Making predictions about 2021 seems downright foolhardy. We did it anyway.
BE HONEST, you’ve wanted to dump 2020 like a flaming pile of your quarantine puppy’s excrement since April. As we slog through this infernal period in various states of pandemic lockdown—a restive baseline augmented by the stress of social inequities, economic uncertainty, an unprecedented fire season, a shortage of hurricane names, remote schooling that chomps every last megabit of internet in the house, and our TV streaming backlogs dwindling to ration levels—we can’t be blamed for hoping that the stroke of midnight on December 31 somehow magically makes things right.
But we don’t know whether 2021 will be better than the year we’ve just endured. In fact, Reader of the Near Future, you already know things we don’t about 2021. Those things are not on this list. For us—and for this story—it’s November 1, 2020. Even so, we know that next year will be different. The pandemic is accelerating changes in our lives. In some cases, we’ve found we actually like things better the new way. In other cases, well—like our COVID-cushioned waistlines—things just ain’t ever going back to the way they were before. So we set out to investigate what 2021 has in store, and we focused on what each of us always cares about most: our own navels. We asked (from the home workspaces we’re so fortunate to have, in unwashed sweatpants, while mostly domesticated animals or somewhat feral children climbed across our keyboards) faculty and alumni soothsayers how our work, our homes and our play will be different in 2021.
We’ll be right about some of these. We’ll be wrong about others. After all, if there’s one thing 2020 has taught us, it’s that none of us can really predict what will happen next.
—Summer Moore Batte, ’99
1. You won’t go back to the same old office. If you go back at all.
2. Praise be, you will have new TV.
3. You’ll convince yourself that sleeping on the ground counts as vacation.
4. Your town will become a community again.
5. You won’t sit shoulder-to-shoulder in an opera house. But performers are nothing if not creative.
6. You’ll get a B-list wedding invitation.
7. You’ll advance from sourdough to soufflé.
8. You’ll get even closer to your loved ones. Emotionally, that is.
9. It’ll be even harder to find that perfect pandemic puppy.
10. But that puppy will help protect your gut.
11. Your face mask will be très chic.
12. You’ll watch the shecession deepen.
13. Your doctor will make house calls.
14. You’ll exercise more. No, seriously.
15. You’ll replace your virtual bookshelf background with the real thing.
16. You’ll have fewer snow days and more smoke days.
17. You won’t think a kiss is just a kiss.
18. And you’ll learn to eye-mote.
19. You’ll track coronavirus exposure through an app. But only if your friends do too.
20. You won’t know many teens taking standardized tests.
21. You’ll beat your high score.
You won’t go back to the same old office. If you go back at all.
IN JUNE, Andrew Sonta defended his dissertation on how to maximize the energy efficiency of office buildings while minimizing the distance between employees in an effort to increase their productivity. Not long into the public portion of his Zoom presentation, an audience member weighed in with what, in the middle of a global pandemic, was an obvious question: How did this research apply to the current situation, in which people were supposed to keep away from one another to prevent the spread of COVID-19?
Sonta, a PhD candidate in civil and environmental engineering, had been considering that question. After all, everything about his dissertation assumed a world that no longer existed. Hardly anyone was in the office anymore. And when people finally did start to return to office buildings, Sonta knew managers wouldn’t be terribly preoccupied with orchestrating potentially serendipitous interactions at the coffee machine or minimizing the amount due on an electric bill.
“It was pretty obvious during the presentation that some of the things I was talking about might not be something we care about during a pandemic,” recalls Sonta, MS ’17. “Which was unfortunate.” But, in another way, exciting.
“Everyone was thinking about how this can be adjusted or applied to our current times,” he says.
The pandemic upended Sonta’s dissertation; it also upended the lives of millions of Americans in some of the most basic ways we orient ourselves in the world: where we work, where we live and how we balance those realities. In April, a month after President Trump declared a national emergency due to the pandemic, total civilian unemployment reached a dizzying 15 percent. Many of the people lucky enough to keep their jobs no longer actually went to work. Instead, they logged in remotely from kitchen tables and back patios and dresser tops even as they juggled childcare or elder care, oversaw school lessons, and endured that annoying thing their dog/cat/bird/neighbor/spouse does that they never noticed before because they weren’t at home.
Everything changed. Many of us are now afraid to take mass transit. And a lot of us bought bicycles. We still can’t eat in restaurants everywhere, but we can dine alfresco from a folding chair in what used to be a parking spot.
Some of these changes will turn out to be temporary. But others are here to stay—and not just because they help prevent the spread of this or future viruses. Companies aren’t likely to send everyone back to the office all the time if allowing employees to work from home maintains productivity while enabling employers to save money on real estate. After the shower-curtain and plexiglass dividers come down, clean air—from opened windows or revamped HVAC systems—will still be a good thing to strive for. And now that we’ve all heard how a Zoom meeting can echo through a room, that long-sought-after open floor plan in your dream home may no longer be worth seeking.
