One thing I can tell you is you got to be free
This week: the future of the office, the sons of Lennon, the case for optimism.
John Lennon, New York City, August 1980.
Although it’s unwise to hold confident views about what will happen to working patterns after the pandemic my placeholder belief has been that things will revert to normal quicker than we think, people will stop working from home and offices will be full once again. At least 30% of this opinion is made up of irritation at all the pompous think-pieces proclaiming that the office is dead, cities are over etc, but my slightly more rational rationale is that we tend to underestimate the value of physical proximity to productive work. In particular, there’s value in being near people we don’t know well, or at all, who are working on similar but different things. That’s why industries cluster geographically even in the online age; see Silicon Valley. Urban economists call these “spillover effects” and say they’re the reason that cities are engines of innovation. I still believe this, and I don’t think cities are going anywhere, but my view on the workplace has been changed by this excellent report on the topic by the innovation expert Matt Clancy. Drawing on lots of interesting evidence he argues there are fundamental reasons to expect that remote working will continue to increase. In particular, he shows that physical spillover effects are in long-term relative decline, as the internet becomes a good-enough substitute for them - Twitter does a lot of the same work as a city. This is a trend that the pandemic is merely hastening: between 1990 and 2015, on US patents with more than one author, the average physical distance between the homes of the inventors nearly doubled. Remote working may actually be what “levels up” Britain’s economy, as London loses some of its gravitational pull and economic activity disperses across the country. I suppose it’s even possible that across the democratic world there will be less polarisation between the big cities and the heartlands and that a less fractious politics will follow. OK it’s a stretch but I’m an optimist…
NEW FROM ME
…and indeed that’s what my last New Statesman column is about (the slot has been cut, boo): the tactical and moral case for optimism, whether that’s on the pandemic or climate change. Towards the end I make a broader point - that what you say in public but also how you say it has an influence on other people. Humans are easily influenced and moods are contagious. Pessimism encourages pessimism, anxiety spreads anxiety, incivility breeds incivility. In our public speech we’re so intent on saying what we want to say that we often fail to take into account these externalities.
A recent edition of The Daily podcast featured Don McNeil, science reporter for the New York Times, explaining why he’s a “short term pessimist, long-term optimist” on Covid-19. It has a US focus but the story he tells applies to the rest of us too. I find it persuasive. Short term - ie over autumn and winter - things are likely to get worse (and of course this has longer term economic ramifications). But the rate of medical progress means we should be more optimistic than perhaps we were a few months ago that things will improve throughout 2021. It’s looking likely we’ll have more than one vaccine approved by the end of the year and mass distribution by Spring or early summer. The other good news is on the treatment front. The “experimental cocktail” that Trump got - monoclonal antibodies - should be approved by the end of this year, as evidence it’s effective accumulates. That will not just help us treat sick people, it will help control the spread too.
I generally try not to recommend what everyone else is recommending but this Zeynep Tufecki article on the highly clustered nature of Covid-19 transmission (which Ruffianers will already know about, of course) is essential reading.
This is an important and somewhat overlooked finding, if true: the reason border controls were introduced late by most countries was because scientific experts had an ideological predisposition towards open borders. In which case, this polemic from January looks rather prescient.
Why spices are good for us.
As The Ruffian goes to press, the 538 forecast gives Biden an 85% probability of winning. This race is not close. Why are people are still over-rating the prospect of a Trump victory? (Which by the way is a good thing in purely tactical terms - keep on being scared of a Trump win, US Dems!) I’d put it this way: people think that if you’re confident Trump will lose, you risk making the same error as 2016. In fact it’s the other way around. The equivalent error is to think Trump will win again. In both cases a strong emotional impulse (“they can’t elect that guy”; “but Trump came out of nowhere last time”) prevents an objective assessment of reality.
How to pick colours for your presentations.
Quote of the week: “I don’t like that man. I must get to know him better.” Abraham Lincoln.
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THEM AND US
I’ve talked here before about my discomfort with the Americanisation of Britain’s discourse around race (it’s not just Britain, of course). We’ve bought a whole set of slogans and concepts and hashtags off the shelf, even though American racial politics are so distinct from ours, so rooted in a different history, that eliding the two cultures means we’re not seeing our own society straight and implies a shallow understanding of America too - anyone who has spent serious time there can tell you the weather is very different. Anyway, Tomiwa Owolade puts it much better than I could in this superb article. He also makes a very good secondary point about representation. Do read it. (Apart from anything else, who looks at America’s discourse on race and identity - which is truly bonkers - and thinks, mmm, yes please, let’s have that here?)
LENNON AND SONS
Sean Ono Lennon has made a two-part radio documentary for the BBC about his dad, to commemorate what would have been John’s 80th birthday. It’s built around three interviews: with Elton John (who was close to Lennon in the 1970s and is Sean’s godfather), Julian Lennon (Sean’s half-brother), and Paul McCartney. It’s really good. Lennon was murdered when Sean was five years old, so he has some distant memories of him but most of what he knows he has drawn from other people, from reading, and of course from the music. So this is almost like a detective story, with Sean - a hugely likeable presence - trying to reconstruct his dad’s personality and life from what Lennon left behind in other people’s minds. That might sound sad except that Sean clearly finds John an inspiration and a marvel. He’s not trying to claw his dad back; he just loves talking about him. There are many lovely moments (including Sean thanking Elton for basically being responsible for his existence - listen to find out why - and Paul talking about how much he loves this photo) but to me the best, and most moving, are in the interview with Julian. He and Sean have become close, which wasn’t necessarily likely, and they are touchingly grateful for each other. As Julian, says, they’re the only two who understand what it was like to be John Lennon’s son. Julian in particular had a lonely and difficult childhood (he moved with his mum from place to place, and at each new school the teachers would introduce him as “John Lennon’s son”!). Together, they both seem to have successfully metabolised the weirdness of their childhoods and come out the other side in good shape, and that makes me happy.