Jun 3, 2020

Axios Future

By Bryan Walsh
Bryan Walsh

Welcome to Axios Future, where the present is breaking all of our hearts.

Today's issue is 1,636 words, a 6-minute read.

1 big thing: American society is teetering on the edge

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

The COVID-19 pandemic, record unemployment and escalating social unrest are all pushing American society close to the breaking point.

The big picture: Civilizations don't last forever, and when they collapse, the cause is almost always internal failure. Even in the midst of one of our darkest years, the U.S. still has many factors in its favor, but the fate of past societies holds frightening lessons for what may lie ahead.

If America seems like a country on the brink, it may well be. Experts who have studied the collapse of civilizations in the past warn that the U.S. is exhibiting symptoms of a society in real existential peril.

  • "The U.S. is at risk of a downfall over the coming decade," says Luke Kemp, a research associate at the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk at the University of Cambridge. "There are early warning signals, and the different contributors to collapse are rising."

Those factors include:

Disease: The U.S. wouldn't be the first civilization overthrown by a microscopic pathogen.

  • The "Antonine plague" struck the Roman Empire at its height in the late second century, spreading via trade routes to kill an estimated 7 million to 8 million people. Another plague in the mid-sixth century may have killed half the Roman Empire.
  • COVID-19 almost certainly won't exact a human toll anywhere near as large. But its rapid spread has underscored the downside to globalization, while the struggles of the U.S. government to control it has exposed institutional failure and ingrained inequities in American society.

Inequality: One factor that recurs again and again in the collapse of civilizations is the rise of inequality. Inequality creates social unrest, but it also undermines the collective solidarity needed to respond to other threats.

Social unrest: Every state has experienced growing street protests in recent days, and those protests have often been met by a militarized police response. What Americans are witnessing "is what happens in countries before a collapse," as a former CIA analyst told the Washington Post.

  • President Trump's willingness to push past norms by threatening to unleash the military — in what he characterizes as an effort to combat the looting that has accompanied some protests and critics argue is a naked grab at authoritarianism — risks even greater violence.
  • A deeply polarized electorate is facing a presidential election that could be disrupted by the pandemic, an election whose outcome may well be disputed and even resisted by many Americans, no matter which candidate wins. No less a mainstream voice than New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman warned on Wednesday that the U.S. is "edging toward a cultural civil war."

Yes, but: Look back over American history and you can find more dire examples of each of these factors. The social unrest in 1968 was far bloodier; the 1918 flu pandemic killed far more people; and, of course, ending the original sin of slavery required a civil war that resulted in 750,000 deaths.

The bottom line: America's record of weathering past existential crises gives us hope of survival, but not certainty. The next few months could tell us whether the U.S. is ultimately on the road to renewal or ruin.

2. The destabilizing effects of emerging technology

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

A new report seen first by Axios details the global security risks posed by emerging technologies like AI and gene editing.

Why it matters: Rising populism, as well as the disruptive effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, has already eaten away at the postwar global order. Now powerful new technologies threaten to widen the gap between what we can do and what we can control.

What they're saying: "AI, bioscience, cyber threats and autonomous weapons are on the cusp of transforming every aspect of life," says Robert Manning, resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council's Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security and the author the report. "Yet the governance deficit is dangerously wide."

Details: Among the advances Manning identifies are:

  • 5G: Next-generation mobile broadband will enable everything from automated vehicles to precision farming, but the U.S. and China are already butting heads over who will seize the lead.
  • Hypersonic missiles: The development of missiles that can fly far faster than current ICBMs threatens to undercut the Cold War logic of deterrence.
  • Quantum computing: Next-generation computers will help tech sidestep the limits of Moore's Law, but their code-breaking ability poses an existential threat to cybersecurity.

What's next: The early years of the Cold War were marked by destabilizing technological leaps on nuclear weapons that were only later restrained by arms control treaties.

  • But today, Manning notes, emerging technologies "all pose new risks to crisis stability at a time when the framework of restraint, of arms control, is unraveling."

The bottom line: The sooner major powers recognize their shared vulnerability to the disruptions of emerging technology, the safer we'll all be.

3. Telemedicine leads on coronavirus innovations

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The use of telemedicine has exploded during the COVID-19 pandemic, and experts see the changes remaining even after the coronavirus.

Why it matters: Given its heavily regulated and fragmented nature, health care tends to be slow to adopt innovation. But the pandemic has shown Americans the advantages of communicating with doctors remotely — and health insurance companies are paying attention.