What will work and home look like in 2021? Think way more flexible schedules. Think movable walls and office furniture that allow for socially distanced collaboration. Think homes designed around the needs of working parents and virtual students. In short, think different. Like Sonta had to.
Whether we walk, take a bus or subway, or drive to our jobs, most Americans can rattle off our average daily travel times without any calculations at all. We know when to walk out the door of our house or apartment, where to stand on the train platform, or when to change lanes as we approach our exit. But for many people who are now working from home indefinitely, all that knowledge is moot, as is, conceivably, the need to live in a certain place just because of the commute.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, just 2 percent of the U.S. labor force worked from home full time in 2017–18. In May 2020, that number was 42 percent, according to research by Stanford economics professor Nicholas Bloom.
Bloom predicts the option to work from home will continue post-pandemic partly because the stigma associated with the practice—a belief that workers are less productive in their personal spaces—is now gone. And it’s gone, he says, because working from home, well, works. Bloom’s 2014 study of Ctrip, a 16,000-employee Chinese travel agency, demonstrated a 13 percent increase in productivity among employees randomly assigned to work from home. Also, attrition was lower and job satisfaction was higher in that group. Once the at-home workers were told they could choose whether to stay at home or return to the office, productivity among remote workers increased by 22 percent from the norm, as those who felt lonely or ineffective returned to the office and those who performed well at home chose to stay there.
“The Ctrip study turned out to be years ahead of its time by accident,” Bloom says. “At the time, we obviously never foresaw the pandemic, but now the findings are both very relevant and important.”
Based on his research, Bloom has ideas about what normal, nonpandemic work-from-home routines should look like. First, working from home should be optional and flexible. Only about a quarter of the 2,500 respondents in Bloom’s May survey wanted to work from home five days a week, and 20 percent would prefer never to work from home. Second, working from home should be part time, with WFH days used for independent assignments that require concentration and office days planned around collaborative meetings or projects. Finally, Bloom recommends that working from home be a privilege, not an entitlement, with regular performance reviews for the benefit of employers and employees alike (Bloom’s 2014 study found that promotion rates for WFH personnel were reduced by half during the experiment, perhaps demonstrating the axiom “out of sight, out of mind”).
‘There’s something to be said for windows that open.’
When people do start to return to the office, their workspaces will be different, according to Kimari Phillips, MA ’96, a senior research analyst at sustainable design firm LPA. Phillips says her firm will be using one of its offices as a prototype to try out more collaborative spaces, flexible layouts with movable furniture and walls, and desks—used by different individuals on different days—that all face one direction, to minimize the risk of virus transmission.
Not surprisingly, air quality has been a major focus as well. Phillips says her firm’s clients are more interested than ever in natural ventilation and outdoor meeting spaces.
“There’s something to be said for windows that open,” she says. “We know that daylight in general is important to our health and sleep cycles, and a lot of offices were leaning toward that. Now, it’s super important to have fresh air.”
Hanns Lee, ’91, agrees. He heads up the Office of Innovation at Hines, a real estate investment company with $144 billion in assets under management in 25 countries. In April, his firm announced a collaboration with the Mayo Clinic and two other organizations to study how the design and operation of workspaces—including air filtration strategies and surface hygiene protocols—can help prevent the spread of respiratory viruses. There was already a movement toward optimizing indoor carbon dioxide and humidity levels, which can affect cognitive performance, stress levels and sleep patterns. Because scientists believe the novel coronavirus transmits more readily in dry air, that variable has taken on new significance.
Still, because of the success of the work-from-home approach, Lee acknowledges that not all workers will come back even when the threat of the virus no longer looms.
“We do see more of a bifurcated world going forward,” he says. “The best workplace environments foster culture and promote brand and facilitate mentorship and collaboration. Those places will draw people back. But commodity office space that is nothing more than a functional place to print and make phone calls will struggle.”
Of course, many workers never went into an office to begin with and don’t have the option of working from home full time now.
Diana Reddy, ’03, MA ’03, who worked as a staff attorney at the California Teachers Association and now studies work law, social stratification and inequality as a doctoral student at UC Berkeley, says the disparities in how people have experienced the pandemic have been striking.
“Because we’re white-collar workers, [the shutdown] made things better in some ways,” she says of herself and her husband, noting that they were both at home to care for their newborn child. “But we really quickly became aware of the ways in which our lives were being subsidized by people whose lives were, at the very least, riskier,” she adds, citing the grocery and takeout delivery workers who helped them feed their family during that time.
Improvements to ventilation and sanitation practices stand to benefit all employees, whether they work at a desk or not. But mitigating the risks of in-person jobs such as those in factories, hospitals, schools and homes remains an issue. Some of the solutions developed during the pandemic could stick. For instance, hospitals and health-care providers have limited elective procedures, used telehealth technology, and divided personnel into teams that alternate working from home and being on-site to lessen potential transmission. At a minimum, expect telemedicine services to proliferate (see No. 13).
