New social capital

While the world has been in lockdown, the internet has brought people together

Hi, it's Chris from the Tony Blair Institute. In this edition we’re exploring the differential impact of the pandemic on our offline and online lives, and what lessons this holds for the policymakers of the future.

🎧 Join @SophieTholstrup 📝 and @akrishnan23 📝 for a live discussion about inclusive tech and digital ethics – this Thursday 8 July at 17:30 UK on Twitter Spaces.

The UK was slow to reckon with the onset of Covid-19 – and paid a heavy price – but it’s pushing hard to escape the pandemic. The next two weeks are a race between an advanced vaccination programme and the rapidly spreading Delta variant. The finish line for England is Monday 19 July – the date when restrictions will be lifted, and we find out whether we can learn to live with the virus.

For all the talk of life returning to normal, however, it seems likely that our post-pandemic world will differ from the recent past in some interesting and potentially transformative ways.

Sending rich countries into lockdown turned out to be far less economically destructive than many people feared. In fact, there’s a strong argument that the pandemic accelerated trends that were already headed our way: travel replaced by virtual meetings (with our colleagues and with our friends and family), retail and entertainment pivoting online, and public services finally going digital by default.

This acceleration is most visible in our economies, but the more profound effect may yet be in our societies. It’s no surprise that a year of semi-permanent lockdown has weakened many of the ties that bind our lives to others in the physical world. But we have also accumulated new social capital in nascent online spaces. How this development shapes our future may be one of the pandemic’s most enduring legacies.


The desert of the real

Lockdowns around the world were designed to sharply limit how often and for how long people were in close physical proximity.

Essential jobs were adapted to accommodate new safety precautions like distancing and PPE; people who could work from home were asked to do so and many other roles were lost or furloughed. Shopping and leisure activities were drastically curtailed, and in the most intense periods some governments asked people not to leave their homes at all other than to carry out essential tasks.

Aggregated and anonymised mobility data published by Google shows how this played out: retail and recreation footfall in the UK fell more than 80% below its pre-pandemic baseline, with similar patterns for public transport and places of work.

Across Europe and North America, prolonged physical separation also coincided with a material decline in feelings of national unity. In a recent Pew Research Center survey in 17 advanced economies, six-in-ten people said that national divisions have worsened since the pandemic begun.

Feelings of division within countries are correlated with negative views about the state of the economy, and with the belief that there should have been fewer restrictions on public activity over the course of the outbreak. They have also increased significantly since a similar survey was carried out in 2020.

The hardening of these views should not come as a huge surprise to anyone who has been paying attention to the unfolding impact of the pandemic on our politics. An unprecedented health emergency unavoidably pushed governments into the foreground, while simultaneously demonstrating how little power they have over global events.

A world where anything is possible

Although the pandemic sent countries into lockdown and divided their publics, it has also been a hugely productive time for building new sorts of bonds, bridges and links between people increasingly living life online.

One immediate aspect of this has been hyperlocal. When everyone is confined to walking distance from their front doors, local issues become more salient. And when everyone is in possession of a smartphone, an explosion in group chats and social media pages for our streets, neighbourhoods, schools, local businesses and places of worship is a logical, contemporary expression of renewed local connections.

At the other extreme, we are choosing to spend more of our time in online spaces that transcend geography entirely. This is much more significant than streaming movies to our living rooms instead of going to the cinema: new tools are making it easier for anyone to be a creator as well as a consumer, and to participate in communities of interest centred on any topic imaginable.

In the world of work, a combination of necessity and better technology has made remote work viable for a wider range of professions. New platforms have made it possible for people to turn their passions into livelihoods, often engaging active communities of fans and supporters around them. And as more economic activity migrates online, new tools for collaboration may see more teams of people working together without ever sharing an employer.

Many virtual worlds might look like games, but they are better understood as 21st century third places that took on heightened importance when the real world was closed. The people spending time in these worlds are playing – and they are also building, collaborating and forming connections. The scale is dizzying: Minecraft reports nearly 140 million MAUs, Roblox counts 43 million DAUs, and Fortnite’s Galactus Event had more than 15 million concurrent players.

In the Web 3 arena, permissionless innovation is running riot. New apps and protocols have low barriers to entry and minimal dependence on traditional institutions. Although many DeFi protocols are still in their infancy, they are interesting because they are creating new opportunities for people to participate – both by owning and exchanging tokens, and by contributing to the protocols that govern them. They also bring us full circle to the creator economy, opening up new ways of organising economic activity and monetising digital artefacts.


Don’t think you are, know you are

What should people who set policy make of all this? At first glance the outlook for traditional institutions seems bleak: authority eroded, the public divided, and energetic new communities further out of reach with every day that passes.

But a defining characteristic of progressive politics is optimism. As we emerge from the pandemic, with enough imagination we can assemble new policy and strategy for a new society where the internet is the common foundation for human interaction.

Here are three principles for policymakers to anchor on:

  1. Embrace the internet. It’s easy to oppose change – but the progress we are seeing all around us is driven by people and is therefore ultimately inevitable. The new constituencies gathering momentum in online spaces are the future, and a rich testing ground for new approaches to politics.

  2. Build new institutions. A recurring theme of the internet era is new digital innovators turning the tables on tired incumbents. With the external environment evolving so fast, leaders have an obligation to confront the status quo and build new institutions focused on user needs.

  3. Power to the people. The internet gives people countless options to express themselves, to make a living and to participate in global communities. Equality of opportunity has never been more potent; progressive policy must be about equipping people to fulfil their potential in a world of infinite possibility.

This agenda is daunting, particularly for leaders who cut their teeth in a world where the internet was peripheral rather than fundamental. But the accelerated accumulation of new social capital is a matter of fact, and policy that works with the internet rather than trying to fight it is much more likely to survive contact with reality.

Choosing to recognise this and engage with its implications, rather than seeking retreat to an unreachable past, is the only practical way to shape the future.