. “The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock” lamented the need to “prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet”. A pedestrian Andrew Jackson defeated the deep thinker John Quincey Adams in a race for the US Presidency with a slogan that went “John Quincey Adams who can write/And Andrew Jackson who can fight!”.
The Cult of Personality has resulted in a self-help industry worth billions of dollars starting out from Dale Carnegie to Tony Robbins to the Saddleback Church.
Susan Cain, in her book “Quiet: The Power of Introverts In A World That Can’t Stop Talking” traces this shift to a deeper level of human psychology.
In 1921 Carl Jung in his seminal book “Psychological Types” defined two basic types of people in the world: Introverts drawn to the world of thought and feeling and Extroverts focused on the external life of people and activities. Extroverts plunge into events while Introverts focus on the meaning of events. Extroverts recharge by socializing — Introverts by being alone (guess who is coping better in these days of social distancing!).
For more than a century now, as Susan Cain details in her deeply researched book, the worlds of politics, business, culture, media, and almost every other walk of life have moved to the rhythms of what Cain calls the “Extrovert Ideal”. To be great is to be bold. To be happy is to be sociable.
Post-WWII this Extrovert Ideal, carried aloft by American hard and soft power, has dictated how generations of young people see themselves and strive to live their life. Over recent decades the emergence of a global economy, the rise of 24x7 media, the Internet, the smartphone, and social media has further entrenched the Extrovert Ideal. Leading to a celebrity culture where the Kardashian clan is famous for being famous while nobody remembers or cares about leading lights for fields other than sports, entertainment, politics, and big business. From any other area of endeavour — science, technology, literature, art, education, social work — you can get your 15 minutes of fame by becoming part of a scandal preferably suitably big and titillating. What about a Nobel Prize? Meh…
Will the enormous impact of Covid19 and the concept of social distancing change the dominance of the Extrovert Ideal?
Even before Covid19 happened, there was rumbling in the socio-cultural landscape. According to studies done by McKinsey Global Institute and others, there is an incipient movement away from the Extrovert Ideal visible among Generation Z — the cohort of people born after 2000 — that is the current generation of teenagers and college freshmen. There is a movement in this generation to put a higher premium on being more thoughtful and being less under peer pressure. According to the McKinsey study, this change is most evident in this generation’s use of the Internet and social media.
Among the earlier generations — the late Gen Xers and the Millennials — social media has become the ultimate tool of extroversion. The typical late Gen Xer and Millennial are more selfie-aware than self-aware. With many of them, the only moments that matters are moments that are “Instagramable”.
On the other hand, Generation Z’s approach to the Internet and social media reflects the usage of the creators and early users of the Internet. For Gen Zers, the Internet and social media are platforms which allows you to put out thoughts and feeling to the world while being yourself and being by yourself. A platform that enables you to collaborate and innovate working with others while still being the master of your own time and space.
The question is whether the Covid19 will be the shock that shifts the world away from the Extrovert Ideal just as 9/11 and its aftermath turned the world away from the post-WWII Pax America geopolitical structure.
Social distancing is getting people across the world to experience the world in an entirely new way. It is getting them to experience a way of life that puts a premium on being happy in the company of yourself. It is putting a premium on the quality of relationships. It is putting a premium on using the boons of modern technology — the Internet, the smartphone and social media — more as tools of productions, serious endeavour, and self-expression than anything else.
Given that Covid19 and its aftershocks can last for as much as 18 to 24 months (before a vaccine is discovered, tested and distributed widely) it is quite possible that social distancing could be a practised need for a relatively long time.
Given the adaptability of humankind, it will not surprise me that the fundamentals of social distancing become a part of the way of life rather than external impositions. And this shift, I believe, will lead the world away from the overarching Extroversion Ideal to something new.
Will it lead to the emergence of what could be called the “Introvert Ideal”? I don’t think so.
The American Century has brought mankind to a level of unmatched prosperity and progress. Flawed by high-income inequality with pockets of instability and despair but deep and widespread development still. The Culture of Personality — the Extrovert Ideal — that has made market capitalism and democracy the dominant isms of the modern world. A shift to what might be called the Introvert Ideal — a shutting in of the world, a devaluing of material success, a lowering of collaborative efforts, etc. — might endanger this progress. It will certainly not accelerate it.
Instead, I think the incipient trend away from the Extrovert Ideal will morph into an accelerated trend towards what I would like to call the Ambivert Ideal leading to a golden age of the Age of Ambiversion.
Ms Susan Cain, in her book, writes about psychologist Brian Little’s Free Trait Theory.
The Free Trait Theory posits that all individuals have both fixed traits and free traits.
Prof. Little’s research has shown that individuals are the most productive and innovative when they can use their free traits without having to curb their fixed ones.
Due to the pressures of the Extravert Ideal up until now many Introverts to be seen as successful and have widespread acceptance have had to pretend to be Extroverts — in other words, hide their true self. An example is Guy Kawasaki, who is a self-confessed Introvert and a big-time social media celebrity. The Extrovert Ideal has even forced this hugely successful person to put out bios and profiles that unequivocally position himself as an Extrovert. Conversely, most Extroverts under the pressure of the Extrovert Ideal do not give their Introvert traits very little play. As a result, society — the worlds of culture, arts, business, politics, and life in general — misses out on the synergy that could result from a “jugalbandi” of the Extrovert and Introvert traits.
In the Age of Ambiversion, the need to suppress our true selves in our work, social and personal spaces will lessen and in time ebb away. The Age of Ambiversion, if it comes about, could see a flowering of a new, more integrated society with a social, cultural, art, and economic paradigms that will enable humanity to bid a happy goodbye to the American Century and welcome a brave new world.
It might be a cliche, but there is a silver lining to every dark cloud.
Keep safe. Keep healthy.