In some cases, unions have assumed the monumental task of securing protections for people who can’t work remotely. After facing pressure from Transport Workers Union Local 100, which represents more than 40,000 workers in New York City, the Metropolitan Transit Authority began providing masks to its frontline workers on March 27. And while airlines are temporarily blocking middle seats and reducing in-flight services to minimize contact between flight attendants and passengers, the Association of Flight Attendants has gone as far as to call for a ban on leisure travel.
Reddy notes that all workers—white-collar, blue-collar and everything in between—should be at the table when more permanent policies are put in place. “We need all interests to be represented as we make these big decisions that completely restructure our society,” she says.
Where people work has always played a major role in determining where and how they live, and it wasn’t long into the pandemic before pundits started sounding the death knell for cities and urban living. The doomsday predictions were based in part on the rise in working from home—“If Workers Opt Out, Star Cities May Dim,” read the print headline of one New York Times article in July—but also on largely unfounded worries about the health risks of living in proximity to other households. (A June study in the Journal of the American Planning Association found that, after controlling for several factors, denser counties had lower COVID-19 death rates—likely because of social distancing interventions and better access to health care.)
Experts agree the long-term appeal of cities isn’t going anywhere, but there is evidence that more people are interested in leaving cities now, either because they’re afraid of getting sick, they’re tired of sheltering in place in small spaces, or they were going to move to the suburbs eventually and just decided to do so sooner. According to a New York Times investigation, mail forwarding requests from New York City in March and April were more than double the average, with 60 percent of the requests directing mail out of the city, including to upstate New York and eastern Long Island addresses, but also to states such as Florida, Texas and California.
Those requests may turn out to be short term, but recent data from the National Association of Home Builders suggests that some lasting changes are underway. The organization’s monthly confidence index, which rates market conditions for the sale of new homes, was at a 35-year high in August due to “a noticeable suburban shift in housing demand,” according to the group’s chief economist.
Home design preferences are changing too, according to Danielle Dy Buncio, ’04, co-founder and chief executive officer of VIATechnik, a design and construction modeling firm. She says she’s talked to real estate developers who previously had a hard time selling homes with separate dens. “That was their least popular product,” she says. “And now they suspect it will be their largest demand. With more people working from home at least some of the time, it’s super desirable to have that stand-alone workspace.”
For those without a dedicated office at home, it’s important to establish a sense of separation between work and life, according to Casey Lindberg, MA ’07, PhD ’10, who is part of the research team at design firm HKS. When the pandemic started, HKS began regularly surveying employees in the United States and London about what it was like to work from home. They found that people’s satisfaction was closely correlated with the amount of physical separation between their work space and the rest of their home. Kitchens, dining rooms and living rooms received lower ratings than dedicated studies.
“What those spaces are missing are physical thresholds,” Lindberg says. Without them, “people have a harder time keeping their work life from impeding their home life and the other way around.” Fixes can be physical (walls or doors) or visual (changes in paint color or floor covering). But they can also be behavioral: only doing work in one particular spot in the home and sticking to a set schedule.
Lindberg is lucky enough to have a home office, but he still sets boundaries. If he has a social call during work hours, he walks into another room. “The little things are really important,” he says.
‘I’ve been thinking a lot about how this is going to hurt people—particularly Black Americans—because we know all of the racial disparities that happened with the last recession.’
For the millions of people who have lost their jobs or are at risk of losing their home or apartment, however, those little things are just that: little. Stanford assistant professor of sociology Jackelyn Hwang, ’07, was researching Bay Area gentrification and housing stability when the pandemic hit. Knowing the virus spreads in close quarters, she and a co-author decided to examine the issue of overcrowding as well. In a blog post for the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, they described how moves to more crowded living conditions have been increasing since 2009 for everyone except the most financially well-off. That’s a health risk at present.
“Low-wage workers are losing their jobs, and people are at home more,” she says. That means close contact with housemates or family members for months on end.
Crises have always exposed the fault lines in our society: In 2019, Hwang published a paper showing that the Great Recession exacerbated inequality in predominantly Black neighborhoods. She found that homes in such neighborhoods were more likely to be bought by corporations, which were more likely than owner-occupants to flip—or resell—the properties and to have maintenance violations against them. All of those conditions contribute to neighborhood instability.
Hwang worries about the housing-related damage—including underemployment, unemployment and declines in home ownership—the COVID-19 pandemic could inflict in communities of color. “I’ve been thinking a lot about how this is going to hurt people—particularly Black Americans—because we know all of the racial disparities that happened with the last recession,” she says. “I’m happy to see there were all these moratoriums passed to put holds on evictions, but there are time limits, and no one really knows what’s going to happen after that.”
In some communities, though, the pandemic may actually lead to more opportunities for affordable housing, according to David Butler, ’96, managing partner of Argosy Real Estate Partners in San Francisco.
