#25: A succession of new normals

Preparing to live in unsettled times. (And the detective fiction of Rex Stout.)

I’m an author, organizational sociologist, strategy professor, unsuccessful furniture maker, and Xoogler—this is yet another attempt to make sense of the state of not-knowing.

This week’s issue is short because I said much of what I wanted to say about how businesses should think and act in response to coronavirus uncertainty in a piece for Eater about restaurants and the next two years of corona-time. It’s long, and it’s about restaurants—but the underlying ideas apply across many industries, and to businesses and individuals alike.

Another week of extraordinary weather in the UK. Warm and sunny, clear skies most days. Some rain would be welcome. Farms need it now after a winter and early spring of too much rain at the wrong times—and some dreariness would make the lockdown easier for everyone to bear.

There’s been a lot of talk everywhere about reopening locked down economies.

The rhetoric seems fundamentally flawed in that “reopening” implies returning to business as usual—it encourages magical thinking that we could be back to normal any time soon. In reality, pre-coronavirus normal can only resume when and if a vaccine or something that works like a vaccine is available (more on that later). This first reopening of the economy will mean lockdowns are made less intense, not that the various physical distancing measures currently in place are lifted entirely.

The new normal in corona-time will be some degree of physical distancing, testing, and contact tracing until there’s a vaccine—and the new normal will not stabilize early.

Distancing, testing, and tracing are all partial substitutes for the group-level immunity which vaccination or widespread infection is intended to create. Each of them is a tool for controlling the speed at which coronavirus spreads. Intense distancing (the wide-ranging lockdowns much of the world has been under for many weeks) is the only one of these tools that can be deployed at scale now.

As testing (both for current infection and for previous infection) expands in scale, speed, and accuracy, it becomes an increasingly valuable part of the mix—this is a technical as well as a capacity question.

If tracing expands in population coverage and geographic precision (perhaps with the numerous privacy-preserving location recording applications being developed now), it can become a valuable part of the mix too—this is a technical and a policy question; there are many legitimate concerns about the overexpansion of government power and the rise of the surveillance state.

Because all the key tools are still being developed, the mix of distancing, testing, and tracing used to manage coronavirus before a vaccine will evolve over time as different tools come online and are improved.

We began with minimal testing, minimal tracing, and extensive blunt-force distancing—that was the only tool mix that was possible in February and March in most of the western world. As testing and tracing capacity ramp up and we improve our collective understanding of what aspects of distancing do/don’t work, distancing can be progressively relaxed.

Taiwan, South Korea, and many cities in China suggest what this could look like, though their distancing and tracing tools will seem unpalatably invasive to many. (I’m personally happy to surrender my location and daily temperature data in this context.) I really want Germany and Austria to show how combining selectively relaxed distancing, testing, and voluntary tracing can work long-term to keep infection rates under control.

In any case, we should be talking about more-intense and less-intense periods of lockdown instead of lockdowns and reopenings. No matter how the coronavirus toolkit develops, we’re looking at continual change in how they are deployed until a vaccine is developed. The defining characteristic of corona-time is that it will force us to live through a succession of new normals.

And there will be new normals in nearly every part of life. The environment in which we live, interact with others, and do business, will be changing continually for several years. International travel, which drives tourism and much other business, is just one example.

The strategy for reopening is now partitioned by whether or not the country/city in question took disproportionate measures early enough (see issues #19 and #21 for the reasons why this is the case) and whether they have a robust enough control toolkit. Taiwan can afford to have a relatively relaxed reopening because it acted very early, has good testing infrastructure, and good tracing capacity.

The US or UK are unlikely to be in the same situation. Here and in the US, the coronavirus is almost certainly too widespread to relax distancing measures a lot, especially given the parlous state of testing infrastructure in both countries.

In turn, this means countries like Taiwan cannot easily reopen international travel links with countries like the UK short of a good plan for avoiding imported infections. No country anywhere that I know of has anything approaching such a plan because it would require more rapid and accurate infection (and, ideally serological) testing than is currently widely available. So brief holidays, short business trips, quick visits to family overseas are all temporarily but unpredictably either off the table entirely or severely restricted.

Now imagine this kind of uncertainty and disruption across whole economies. Some businesses and possibly even whole industries will make out well. (I would like to invest sectorally, for instance, in logistics and transport automation.) But overall, many jobs will be lost or will have to change. Many businesses will fail or have to change profoundly.

We will need to collectively (as businesses) and individually (as private persons) be prepared for living in unsettled times, perhaps for several years. Simply admitting that cognitively—saying it out loud—begins the long process of coming to terms with it emotionally. On which, more next week.

Department of Sporadic Distractions: An Appreciation of … Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin

Rex Stout wrote more than 40 books relating the exploits of Manhattan-based detective pair Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. I was introduced to them by Phil Z. in San Francisco years ago. I love these books, have them all, and re-read them regularly—I’m re-reading them now as a momentary escape from uncertain reality.

Caveats: These books are not Great Fiction, nor do they feature detective logic tours-de-force.

Their considerable appeal springs from other sources.

One is their great attention to what others would consider insignificant detail. Wolfe’s home and office are in a brownstone on the west side. The building also often hosts a cook and an orchid expert, both of international renown. The books often go into deep detail about cooking and orchids—and they sometimes become key elements of plot. Carpets and prose also frequently find their way into the books. This can be extraordinarily enjoyable for those of trivial inclination.

Another is their distinctive narrative voice. All the books are written from the perspective of Archie Goodwin, who is much more than the sidekick. Wolfe is portrayed as enormously obese and eccentric, leaving the house for work only on the most extraordinary occasions. He sits at home in a chair constructed especially for him, and ruminates to a solution—the archetypical brain. Goodwin is also a brain in the operation, though his is the kind of practical intellect which complements Wolfe’s ability to make deductive leaps. What’s important for the narrative is that Goodwin provides the hands, feet, eyes, and ears of the pair. He roams widely outside the house, while Wolfe stays home thinking (or eating, or tending to orchids). Goodwin’s role as the narrator of events allows the books to be written in a breezy style that feels totally American while stopping short of banal conversationality and easy wisecracks. It is some of the most genuine-sounding American prose I’ve ever read—and it is often LOL-worthy.

And a third is the kind of pleasant certainty they embody that can only exist in fiction. Though the books were written over an almost forty-year period, there are many threads running through them that seem improbably stable. (My suspension of disbelief here is entirely willing.) Book time flows on, but inside the brownstone, barely anything changes. This is not to say that Wolfe and Goodwin are unchanging characters—on the contrary, they evolve and fill out, as does their working relationship. And the Manhattan and America in which they work also changes. These are all more obvious when reading many of the books back to back, as I often do. Stout has managed to create the sensation of stability over time in spite of change (on which also see issue #24), and this is a comforting thing.

You can find the Rex Stout Nero Wolfe books on Amazon US and UK. What trivial affiliate revenue this newsletter produces will go to funding a new research project on creating productive discomfort.

I guess we had to take control.


If you found this useful or thought-provoking, you should definitely share it indiscriminately with masses of people. You can find previous issues of The Uncertainty Mindset here. I’m on the web at www.vaughntan.org, on Twitter @vaughn_tan, Instagram @vaughn.tan, or by email at <uncertaintymindset@vaughntan.org>.