The COVID-19 pandemic is catalyzing trends in the economy that have been incubating for some time. Three basic elements form the dynamics at the core of economic development in the twenty-first century: virtualization, automation, and incarnation. The first two of these have received the majority of the attention, both popularly and in policy discussions. But as the coronavirus pandemic brings our mortality and physicality to the fore, it is important to do justice to the demands of our embodied human nature.
The threat of the coronavirus has accelerated the adoption of some features that have been increasingly prevalent in the workplace. This is especially true for higher educational institutions, many of which moved quickly to fully online learning for a significant period, if not the remainder, of the spring semester. The virtualization of higher education has been in progress for a long time; but the quick decision by many schools to go fully online, even if only temporarily, may well demonstrate how merely rationalistic and transactional perspectives pervade higher education today. The virtualization of higher education means one thing if it is seen as one approach within the larger contexts of trade-offs in individual cases. It means something quite different if it becomes the new ideal and industry standard, manifesting itself as an educational best practice. In the short term we are seeing significant and rapid adoption of online and virtual learning environments. If these are temporary measures, we can see the obvious advantages. If this temporary solution transforms into long-term practices, such virtualization needs to be tempered by the advantages as well as disadvantages of face-to-face instruction.
Automation is perhaps less obvious than virtualization during a pandemic, but no less significant. If human, that is, biological, elements of the production and distribution process can be minimized or even eliminated, the risks of infection are likewise reduced. It seems safer to order food from an automated kiosk or an app on your phone rather than from a live server. The risk of infectious disease highlights one aspect of automation which has always made more efficient and labor-intensive tools attractive. Robots and drones do not get sick and do not spread diseases the way humans do. Neither do they sleep or require healthcare.
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