Hotel brands have long unloaded dated properties—often extended-stay residences with studio-apartment-style rooms—to investors interested in converting the spaces into affordable housing. With travel and tourism rates low, hotels are even more eager to sell off such properties, and developers are gobbling them up.
“It is very difficult to create new workforce housing development projects in expensive markets where they are needed the most,” Butler explains, citing municipal fees, high construction costs and the lower rents on affordable housing, all of which make it hard for investors to realize a sufficient return. “That’s why an extended-stay hotel conversion strategy could be a positive.”
How We Move Forward
There’s seemingly no end to the ways in which our work and home lives have been altered by the events of the past year. And future changes are looking equally abundant.
Interestingly, office buildings provide a helpful lens for viewing the peculiar problem of the pandemic. Usually, when people leave a building for an emergency all at once, it’s because of a natural disaster like an earthquake or a hurricane. Once the building is deemed to be structurally sound, workers can return. But the buildings people fled all around the world in 2020 weren’t dangerous.
“That’s what’s odd about this paradigm,” says Rishee Jain, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering who serves as Sonta’s adviser. “Usually, the building is the problem: You repair it, and people come back. In this case, the people are the problem.”
After Sonta’s dissertation defense, he, PhD student Thomas Dougherty and Jain—all part of the Stanford Urban Informatics Lab, which Jain directs—decided to apply what Sonta had learned about optimizing people’s time in the office together to the challenge of how to keep them apart.
For their research, Sonta, Dougherty and Jain used pre-pandemic data on energy use they’d collected from workstation sensors in a Stanford office building. The data, which serves as a proxy for human activity, allowed them to model how different ways of bringing back 50 percent of the building’s occupants would affect energy use and social interactions. Compared with bringing back half of workers randomly, the team suggested an approach for
optimizing which employees should return in order to increase meaningful peer connections. Then they used the data to decide where the returners should sit, dispersing them across the building strategically to reduce their likelihood of running into each other in the halls or the kitchen or the restroom. They were able to reduce such overlap by 38 percent (thus improving social distancing) while increasing energy usage by only 1 percent.
The paper that resulted from the team’s preliminary research is short—only four pages. But the work that went into the paper, and the flexibility of thinking and willingness to adapt that the paper required, are hopeful reminders. People may be the problem, yes. It’s easy to see—in a world confronting so many crises at once—that we often are. But it’s also true that we’re the source for solutions.
Sonta learned that lesson early in his time at Stanford. When he first came to the engineering program, he focused on how the physical design of buildings affected energy use. But now he understands that the people inside the buildings are just as important, no matter what is being measured. That’s why he wasn’t daunted when, after presenting his dissertation, the immediate reaction from his peers and advisers was: Congratulations, but let’s get back to work.
“Like a lot of people doing research, I didn’t know exactly how what I was working on would manifest itself later—I didn’t have a conceptual grasp of what a new virus could do to our world,” he says. “I’m looking forward to reframing our research to this big area of conversation.”
Praise be, you will have new TV.
Shelter-in-place television has been a window onto pre-pandemic times—even superhero movies make us nostalgic for normalcy. Now studios are catching up, starting with reality TV such as Love in the Time of Corona and a quarantine season of The Bachelorette. “There are several pandemic-themed movies, documentaries, TV episodes and series in various stages of development and production,” says Sylvia Jones, ’93, writer and co-producer at Starz. Streaming services are also developing content for the whole (cooped-up) family, says Charlotte Koh, ’95, head of digital media at Hello Sunshine. And escapism is in demand: Though productions require sanitation, distancing and contact tracing, many shows will “treat the world as if the coronavirus was never a thing,” Jones says. “We’ve also been living through a time of racial reckoning and social unrest,” she adds. “I’ve been approached by several producers who are looking to develop shows with a socially conscious bent.”
—Deni Ellis Béchard
You’ll convince yourself that sleeping on the ground counts as vacation.
After an effective vaccine becomes widely available, we’ll resume our flighty, wander-lusting ways, says Peter Fish, MA ’80, a longtime travel writer and former editor for Sunset magazine. In the meantime, the open road beckons: Americans planned to take 683 million road trips in 2020, down just 3 percent from 2019. “People are itching to get out of their pod and get out of their houses and backyards, but they don’t want to feel like they’re taking their lives in their hands,” he says. Road trips, camping and national parks feel like safe, economical options—two factors that are likely to appeal in 2021. Fish, who recently taught a Stanford Continuing Studies course on travel writing in the 21st century, sees an unexpected positive side to being grounded. “COVID-19 has actually forced people to look closely at their own neighborhood and their own city,” he says. “Realizing that they have all this cool stuff within a mile of their house is a good thing to know."
Your town will become a community again.
Some of those urban “slow streets”—temporary bike lanes, pedestrian zones and parking-space dining areas—might become permanent. “This has given us an opportunity to experiment with the use of our public spaces for more than just cars,” says Erin Perdu, ’95, director of community planning and economic development for the design firm WSB. “It’s given cities a safe space to say, ‘We’re going to try this out,’ and it’s been really positive.”
