For starters, here’s wishing everyone a 2021 that’s less fraught and more fruitful than 2020—not exactly a high bar to clear. “You can’t fall off the floor,” a favorite boss of mine liked to say.
I hope you’re facing these 12 months with a healthy dose of cautious optimism, awaiting our turns for a healthy dose of vaccine to vanquish the dread of COVID. It’s just the shot in the arm we need to shake off our slumber.
As we eagerly flip the calendar, the distinction that should separate ’21 from ’20—with a skyward-looking “1” pushing aside a sullen “0”—is a surge of hope and gratitude purging the stench of sturm und drang (storm and stress) that stunk up a year that will go down as the granddaddy of all downers.
This new year is more appropriately a renew year. A chance for us to get back to whatever personal and collective future we were headed towards when the all-too-real disaster movie called “Pandemic Panic!” started unspooling all around us, in immersively intimidating Imax.
It was 10 months ago that the pandemic stole into our lives, like a slithering snake in Eden, poisoning the vulnerable.
Meanwhile, pre-pandemic, our lives increasingly were being ruled by the digital ecosystem that is forever spinning around us, like a spider’s web. We rely on the digital matrix 24/7 to nominally navigate an average day of being.
The pandemic has prompted us to become ever more digitized. The internet serves as our communal nervous system, our matrix. That handheld life-support device that taps into the matrix is our AI (artificial intelligence) avatar—our pulse, brain, consciousness, identity. It authenticates our existence. Whatever you want to know, or do, or be, just massage the magic lamp. Voila! The genie is at your command.
Now, thanks to the 6-foot rule and crowd control keeping us apart, and the saving grace of virtual meeting spaces like Zoom keeping us connected, the digital matrix is more pervasive than ever.
Even when, at last, we are rid of COVID, the progressive digitization of human behavior will continue apace. It is an evolutionary adaptation that feeds on the inefficiencies of analog existence—such as the time and energy expended commuting to an office—similar to how fossil fuel is no match for the long-term efficiencies of renewable energy.
I don’t expect everyone to agree with that outlook. A lot of people prefer working in an office to working at home. And there unquestionably are those who look at the pandemic spike in online consumerism as a momentary aberration rather than a paradigm shift in shopping patterns.
They could dismiss Amazon’s 40 percent revenue growth in the latter half of 2020 (including sales of close to $100 billion July-September) as merely a blip on the growth chart. They reason that brick-and-mortar shops will recapture their rightful share from online when an inoculated citizenry ventures out again en masse.
Data scientists see a different post-pandemic future for retail: that horse, they say, has left the barn.
Techcrunch.com reported that, “According to new data from IBM’s U.S. Retail Index, the pandemic has accelerated the shift away from physical stores to digital shopping by roughly five years.”
That is to say, whatever share of retail revenue e-commerce would have taken by 2025 from storefronts, it reached that point last year (14.5 percent), powered by the pandemic. Physical store sales still own 85 percent of the market, with $4 trillion in revenue compared with less than $1 trillion for ecommerce, reports eMarketer.
But the trendline is clear: e-commerce sales in 2020 increased 18 percent over 2019, while store sales fell 14 percent from 2019—a 32-point swing. Department stores have been the hardest hit, with an expected 60-percent loss in sales for 2020 vs 2019.
Futurists peering into their 2021 crystal globe see expansion in other areas of our digital lifestyles.
Listening to podcasters, where a lot of futurists ply their trade these days, you hear suggestions that Uber could grow by diversifying from rides and food delivery to logical offshoots such as package deliveries.
Another idea is for Airbnb—sporting a market value that rivals the top four hotel chains combined—to apply its home-sharing model to vehicles, as well as to storage space in homes with room to spare.
Podcasting itself is expected to reach a new level of usage, on the heels of Amazon and Spotify spending hundreds of millions to acquire hot podcast producers.
A huge future market for world-beaters like Amazon and Walmart is retail health care. One analyst pointed out that rural denizens on average live closer to a Walmart than to a hospital. The rise in self-managed tele-health care, accessible with a phone, means we won’t always have to physically visit a medical practice to be diagnosed, or to be issued a prescription.
You know what they say… an app a day keeps the doctor away.
Bruce Apar is a writer, actor, consultant, and community volunteer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org; 914-275-6887.