My daughter is a doctoral student at Oxford University. When the gravity of the coronavirus pandemic got the attention of the governing body at Oxford, she was first encouraged and then instructed to leave England and return to her home country, if possible. She was very reluctant to do so. In a strange way, Oxford had never seemed more beautiful than when the hectic daily commerce stopped, tourists ceased to flood the streets, and only a few hundred faculty, graduate students and university staff walked among the gardens and ancient spires. She arrived back in North Dakota three weeks ago, underwent a two-week self-quarantine, and now has emerged from my basement to join me in eating down my refrigerator and my pantry!
A week ago she had her viva meeting with two Oxford examiners to determine if she was ready to transfer from probationary status to full candidacy for a D.Phil (Oxford’s equivalent of a Ph.D.). They met on Zoom.com. The first question her examiners asked her was how she was holding up over at Hertford College (one of the 39 colleges that makes up Oxford University). She explained that she was not three or four blocks away but 4,132 miles away in a place called Dakota. She was on the video call for more than an hour. Then they announced that she had been successfully transferred.
When I was studying at the same university in the late 1970s, I was called for a viva exam on English language and literature. I got the summons on a Friday afternoon. I was expected to appear before nine robed examiners on Monday morning. I was in southern France at the time and there was a national train strike. When I explained this by telephone, I was told that for hundreds of years Oxford had scheduled these exams in person, at the Examination Schools building, and that if I did not show up in person, I would not receive my degree. The next two days were an epic odyssey to somehow get to England through a transportation strike. Forty years later, Oxford dons — just as proud of their achievements as C.S. Lewis or John Henry Cardinal Newman — merely shrugged at the need to conduct “in person” exams on the Internet.
What my daughter is experiencing in the luxurious arena of higher education is being replicated in a million ways in every direction by people who are finding how to continue their work and their lives in spite of the global pandemic. Perhaps the most amazing thing about this strange and unprecedented ordeal is the sheer ingenuity and resourcefulness of the great mass of the American people to “find a way” to keep their lives moving forward.
We are living in a very remarkable time. The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted the whole world in ways we could not have imagined a year ago. It is not clear what this unprecedented tumult will do to the world economy, to life in the United States, to the ways in which we work or “travel” or learn or even love. But what is abundantly clear is that we have one gigantic advantage in this global crisis — the digital revolution. I invite you to cease reading for a moment to try to imagine the COVID-19 pandemic before the Internet.
So now my daughter is pursuing her doctoral studies on Tudor England from a suburban house in Bismarck, N.D. Fortunately, she was able to cart approximately 15 books with her when she fled from England. Most of her work, however, involves studying Elizabethan and Jacobean documents. She can do this from thousands of miles away because the great bulk of the relevant documents have been digitized and processed with metadata. In fact, it is far more efficient to examine those documents electronically: the scans are so high in resolution that she can zoom in to study quirks of the Elizabethan Secretary script, including ink blots, crossed-out words, flourishes and doodles, erasures, and other things that would be hard to see clearly if she were holding the parchment in her hands while being watched (like a hawk) by a manuscript librarian drunk on bibliographical power.
This morning I have been reading a history of smallpox by Jonathan B. Tucker. There are no illustrations in the 292-page book. On page 27, Tucker mentions a cartoon published in Britain in 1802 satirizing Edward Jenner’s cowpox vaccine, showing Jenner’s patient sprouting bovine tails, horns, and udders. Fifteen years ago I would have looked up from the book and said, “Huhh, it would be great to see that cartoon. I wonder where it is housed?” But this morning, I put down the book and Googled “cartoon — 1802 — England — cowpox — horns” and pushed return. Voila! The search service displayed that precise cartoon first in its search results. I opened the site, found a superb description of the creation of the cartoon and its background, saved it in my pandemic image file, and returned to my reading.
1802 cartoon satirizing Edward Jenner’s cowpox vaccine.
These days I read a book about the Renaissance or Reformation, I often keep two computers handy to look up virtually every painting, sculpture, architectural ruin, and book mentioned. This morning, I Googled the Prussian Greek scholar Johann Winckelmann (1717-1768), who revolutionized our understanding of the classical world and who, I learned for the first time, was murdered in a hotel bed in Trieste on June 8, 1768, just 50 years old. Ten years ago, I would merely have rushed over the reference to Winckelmann, but today I learned that one of the greatest scholars of the last 300 years was probably murdered over a homosexual advance gone terribly wrong. And I found, in my very cursory search, a fabulous painting of the great Winckelmann wearing a banyan (a Persian silk dressing gown favored by Enlightenment “orientalists”).