Meanwhile, political polarization will subside, somewhat, slowly. In his 2019 book Why Cities Lose, political science professor Jonathan Rodden explored the urban-rural political divide in the United States and other countries. He says people migrating to the suburbs and rural areas because of the pandemic may accelerate a slow-moving process that is already underway. “The trend toward suburban areas becoming more heterogenous is likely to continue, and, in some cases, this might even push it further,” Rodden says.
You won’t sit shoulder-to-shoulder in an opera house. But performers are nothing if not creative.
THERE ARE CERTAIN THINGS we simply cannot do now, and won’t be able to do for some time. Gather in large groups. Be indoors, in close quarters, with strangers. Be talked to or sung at—all those aerosols!—by someone not wearing a mask.
All of which explains why the performing arts have been so hard hit by the pandemic. Robert Poole, ’15, an actor who’d just earned his Equity card—a performer’s ticket to a living wage—was in Florida with a children’s theater company when the tour abruptly shut down in mid-March. Sanjay Saverimuttu, ’12, a dancer and choreographer with the Louisville Ballet, finally got back to work in the fall, rehearsing for his company’s digital season by dancing in his assigned 10-foot square while wearing a mask. Stephen Sano, MA ’91, DMA ’94, a professor in the department of music, oversees two choirs, both on hiatus. His chamber chorale gathers remotely for workshops and guest speakers. He’s not sure when or how his 200-member symphonic chorus will meet again.
‘The people we should all be feeling unbelievable empathy for are the artists who are unemployed for the foreseeable future and losing their health care.’
A Brookings Institution study found that nationwide, 1.4 million jobs in the creative arts disappeared in the first three months of the pandemic. In New York, the nation’s cultural capital, Broadway will be dark at least through spring. The Metropolitan Opera has announced it won’t return until September. On some days, even those distant goals can feel aspirational.
“I worry that we’re going to lose a generation of artists who look at the jobs disappearing and say, ‘Maybe I should go into computer programming,’” says Jeremy Desmon, ’97, a musical theater book writer and lyricist. Theater artists are freelancers, and that means most of them haven’t had income since March. Producing organizations, meanwhile, reliant on ticket sales and donor contributions, are seeing their budgets collapse. “It’s just awful across the board,” says Carey Perloff, ’80, who until 2018 ran San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater. “As hard as it is to try to run an organization right now, the people we should all be feeling unbelievable empathy for are the artists who are unemployed for the foreseeable future and losing their health care.”
At the same time, the racial justice movement that convulsed the country this summer also rocked the performing arts. Groups such as We See You, White American Theater have called for the proudly progressive theater establishment to reflect its espoused beliefs in the makeup of its leadership and the audiences it cultivates.
“We are actually really good at building out diversity on our stages,” says A-lan Holt, ’11, a filmmaker and playwright who directs Stanford’s Institute for Diversity in the Arts. “But now we’re asking the harder questions.” It’s a conversation that will have an impact across the arts. “These major organizations—symphonies, theaters, these behemoths—are assumed to be serving the widest audiences,” Holt says. “But they actually serve a very slim portion of the community.”
The performing arts are in a cataclysm. And that might be a good thing.
This can be a time to make new and different art, artists say. It can be a time to explore new and innovative technologies. It might even be a time, long overdue, to rethink how the arts industry works. We may be approaching a moment in which safety mandates and social movements coalesce, creating a reconfigured landscape of performing arts that is more local, more creative and less costly.
‘Theater might go back to its roots in a way that’s restorative.’
“As much as the Geary Theater to me is the most beautiful, magical theater in the world,” Perloff says of A.C.T.’s mainstage, a 1910 Beaux Arts gem, “it’s a thousand seats, far too big for a nonprofit theater.” She anticipates productions getting much smaller, driven by budget and safety concerns, but to the benefit of the art form. “Theater might go back to its roots in a way that’s restorative.”
Holt sees the same trend. “I’d like to see the arts get more localized,” she says. She predicts a shift in foundation funding priorities, and a new focus on communities—and new audiences. “What the arts have needed for a long time is to figure out a way to welcome in a new generation, one that is very willing to pay for the arts but also believes that art should be more for the people than just for a certain class or demographic.”
Enforced downtime during a time of cultural ferment could yield alchemy.
“I am working on projects for theater, film and television on top of teaching, and I have never been busier,” says professor of theater and performance studies Young Jean Lee, a playwright whose show We’re Gonna Die was running off-Broadway when things closed down. “Somehow the pandemic has [increased] my level of busyness, as it has for many other artists, but I’m not quite sure why.”
Poole, the actor, has used this time to work on a new musical he’s writing with his sister. “I hope the stories themselves have a chance to change,” he says. “I hope more stories from unsung heroes and uncommon writers, marginalized people, get more of a chance to succeed.” Desmon thinks audiences will want small, accessible shows and also so-called important theater that illuminates the pressing issues of our time. (“Please make sure the word important is in quotes,” he says.)