What's new: According to FAIR Health's Monthly Telehealth Regional Tracker, which draws from 31 billion private health care claim records, telemedicine claim lines increased an astounding 4,347% year-over-year in March.

Telemedicine services have been available for years, but health concerns around the pandemic combined with the fact that most doctor's offices and hospitals were effectively off-limits to non-COVID-19 patients have led millions of Americans to use their smartphone to access remote care for the first time.

  • The stock price of the leading telemedicine company Teladoc has risen by more than 30% since the beginning of March.

Telemedicine is only one aspect of the sclerotic health care sector that has been shaken up by the COVID-19 pandemic.

  • Wearable devices like the Apple Watch are being used in academic studies to predict when COVID-19 cases might occur.
  • Jeff Semenchuk, chief innovation officer at Blue Shield of California, says the pandemic has pushed his company to digitize health care whenever possible. That includes efforts to make electronic patient health records more easily accessible and to simplify the laborious process of payment claims.
"COVID-19 has accelerated what we're doing with innovation around health care. It's really hit the gas pedal."
— Jeff Semenchuk
4. Coronavirus is old news
Expand chart
Data: NewsWhip; Chart: Axios Visuals

Coverage of George Floyd's death and the ensuing protests this past weekend completely dwarfed coverage of the coronavirus, even as the death toll from the pandemic ticked beyond 100,000 in the U.S., I write with my Axios colleagues Sara Fischer and Neal Rothschild.

Why it matters: For months, Americans struggled to understand the severity of the pandemic, as hospitals needed to stay closed to outside visitors, let alone journalists with cameras. Now, the opposite is unfolding, with stark images and videos going viral around the protests sweeping the country.

The big picture: The media has the ability to shape the outcomes of both crises, depending on the way it covers them.

  • The extensive visual coverage of the protests has reinforced the intensity of the wider Black Lives Matter movement, even if only a small percentage of Americans comparatively were actually involved in the demonstrations.
  • The lack of visuals around the coronavirus, in addition to loosened stay-at-home restrictions, has made it easier for networks and the public to move on, even though some places in the country have an uptick in cases and/or deaths.

Go deeper

5. Worthy of your time

The CDC waited "its entire existence for this moment." What went wrong? (New York Times)

  • A damning team investigation into the many coronavirus failures of the CDC, which can no longer be considered the gold standard on public health.

City's plan for permanent "health codes" sparks online backlash (Ye Ruolin — Sixth Tone)

  • How the Chinese tech hub of Hangzhou is planning on continued use of COVID-19 health surveillance even after the pandemic.

Why we can't count on carbon-sucking farms to slow climate change (James Temple — MIT Tech Review)

  • "Regenerative agriculture" has been a major hope for combatting climate change. One problem: It doesn't seem to work.

A day in the life this fall (faculty edition) (Lia Paradis — Inside Higher Ed)

  • An imagined diary of what life will be like for college professors as schools make the slow return from shutdowns. Think dangerous and difficult.
6. 1 work thing: The four-day week

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

Four-day workweeks are emerging as one possible economic response to the pandemic.

The big picture: COVID-19 has already demonstrated that we can fundamentally change how we work and still get things done — more or less. As we slowly begin to return to normal, it may be time to rethink how much time we spend working.

What's happening: The benefits of switching to a four-day workweek have been touted by labor experts for years. (Listen to me talk about it on public radio way back in 2009.) But like most good ideas lately, it reemerged in recent weeks thanks to New Zealand Prime Minister and COVID-19 slayer Jacinda Ardern.

  • In a Facebook video last month, Ardern noted that the flexibility both companies and workers had shown during the pandemic could carry over post-COVID-19.
  • Ardern's comments were echoed by Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, who cited child care challenges as one reason to "look at different working patterns."

Background: Even before the pandemic, hundreds of companies around the world had been experimenting with the four-day workweek.

  • Many of those companies found that the shorter week makes employees happier while paradoxically raising their productivity.
  • By staggering staff to ensure the four-day week, businesses could remain open for customers while keeping workplaces from becoming overcrowded.

Yes, but: According to one dataset, Americans working at home during the pandemic are logging an average of three more hours per day than they did in the office, which somewhat belies the idea that businesses would voluntarily let their employees off early.

The bottom line: Axios Future is on the record questioning the very meaning of time, so this might all be academic. But I wouldn't say no to a permanently long weekend.

Bryan Walsh