Some Saturday mornings, when I am not fighting a deadline, I choose a subject — Achilles, Mount Rushmore, John Donne, cartoons of Theodore Roosevelt — and merely follow the digression trail wherever my curiosity takes me for two, three, even five hours, just to see where the Internet and Lockean association might take me.
Prussian Greek scholar Johann Winckelmann (1717-1768)
The Internet has saved thousands of lives in the last three months. If it did not exist, sheltering in place would be nearly impossible. The idea of telecommuting or working from home would be impossible. People would be forced by sheer economic necessity to go to work, to go to the grocery store, go to the post office, go to the doctor. People would find it difficult, in some cases impossible, to check in on friends and loved ones around the country and around the planet. K-12 education and college education would simply collapse, or governors and school superintendents would have no choice but to open schools and hope for the best. The telephone was, in a sense, the Internet before it actually existed, but it had severe limitations for the exchange of ideas, and no capacity to transmit images or texts, unless you count fax machines, which were an intermediate step between old and new technologies.
Without online medical sites, including public health sites, the phone lines to state agencies and doctors, clinics and hospitals, would simply be overwhelmed. It would have been nearly impossible for small businesses and individuals to apply for loans to survive the economic shutdown, and such applications as were possible would have been hamstrung by the delays of sending and receiving the paperwork using the U.S. Postal Service. If we could find a metric to determine what Maslovian supplies are now being supplied to the American people through online shopping, and then to contemplate what public mingling would be required were such delivery systems not in place, we would be flabbergasted — and the death toll would be much higher.
Had my daughter stayed in Oxford we would have talked every couple of days by FaceTime or Skype. In this way I would have been able to communicate with her across our respective quarantines, not only to stay current with her life and work, but also to study her flickering video countenance to see if she looked rested or strung out, happy or sad, healthy or pale, lively or sullen. Think of all the separated families, parents and children, wives and husbands, friends, able to connect today over vast distances with televideo technologies we had let ourselves take for granted. Yet I remember seeing 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1969 when the scientist places a video call to his daughter whose birthday he is missing. I remember thinking two things. A: That will never, ever happen. And B: If it did happen, it would be so expensive that I would never be able to afford to place such a call.
In 1813 John Adams wrote several letters to his friend Thomas Jefferson lamenting that Dr. Joseph Priestley had not lived long enough to publish his comparison of Christianity with the moral systems of ancient Greek and Roman philosophers. Finally, on Aug. 22, 1813, Jefferson informed Adams that Priestley had, in fact, finished the book, The Doctrines of Heathen Philosophy Compared with Those of Revelation, and that it had been published shortly after his death.
Today Adams would simply turn to Amazon.com to see what books Priestley had published. If that failed, he would turn to WorldCat, a grand global bibliographical resource that brings together the collections of 17,900 libraries in 123 countries. More than 450 million bibliographical records in 484 languages are catalogued — so far! In Adams’ time, the former president might have been able to consult the catalogue, such as it was, at Harvard, a full day’s horseback ride from his home in Quincy, Mass. At that time, Harvard had something in the neighborhood of 20,000 books. Today it has more than 20 million.
If Adams had gone to the local bookshop, he might have asked the proprietor to check booklists made available to him from London, Edinburgh, Leyden, and Paris, but these were out of date almost before they were printed. They were incomplete. They tended to list new books, not those that had been in print for decades or centuries. If Adams asked his bookseller to order the book from London or Rome, that transaction might have taken two years. The order might never have been filled, and in many cases, the agent in Rome or London might not have bothered to write any reply whatsoever.
If the European bookseller had been able to fill the request, the next problem would have been working out the payment plan. There were no reliable exchange rates, no credit cards, no cooperating banks to handle such transactions. When Jefferson wanted something from London, he asked his agent in Richmond to contact his factor in London, and to make purchases, often imprecisely, and to deduct that amount from whatever Jefferson was entitled to for this year’s projected tobacco crop. Cumbersome, frustrating, slow, and (by our standards) incredibly inefficient.
Google Books has now scanned more than 25 million volumes, all of which are available free to anyone with a computer.
When I was growing up in western North Dakota in the 1970s, if I wanted a book (and how would I know, really?) I could ask my local bookseller to get it for me. The only useful library catalogue I had access to was at the local college, Dickinson State.