Saverimuttu notes that the Louisville Ballet is focusing on new works in its digital season, not the classics. “I hope this is an opportunity to diversify our repertoire,” he says. “And I hope it provides opportunities for audiences who wouldn’t normally have access.” Louisville is a center of the racial justice movement, he points out, “and this allows us to bring in stories that are happening right now, to have conversations that are relevant to our time and maybe wouldn’t have been as easy to do on stage in the past.”
All these artists are eager to get back on a stage in front of an audience, never mind virtual formats. Zoom theater has become a regular event during the
pandemic. Virtual choral performances were popular, especially in the early days of quarantine. But neither feels like an adequate substitute. Latency is the biggest problem; on these distributed videoconferencing platforms, remote participants simply can’t be in close enough sync to truly interact as though they were in the same space. Those virtual choirs require an individual recording of each singer, performed alone to a guide track and later edited together. The most successful Zoom theater pieces embrace their limitations and work the Zoominess into the story, but the performances lack everything else that makes theater a wonderfully collaborative art: sets and lights, interaction and movement, an audience reacting together.
“There’s a law of physics that you can’t get around,” says Michael Rau, a professor of theater and performance studies and a director who works in theater and digital media. “You can’t have that instantaneous audience feedback that you’re used to.”
Rau is co-teaching a class called Video and Audio Technology for Live Theater in the Age of COVID with electrical engineering professor Tsachy Weissman, computer science professor Keith Winstein and CS graduate student Sadjad Fouladi, MS ’20. Students are working to build better software for distributed performance, with the goal of mounting a live performance over the internet during winter quarter. They’re working on latency. They’re working on technology to replicate eye contact, so you can tell who is talking to whom. They’re working on better green screens. They’re looking at ways to recognize the presence of the audience.
But even if they can make virtual theater more like regular theater, it’s only a stopgap.
“Artists are hungry, smart, restless people who want to express themselves by making work,” Perloff says. And they want to work live. Desmon is writing shows for when shows are mounted again. Saverimuttu is thrilled to be dancing again, for digital recordings, yes, but with live partners in shared spaces. Sano works with choirs using JackTrip, software developed by Stanford music professor Chris Chafe, DMA ’83, for low-latency, high-quality musical collaboration via the internet. It’s the state of the art, but it’s still not good enough for public performances. Nothing is.
Ultimately, performers will take the stage again when it’s safe enough for people to want to be in the audience. “When we come back, it’s going to be a massive consumer confidence exercise,” says Sammi Cannold, ’16, a
theater and film director who recently spent two months in South Korea researching the successful opening of musical theater there. Big shows like Cats and Phantom of the Opera have been up and running in Seoul for months, thanks to a careful regimen of cleaning, mask-wearing and temperature checks. “We are going to need to convince people that it’s safe to go to the theater.”
Eventually, audiences will return. And when they do, they’ll be ready for something new.
“I think the future is bright,” says Holt. “It looks very different, but I’m optimistic about where this will take us. We’ve been craving connection and thinking about returning to one another physically. And I think artists and art allow that in ways other spaces don’t.”
—Jesse Oxfeld, ’98
You’ll get a B-list wedding invitation.
You may be itching to return to concerts, ball games or even that annual industry conference. But TechCrunch senior writer Anthony Ha, ’05, says virtual event attendance is here to stay. “Expect many events to take more of a hybrid form,” Ha says, “so that people who can’t or won’t attend in person can still be involved.” Just please remember to take yourself off mute before you start your toast to the happy couple.
You’ll advance from sourdough to soufflé.
When restaurants closed, a lot of people realized they had kitchens. What’s more, many found they enjoy cooking, enjoy saving money by eating at home, or both. “These two factors may make it harder for restaurants to have a full comeback,” says Stephanie Tully, assistant professor of marketing at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business.
—Andrew Tan, ’22
You’ll get even closer to your loved ones. Emotionally, that is.
Financial strain and the need for childcare are creating more multigenerational households. But Laura Carstensen, professor of psychology and director of the Stanford Center on Longevity, says that’s not all that’s going on. Across the globe and among all ages, our sense of mortality has been primed by a traumatic event: We’ve realized (at least for a little while) that life doesn’t go on forever. “When people are in that state,” she says, “they see what’s important and they go after those things.” One result, Carstensen says, seems to be increased focus on our loved ones. Agreed, says Julie Lythcott-Haims, ’89, the former Stanford dean of freshmen who now writes and speaks on race, parenting and adulting. She lives in a multigenerational household that includes her 81-year-old mother. Early in the pandemic, the two women had a tiff: The elder complained she’d hardly seen her daughter; the younger was flabbergasted because she’d popped over to her mother’s cottage every day for weeks. It took Lythcott-Haims’s own daughter, home from college, to point out that, for her grandmother, it’s not a visit unless you sit down, have a beverage and stay awhile. Every morning since, Lythcott-Haims has spent an hour with (and often learning from) her mother over coffee. “Am I going to stop having coffee with my mother when the pandemic ends? I shouldn’t!” Lythcott-Haims says. She believes 2021 will see us continue to strengthen our human connections, whether in person or virtual: “We’re not going to go back to business as normal.”
