In the light of Corona – Part 14: The depth of the impact of corona disruption

It is a profoundly erroneous truism, repeated by all copy-books and by eminent people when they are making speeches, that we should cultivate the habit of thinking about what we are doing. The precise opposite is the case. Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them.

I found the above quote from an impactful paper written by Hayek in 1945, where he cites Whitehead as the source of this insight. In the paper Hayek discusses the role of knowledge in defining the boundaries between markets and firms: vastly simplified, when an entity can possess knowledge about everything relevant in a closed system, the functions in the system can be controlled through hierarchies within a firm, whereas when no such knowledge is available, the mechanism of price rules as the control mechanism. Markets and the mechanism of price are automated human constructs that eliminate the need of thinking about them when pursuing economic ends. 

Disruptions make us question our basic assumptions, reflect on what we have taken for granted. In other words, they make us unpack the “important operations which we can perform without thinking about them”. Disruptions however come in different depths of impact, some even threatening such deeply embedded assumption-level constructs as the existence of markets, others evoking questions on the level of the firm or other specific societal subsystem. There are multiple levels of assumptions that underlie our daily actions, and the scope and depth of the impact of a disruption is a result of how many of such levels does a given disruption change. So, how deep will the impact of corona disruption reach?

Towards understanding the depth of corona disruption

A futures researcher, Sohail Inayatullah, came up with an analytical tool that helps in understanding the levels of assumptions of any phenomena we observe in our environment. Drawing from several epistemological perspectives, he introduced the Causal Layered Analysis (CLA) in late 1990’s. In CLA, there are four levels: litany, systemic causes, worldview and myth/metaphor. Understanding emerges as a given phenomenon is scrutinized on all levels, going down and up the analytical levels. An example illustrates the method best. 

The level of litany is the surface appearance of the phenomenon, a statement that could be found in a newspaper headline: “Traffic jams are increasing”. On the level of systemic causes, the statement is explored through explanations pertaining such ‘facts’ that can be drawn from data: the number of cars has increased, the road infrastructure needs better planning. The level of worldview digs deeper to create understanding about the more deeply embedded whys, the meaning that drives the actions: we live in a society, where most people are going to or coming home from work at the same time. Finally, the level of the myth/metaphor touches the gut-level instinctual reactions that are the building blocks of meaning: humans want to cluster into collectives, cities are good, countryside less so. 

CLA is also about seeking different solutions to the phenomena being analyzed, and as is highlighted with the diverse solutions to the traffic example, the deeper the problems and solutions penetrate, the slower and more difficult it becomes to intentionally change things. For traffic jams, the systemic causes level solutions are to decrease the number of cars, to plan better road systems. On the level of worldview, the solution would be to gradually shift to a society with more diversity in working hours, and the increase in remote work. On the level of the myth/metaphor there is little to be done through intent, but understanding the fundamental core assumptions we instinctively abide by is useful in seeing the whole picture. 

In terms of understanding the depth of any disruption, the CLA provides a fruitful analytical tool, as it enables viewing the level of assumptions disrupted in a given disruption. 

CLA of disruptions

We view disruptions as examples of socio-technological change that go beyond normal change. Changes on the level of litany are normal, whereas changes on the deeper levels are disruptive in increasing scope and depth – see following table for a nutshell. 

Depths of disruption

Changes on the level of litany result from the normal evolution and developments constantly ongoing in business and society. New offerings emerge, old offerings are improved, people learn new ways of acting and doing things. While Google’s Gmail has been a vanguard in many ways when we view the scene of email systems, introducing many such features we have now come to expect from an email system, it was fundamentally still just a new way of fulfilling an older need, and the services it replaced vanished as part of normal competition within any markets.

Changes on the level of systemic causes instead often count as disruptions as they influence the structures of whole socio-technical systems. The new pricing logic in airline industry had a profound impact on the competitiveness of the whole field, and subsequently also penetrated other mass transportation systems. The truly disruptive aspect about AirBnB was not the use of a platform, but the decoupling of ownership from the possibility of using something as a resource: in as-a-service business models it is not only the users who may enjoy the benefits of something without owning it, but also the producers of a service can extract value from entities that are not theirs. Netflix is a perfect example of a firm who read the alignment of both technological capabilities and customer behavior trajectories right, and offered a trigger that subsequently changed the whole entertainment distribution market. 

The two bottom levels are often invisible because they consist of such assumptions that are invisible in their taken-for-grantedness. The paradigm shift from the analogue to the current digital era is a recent example of changes in the level of the worldview: currently it would make little sense to go into the business of producing analogue landline telephones. Change on this level is already difficult to intentionally evoke, but when the paradigms change, they have an impact on nigh all industries and fields of human action. The change on this level is deeply and widely disruptive, but actually being able to pinpoint one specific disruption is more difficult as most often a paradigm change is an aggregation of several developments. However, the introduction of Apples Appstore could well be nominated as one of the key harbingers that have had a notable role in shaping the digital era we now live in. 