When I studied at Oxford University in the late 1970s, its immense collection was still catalogued in giant folio volumes in which bibliographical records on slips were pasted onto stiff paper pages. Some of these were typewritten. The majority were handwritten, by hundreds, perhaps thousands, of librarians over decades and centuries of laborious work. Today all 12 million books in the Bodleian have been keyed into an efficient computer database.
Sheltered in my house, I can order books online, food, clothing, electronic gear, wine, a new car, facemasks, thermometers, even some medicines. If I want a bust of Johann Winckelmann, I can order it online, pay for it with one of several electronic exchange systems, and have it delivered to my house by early next week. If I want to own my own banyan, I can order either a new one or an antique scholar’s robe online.
I remember when Arthur C. Clark published one of his sequels to 2001 in the late 1980s. At the back of the novel he wrote a self-satisfied postscript in which he announced, if you can possibly believe it, that he had sent the completed manuscript from his home in Sri Lanka all the way to New York on something called a “floppy disk,” the whole darned book on one flat 5 ½ inch disk that somehow contained the whole thing on a memory film! Oh my. Today the great futurist seems a little quaint in his enthusiasm.
Today, of course, he would merely email the completed manuscript to his publisher without what now would seem to be an interminably long and tedious ritual of labeling the disk, putting it in a package in which it would not be damaged, taking it to the local post office, filling out intrusive forms about its contents, buying the requisite stamps, and then sitting around in a banyan of some sort waiting to see if it got to New York at all and in what condition, perhaps two weeks later, perhaps two months.
Virtually everyone now has a smart phone or access to one, at least in the developed world. With the proper app, these phones would be able to monitor our movements to enable us to map the spread of the coronavirus. I saw such a map on the Eleventh Hour with Brian Williams recently. It showed the travel patterns of college students who spent their spring break on Florida’s beaches, in very close contact, as they returned to their college towns all over the United States. And though that electronic graphic was used to shame feckless youth, we all know that it would be possible to use that technology to trace the spread of the virus, particularly if our smart wristwatches and Fitbits could record our temperature and heart rate and supply that information to central databases. Such surveillance would involve significant privacy issues, but something like this is surely coming, at least for those who volunteer to waive their privacy rights. The near-miracle of such technology lies as much in the computing power that we routinely have at our fingertips as in the actual body-contact monitor equipment.
I can buy and sell stocks online, file my taxes online, register my car online, order dinner online, do all my banking online, consult my doctor online. ... Students at Harvard as well as Fort Hays State University (Kansas) and Humboldt Community College (California) are taking their courses online. Virtually all k-12 students in the United States are distance-learning now. Professionals of all sorts are attending national meetings in their pajamas or, if the meetings include video, just putting on a shirt or blouse above the waist and making sure not to stand up while making a point.
The digital revolution is going to enable us to get through this. Not every job can be done electronically, of course. The brunt of the pain is going to be felt, as always, by the poorest and least advantaged among us. But we can all imagine (now, for the first time seriously) an America that operates virtually to a very considerable degree and quite successfully, too. The great pandemic of 2020 will hasten the arrival of automated vehicles. It will incentivize all of the video conferencing corporations to develop increasingly more sophisticated technologies that will soon make today’s FaceTime and Zoom seem as crude as the video of Neil Armstrong bounding around the moon in grainy and garish black and white. The delivery mechanisms for distance learning are going to morph now — necessity being the mother of invention — into a platform dramatically more fluid, flexible, and nuanced than what has been developed so far. E-commerce is already sophisticated, but just wait.
Thanks to global connectivity we can follow the course of the pandemic day by day, hour by hour, to see what works and doesn’t work in other countries (and even states). In virtually all previous pandemics, people found it nearly impossible to know what was happening beyond their own ZIP code or jurisdiction. Fear, based on lack of reliable information, caused unnecessary panic. Computers are accelerating the development of antibodies, vaccines, and other ameliorative drugs in ways that would have flabbergasted Louis Pasteur or Walter Reed. Artists, musicians, poets, philosophers, dancers, and social commentators are re-inventing themselves as you read this, because they have no choice.
We are fortunate to have to go through this global ordeal in the time we do. We should all step back and re-examine our values, our work, our relationships, and all the things we take for granted, of course. The pandemic provides a unique opportunity for each of us to reboot or at least wonder what that might look like. Still, all one can say now is: Thank God for the digital revolution.
Join Clay this Friday evening, April 24, for the beginning of a special four-week online humanities course: "History & Literature of Pandemics." REGISTER.
For more of Clay Jenkinson's views on American history and the humanities listen to his weekly nationally syndicated public radio program and podcast The Thomas Jefferson Hour.