It’ll be even harder to find that perfect pandemic puppy.
Shelters have been cleaned out and many breeders have long waiting lists. The whole thing makes for a pet lover’s quandary: Add to the 1.1 million pups imported annually or, you know, get a hamster? “Cats and exotic pets will fill part of the gap, but low-income pet ownership is threatened,” says Mark Cushing, ’75, founder of the Animal Policy Group and author of Pet Nation.
But that puppy will help protect your gut.
Cleaning your hands 10 times a day? Make that 20. No, 30. Many of us have turned to hygiene as one of our primary lines of defense against COVID-19—right as science is increasingly showing that excessive sanitation may harm our gut microbiome and weaken our immune systems. “It is conceivable, though just a hypothesis at this point, that increased sanitation will further change our industrialized microbiota, increase inflammatory state, and make us either more prone to inflammatory diseases or more likely to have a severe response to viral infection,” says Justin Sonnenburg, a Stanford associate professor of microbiology and immunology. “But most important during this pandemic is to not let our guard down with respect to hygiene, but rather to think of ways we can safely compensate for an increasingly sanitized existence.” The solution: safe exposure to microbes in our environments—fermented foods such as yogurt, kimchi and kombucha, as well as microbial exposure in nature, gardening and owning a dog.
Your face mask will be très chic.
Forget the handbag. The accessories of the future are haute couture face covers. “We offer face masks from many of our top brands to coordinate with or accentuate the rest of our customers’ looks,” says Jen Davis Daft, ’99, divisional merchandise manager of apparel at Shopbop. As for our fashion below the chin, “‘Zoom tops’ are in right now!” Daft says. So is casualwear—comfort chez vous will likely dominate the season.
You’ll watch the shecession deepen.
It didn’t take long for social scientists to notice: In the United States, more women than men lost jobs in the early stages of the pandemic, and they have regained them at a slower rate. Black women, Latinas, mothers, young women, women with disabilities, and women in the service, retail and childcare industries are disproportionately affected.
The so-called shecession “has the potential to substantially roll back that progress we’ve made in terms of gender equality over the last couple of decades,” says Stanford sociology professor Shelley Correll, MA ’96, PhD ’01.
Women are coded as caregivers, says Stanford sociologist Marianne Cooper, which means not only did they lose jobs in everything from hospitality to home care, but they’re also facing potential employer bias when their toddlers pop up on Zoom, as well as unsustainably low levels of childcare and educational support, which drive some of them out of the labor force. “Women up and down the class ladder are getting hammered, but in somewhat different ways,” she says.
Correll points out that this is not simply a collection of individual hardships: “A large part of the productivity in this country comes from employed mothers,” she says. “That directly affects our GDP.”
For the women who are “able to stick, somehow or other, in the labor market,” Correll sees one potential bright spot. “People are seeing that we can do work differently,” she says. “We have also had a wide-open window into one another’s lives. And if we can harness that lesson, I do think workplaces have the ability to be a bit more empathetic and to know that [employees] are not just workers; they’re people with lives. We’re changing workplace
—Elizabeth Lindqwister, ’21
Your doctor will make house calls.
Well, technically she’ll make video calls, but you’ll be home to receive them. Ann Weinacker, associate chief medical officer for patient care services at Stanford Health Care, says that pre-pandemic, SHC and University HealthCare Alliance conducted about 680 virtual visits per week. In September, there were approximately 15,000 virtual visits each week—accounting for more than a third of all appointments. Weinacker says the hope is to further increase virtual health-care offerings.
You’ll exercise more. No, seriously.
If Zoom yoga is a highlight of your day, you’re not alone. “People working from home have more time to exercise, more opportunities to exercise and, as a result, feel closer to their fitness community than ever before,” says Bryan Pate, ’95, CEO of ElliptiGO, a manufacturer of stand-up bikes. Faced with shutdown orders or occupancy restrictions, numerous brick-and-mortar gyms—including several nationwide chains—filed for bankruptcy protection in 2020. “Many of the 65 million Americans who had gym memberships were forced to come up with a new way to exercise,” Pate says. They’ve turned to app-based instruction and exercise at home or outdoors, which explains the worldwide bike shortage and the tripling of ElliptiGo’s sales. Reports of COVID-19 deaths linked to preexisting conditions have fueled the fitness craze, Pate explains, but studies correlating exercise with longevity and happiness were already bolstering these trends. “COVID just dramatically accelerated them.”
You’ll replace your virtual bookshelf background with the real thing.
