The Virtual Renaissance

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought with it a great social disorder that many call the “new normal.” Society has finally fully embraced technology: all commerce displaced by virtual retailers, all communication performed via social media, and all 3 a.m. TacoBell orders executed by delivery. 

Is it possible that we find it easier and safer to live virtually? Could these temporary emergency measures mature into lasting societal norms? And is this the beginning of our virtual renaissance? One thing we do know is that history loves to repeat itself.

In the 1400s, a plague-recovering Europe found itself on a new societal foundation with a revised perspective on the world. Accordingly, Europe erupted into a Renaissance of aesthetic expression and socio-political upheaval. As Khan Academy paints, “With so much land readily available to survivors, the rigid hierarchical structure that marked pre-plague society became more fluid.” People emerged from their homes and began to harness something that they relied on throughout their arduous quarantine: the power of the individual. 

We can draw many similarities to today. National and local quarantines across the globe have placed people in an “unprecedented” environment. Trapped inside homes and apartments, society was forced to rely on technology to function in almost all facets of life. Kevin Roose, a technology columnist from the New York Times, describes that “The virus is forcing us to use the internet as it was always meant to be used — to connect with one another, share information and resources.” We are entering our own age of discovery, finding that the novelties of the outside world were at our digital fingertips all along.

This pandemic pushed diverse markets to digitize, and consequently, will mark the end to many nonessential retail institutions as people discover the convenience of the online marketplace. Following the CollegeBoard testing changes in 2020, virtual standardized testing will become more democratizing along with online courses and digital schooling. Furthermore, with the Trump administration’s expansion of medicare telemedicine coverage, it is clear that government services are targeting easily accessible online pipelines.  

In a very Renaissance-esque way, social organizations are addressing educational and digital inequity by providing laptops and internet access to under-resourced communities.  It seems that while we are all confined at home, we have begun to recognize the drastic discrepancy in what “home” is to many people.  As a result, technology has become the great equalizer with education, living assistance, and communication developed through the demand for equitable technology infrastructure. 

We see that in a time of separation, activists have harnessed the internet to initiate reform movements and online communities, fighting for equality through advocacy and lobbying.  Hope during the pandemic is stronger than ever. People have harnessed their devices, video calls, and social media to expand their individual powers.

Instead of dipping into humanism and the fine arts, our Renaissance subsists through technology and artificial means. Michelangelo states “A man paints with his brains and not with his hands.” Arising from the pandemic are novel canvases of tablets and screens. COVID-19 was the push for many markets to digitize, and it has catalyzed massive economical and political upheaval. 

The times we live in are far less “unprecedented” than commonly branded. Now is the perfect opportunity for humanity to stamp the pitfalls in our history as a vehicle to improve decisions in the present and create a more preventative future. The virtual renaissance is in full gear, and we must press ahead. Then, we can forge our own version of the Statue of David and paint our own Mona Lisa.

Matt Tengtrakool
Writer for the Harvard Technology Review.

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