The deepest level of myth/metaphor describes changes on the scope of Neolithic revolution (from hunting and gathering to agriculture), mechanization, introduction of electricity or the birth of mass production and work specialization. While fundamentally altering the humanity, changes here cannot be instigated intentionally, as they emerge gradually as the trajectories on the upper levels converge. Surprises may still happen, even on this level, but that would require an environmental calamity of a dystopian scale. 

CLA of corona disruption

So, we know that the pandemic has disrupted our ways of life. But how deep are its impacts – what is the scope of the disruption? The following table provides one way of trying to anticipate the depth of corona disruption. As can be seen from the columns, some of the changes are already evident, while the actual depth of the disruption depends on how our responses shape the potential futures. 

Potential depth of corona disruption

The level of litany is familiar to all of us, as it screams at us whenever we open any media, traditional or social. The social distancing driven increased use of online services, and the quite likely wave of bankruptcies followed with the emergence of new firms are apparent changes. By themselves they, however, are but surface. People adopt new ways of functioning and firms die and are born constantly, and while we are seeing more of such events now, by nature they are not assumption changing but structurally the same as the old normal. 

However, the disruptive implications begin to be realized through systemic causes level: if the bout of remote work becomes a permanent part of life for a notable number of workers, it changes assumptions about work in a way that has disruptive outcomes. Equally, if the de-globalization sentiments and decisions become rooted, they form the new structures of global collaboration that is genuinely disruptive. The same applies also to hybridization of digital and ‘real life’ services and offerings: are we using more online shopping and teleconferencing solutions just to get through this spring, or will they become the backbones of business and social interactions?

The very interesting question is, how deeply does this spring impact the invisible values, meaning, worldview, we build our societies on. We have seen a temporary break in pollution due to halts in factories and grounding of airplanes, but will this spring be enough to make us seize the beneficial openings in pursuing a greener economy, or will we return to our old habits as soon as we can? We have seen the very first efforts of curbing the volumes of mis- and disinformation floating in social media with the only intent of maximizing the time we spend on those channels: is this a weak signal that spells reprogramming the algorithms now geared towards curating our worldview to best benefit the entities with deepest pockets?

On the other side of the coin, will we accept once and for all that collective security trumps individual freedom and privacy, and learn to take for granted the digital surveillance in the full scope of what the current technologies enable? Additionally, will we give in to the tribal sentiments already strongly nascent in the rise of the new nationalism, or do we realize the benefits of global knowledge sharing through its fruits in battling the virus? On the level on meaning, we are now living a watershed moment: the depth of the current disruption depends on the sides on which we begin to slide as the dust settles. 

As noted, changes on the myth/metaphor cannot be influenced by intent. Instead, such changes result from the converging of several trajectories, that we can on the surface level have an impact on. While I’m still missing the crystal ball, the most notable clusters of trajectories now being changed pertain to choices we make in regards to the way we perceive the role of digital surveillance technologies, and the environmental impact of the actions taken in rebuilding our economic activities. 

To conclude: what will be the important operations we will in the future perform without thinking about them?

On the level of the individual, an organization or the society, anything deliberate is grounded on a huge mass of things we take for granted – otherwise we would be totally paralyzed. There are simply too many individual decisions we make each day for us to be able to reflect each and every one of them. When the foundations of taken-for-grantedness are solid, the decisions and actions we ground on them enable us to incrementally become ‘better’ as individuals, organizations or societies. However, with legs of clay, we risk the contrary. 

This disruption, as any disruption, makes us question our assumptions. Which of the things we take for granted are genuinely worth it, and which of them are less so? There are a number of things in the current economic order that beg the questioning of certain assumptions, including the nature of environmental problems as mere economic negative externalities, the givenness of markets, or the role of work as the holy grail of individual fulfilment. Due to the global scope this disruption may well provide openings to such deeper reflections – and as such become a deeply penetrating beneficial disruption that many have waited for. However, the global span does not automatically mean that the changes are also deep: it is equally possible that we just fix the problems on the level of the litany, with a few disruptive changes remaining on the level of systemic causes. 

In my view, utilizing this disruption as a chance of reflecting deeply our economic organizing on the level of worldview would be worth seizing: as the legs are clay, one day we might otherwise see such a disruption that no longer leaves us the option of choosing between a semblance of the old and the new. This disruption did – we may still make choices to preserve the best of the old and complement them with the best of the new. 


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