2020 Was Not "Unprecedented"

“2020 was an unprecedented year because …”. All of us can find several phrases to complete that sentence. Versions of this quote have been circulating for more than a year. In particular, creators on YouTube and News announcers love this quote; every turn in the economy and the things they are able to / unable to do in their lives is “unprecedented”. In her book “This Time Is Different”, Reinhart makes the argument that there is a compulsive urge to claim that the present is completely different from the past, that there are no similarities and that whatever challenge / victory came yesterday is different and more significant than something that happened a 10 years ago. Reinhart rejects this practice of turning every insight into an epiphany and points to the fact that the same type of financial crises keep happening, over and over again, to demonstrate that the present is no more special than the past.

A lot has happened in the first 20 years of the 21st Century: devastating terrorist attacks in several major cities across the world (New York, London, Mumbai, Hyderabad, Boston, Paris), wars in several countries in the Middle East, the recognition of a possible climate crisis that could have very bad outcomes for countries that don’t have the resources to adapt, encroachment into sovereign countries by ambitious states that aim to expand their sphere of influence, the rise of the Internet and the substantial increase in Internet penetration across the world.

A lot happened in the 20th Century: 2 World wars, a deadly epidemic (Spanish Flu), a prolonged period of heightened tensions and anxiety, decline of monarchies and the rise of democracies, collapse of the colonial powers and freedom in their colonies, the discovery of significant crude oil deposits in the Middle East, rise of the personal computer, numerous healthcare breakthroughs, highly integrated world trade and an increase in the average number of allies of a country (2.5 1900-1950, 10.5 1950-2000).

A lot happened in the 19th Century: 17 major wars between 1815 and 1914 in Europe alone, the persecution of colonies by colonial powers, Japan went through the Meiji restoration and expanded it’s empire into Korea and parts of China, Jane Austen wrote some of her best novels.

A lot happened in the 18th Century: 33 major wars between 1715 and 1815, the founding of America as a constitutional democracy, …

These are just a few of the events from memory, references in the books I read over the past few months, and my experience since 2005. Historians would be able to lay out these centuries in a more logical, articulate manner (They would also be able to remember more things that happened in the 18th century, where my memory has not served me well). My argument here is that things happen all the time. They happened 300 years ago, and they happened yesterday. One should undoubtedly look at the things that are happening in one’s life as events from which unique insights can be garnered, but one should not make the mistake of believing that these events are unprecedented.

My favorite example of this is the invention of the Printing press by Gutenberg in the mid-15th century (1446-1450). Between the late 15th Century and the late 16th Century, book prices went down 90%: In about 2 generations (life expectancy was low), the price of books had become 1/10th in real terms (i.e. removing the impact of inflation on the prices). Also, recent economic impact studies have shown that the impact of the printing press on society was larger than that of the personal computer between 1977 and 2004. The major difference being that the PC’s impact was much faster (40 years as against the 140 years it took the Printing Press to be propagated across the world). I imagine myself being 15 years old in 1450, when Gutenberg made his breakthrough. In the next 40 years, book prices would have gone down by nearly half. That sounds very much like an unprecedented event, but I hesitate to give that tag to anything. Especially when dealing with the present, one should take special precaution as they have not yet had the luxury to analyze the events in retrospect.

The other misconception that I have seen thrown around is that the period since the end of WW2 in 1945 has been relatively peaceful. In objective terms, this might have been the case as life expectancy has gone up and infant mortality has gone down across the world. Rosling makes a compelling case in his book, Factfulness. But aggregate statistics seldom serve as accurate reflections of all the people in the world the world (even though they are useful to represent progress on a timescale longer than 75 years).

The Cold war was not actually “cold” and the post-WW2 period was not peaceful for the people in Korea, Vietnam or Congo. The US and USSR acted as proxy powers in several countries in Africa, Asia and the Middle East (CIA orchestrated coups). The type of warfare changed from trench warfare, the norm during WW1 and WW2, to guerrilla warfare, required to root out the insurgencies of the 20th century. Nevertheless, the facts remained unchanged for people in the countries that were stuck fighting a war: death, displacement and destruction.

On the economic front, the 20th Century also saw some major upheaval: Germany was reunified in 1990 after 4 decades of separation. The reunification was followed by a decade of European soul searching, as various countries in Europe tried to signal their commitment to the bloc; this effort culminated in the formation of the European Union and the adoption of a common currency in the early 2000s.

India’s economic policy saw major changes in 1991 and the economy was opened up to foreign investment and products, the monopolies in the automobile and electronics industries were brought to an end. The impacts of this policy change have been long reaching. State-owned enterprises that were created after the globalization of the economy (like BSNL) have struggled and continue to face a government that wishes to privatize these businesses. This indicates another major limitation from not being able to analyze the event in retrospect: One is unable to properly analyze the side effects.

Before assigning the dubious distinction of “unprecedented” to something, it is worth pausing to think about whether this take would be valid a year, 5 years, a decade or a century from now. The telegraph shortened physical distance like never before; the Internet blew the telegraph out of the water. I am convinced that the sober approach of not saying that something is unprecedented is the way to go when analyzing the present.