Lose Screws (COVID Reflections)

April 14, 2020

"Normally screws are so cheap and small and simple you think of them as unimportant. But now, as your Quality awareness becomes stronger, you realize that this one, individual, particular screw is neither cheap nor small nor unimportant. Right now this screw is worth exactly the selling price of the whole motorcycle, because the motorcycle is actually valueless until you get the screw out. With this reevaluation of the screw comes a willingness to expand your knowledge of it.”

- Robert M. Pirsig

Society's "quality awareness" is dialed up and the check-engine-light has flickered on. The loose societal screws give us the opportunity to get underneath, unearthing the fragilities of our societies, and audit the core mechanisms. How does it work? What could be better? How important are those screws? This cultural audit forces the question: what is still essential?

Undeniably, the world is changing - the number of people flying has fallen 95%, 1.5 billion children are out of school, people are societally distanced, over 100,000 have died, unemployment is pushing Great Depression levels, animals are reclaiming cities, the Fed dropped interest rates to 0%.

What is essential is difficult to discern because everyone is self-triaging as their own mechanic; what is essential is subjective and a judgment call. Observationally, what mattered to many people in January 2020 no longer matters in April 2020. Rampant consumerism has fallen to the wayside; the cars we drive, the clothing we wear, the materials we possess are unimportant. In considering what I believe is essential, I’ve been drawn to the few loose societal screws that threaten to bring the rest of society down withthem if they come undone - health, livelihood, family, community.

Why is healthcare tied to employment? In light of a global pandemic whose first-order effect is healthcare and whose second-order effect is unemployment, the tragedy of this question becomes salient.

Why are the most structurally important jobs - the very jobs that our January-2020-society took for granted and that our current-pandemic-paused-society desperately requires - the least compensated and recognized? Garbagemen are still collecting, grocery workers are stocking shelves, drivers are delivering our packages, nurses fielding the deluge of patients, policemen protecting neighborhoods. These people are essential - if they come loose, the whole of society breaks down, right now. For the trillions to be pumped into the high-finance ether, why is so little going to main-street people who are essential?

When the implications of accurate information are life and death, why is it so difficult to get the truth? Why are media corporations not held accountable as stewards of facts? There is a reason trust in centralized institutions is at historic lows.

It is the same reason people are relying on the decentralization of the Internet. We’re already en route to a digital world, we’ve just accelerated our pace. The Internet is essential; the UN proclaims it is a Human Right. Why are so many still without access to the Internet? The digital divide in an increasingly digital world may prove to be of the most prominent structural inequities, exponentially amplifying all other forms of inequality.

In an environment of change, assumptions are tested and it’s unclear if society’s assumptions have stood the test of force majeure. Before we re-ignite society's engine - before we “return to normal” - we should think about what perversion we’ve normalized. Consider what screws are worth securing back in place and what parts of the engine are worth reengineering from scratch.