2021 will be a great year for readers. English professor and Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist Adam Johnson says many publishers held back books this fall. (Something about election reporting taking up a lot of news space.) “But the floodgates will open come January,” he says. And for those who just can’t get enough of the end of the world, apocalypse fiction will continue trending. Johnson believes the popularity of that genre has more to do with “climate change and the steady march of ecological disaster than the pandemic.”
You’ll have fewer snow days and more smoke days.
As natural disasters continue to interrupt business as usual, the framework we laid for remote learning during the pandemic will reveal an upside. “All of those difficulties that we experienced earlier have produced some ways of connecting and learning that are really, really valuable right now,” Linda Darling-Hammond, president of the California Board of Education and professor of education emerita, told the New York Times in a September story about Northern California students logging in to class even after their school building had burned to the ground.
You won’t think a kiss is just a kiss.
The casual kissing of yesterday’s hookup culture? Might as well be unprotected sex with a stranger. “I’m hearing from people who are having conversations about all the contact tracing [that they’re doing with prospective partners] before deciding whether or not to kiss,” says Amber Quiñones. “It feels almost like the 1940s or ’50s, where everyone is far more chaste and if you’re ‘going steady’ with someone, that’s when you kiss them.” Isolated by the pandemic, Quiñones and Makshya Tolbert, both ’15, created OKCovid as a video-first blind-dating experiment—setting up 120 people in their first round—to “balance the effects of internalized racism and systemic racism in dating apps,” says Quiñones. During lockdown, she and her single friends “were clinging to dating on apps as a way to stay human,” she recalls. “But as a Black woman myself, I felt like I was wasting my time.” If the pandemic has a silver lining, Quiñones says, it’s that there seems to be far more intentionality in how people now date. Even formerly serial daters are committing. “I think people realize there’s no game to be played,” she says. As for whether a vaccine could usher in a period of libidinal abandon, she doubts it. Rather, Quiñones imagines post-pandemic dating resembling reopening phases. “Everyone will have their own individual reopening sexually,” she says.
And you’ll learn to eye-mote.
Reading faces is especially important when encountering a new person, says Jeanne Tsai, ’91, professor of psychology and the director of Stanford’s Culture and Emotion Lab. “If you see somebody for the first time and they’re smiling at you, you know to proceed and continue talking, and if they don’t smile at you, or they look away, then you go the other direction.” Now that mask-wearing has rendered our grins opaque, will we master different social cues? “Maybe one consequence will be that it forces you to look at the eyes and listen to the voice and look at the whole body,” Tsai says. “Maybe it forces you to be more open and think, ‘Maybe I need to just assume this person has good intentions.’”
You’ll track coronavirus exposure through an app. But only if your friends do too.
Contact tracing—identification of people exposed to an infected individual—becomes increasingly challenging as caseloads rise. Enter the Bluetooth handshake, the only handshake that doesn’t make us queasy. This “greeting” forms the basis for COVID-19 tracing apps: Spend 15 minutes within the range of someone else’s smartphone and you’ll get notified if they test positive over the next two weeks. But doesn’t this make us queasy after all? “Some governments track phones and issue quarantine orders if you’re exposed,” says Jason Wang, a Stanford associate professor of pediatrics. “In the United States, there’s a lot of distrust. People certainly don’t want to get visited by police.” Albert Gidari, the consulting director of privacy at the Stanford Center for Internet and Society, does see potential solutions. “An exposure-notification application like the Google-Apple decentralized approach is both privacy protective and effective in letting people know they have been exposed to someone who has the virus without letting the government or third parties know you were exposed,” he says. “If people think they are going to get deported, lose a job or be disadvantaged in the future based on the data collected, then all these efforts will be for naught.” And enough people have to have enough trust to opt in. “The more comprehensive the coverage,” says Gidari, “the greater the effect on stemming the spread of the disease.”
You won’t know many teens taking standardized tests.
Even before a pandemic disrupted the SAT/ACT test-taking plans of an entire cohort of high school students, a growing number of colleges and universities were adopting test-optional admissions policies. COVID-19 may prove to be the tipping point that nudges more schools in that direction. “We all know that the tests are sort of a proxy for privilege,” says Elise Maar, MA ’93, associate director of college counseling at Portola Valley’s Woodside Priory School. “We’re in this point in time where finally we’re having sustained conversations about equity, and with the pandemic, any college that was hesitant to go test-optional is having to this year. I think that once they see that they will get just as strong of a class as before, they’ll realize that the scores were really just one little data point.”
You’ll beat your high score.
According to the World Economic Forum, Americans purchased $29.4 billion in video games between January and September, a 23 percent increase from 2019. And 75 percent of households include at least one gamer. Though the most committed will still buy their favorite gaming consoles, TechCrunch senior writer Anthony Ha, ’05, says our increasingly powerful phones and tablets, as well as the launch of cloud gaming services from Google, Microsoft and Amazon, mean anyone will be able to play 2021’s most popular titles anytime, anywhere. We’re looking at you, guy hiding in the pantry playing Animal Crossing: New Horizons.