This is a follow-up piece to the essay “Prepare for the Ultimate Gaslighting,” which went viral around the world, with more than 20 million readers.
The crisis has already taught us much, my friends. Primarily, it has schooled us in the power of scale — a concept every big business in the United States has mastered yet so many of us have never fully grasped until now. If you pitch your new app idea to any tech company or if you’re lucky enough to interview for Shark Tank, one of the first questions you’ll be asked is: How does your idea “scale up?” That means how do you take your idea and make it apply to all of America, all of the world? No one is ever interested in a product, service, idea (or screenplay, trust me) if the only people who love it are your friends and mother. Seeing the potential of your idea in the modern marketplace means seeing how it can be bought, used, or communicated to millions and billions of people.
With scalability comes great power. We have seen that power in action over the last month. Simply by staying in our homes, we have collectively lowered the death rate from a projected 2.2 million American deaths to 63,538 confirmed deaths as of this post. To come out of this collective trauma as better people and as a better country, we must fully understand that same power and use it against the great forces that are already manipulating us into going back to “normal.”
This lower death number is not evidence that this was “no big deal.” Quite the opposite. You and I made that lower number happen. It is confirmation of the power of scale and our own personal power to change the world. You saved millions of lives all by sitting on your couch and watching Netflix. So as the commercials and the gaslighting begin — in truth, they are already in full swing — we have a choice to make. Plainly put, we can either honor those 63,538 people by getting our collective shit together and forging ahead anew, or we can go back to clearing the shelves of Walmart, drinking every sugary Coke, and “liking” every duck-lipped Insta post of our favorite Armenian makeup moguls. The choice is ours.
Little did any of us know that we would spend the better part of 2020 roaring into the geeky details of charts, graphs, and the inner workings of an upside-down parabola. But here we are, flattening the curve, and the glaring takeaway is this: What I do and what you do affects everyone else in this world. Fuck, it’s so simple. I can only speak for myself when I say I never realized just how much I mattered. I now know that I have the power to save a life or unwittingly pass along an infectious sprinkle to my very best friends. If I wear a mask, I am less likely to spread a virus to two or three other people, who could then spread to another two or three people. For my fellow nerds in the house, the “R0” (pronounced “R-naught”) of the virus is now estimated to be 2.2 or higher. If you’ve watched Contagion on demand while homebound — and somehow managed to not be completely bugged out by the experience of living in the very world it depicts — you’re familiar with R0. It’s the rate at which the virus spreads or how many people you can give it to. It’s all simple multiplication.
Like a good old-fashioned ’90s chain-letter or my own essay that “went viral,” a virus spreads with lightning speed. The more connected we are physically or digitally, the faster it spreads. And because the 7.8 billion of us on the planet are now more connected than ever in the history of mankind, we are facing a new reality. Turns out, the future is viral. Virality is our new reality. This doesn’t have to be as terrifying as it sounds. If we can harness virality for the better, we can make life after the Great Pause truly beautiful, productive, collaborative, and humane. There is no going back. We can only go forward into this new unchartered land and create the New Normal.
Yes, maybe you’ve figured out by now that I’m a gay, yoga-loving, quinoa-eating, Prius-driving liberal. I promise you, that’s irrelevant. The power of scale is in all of our hands, both red and blue. We are all Americans. And we are all capitalists. But we have seen capitalism falter in egregious ways over the course of the last 30 years. Those are the same 30 years in which the divide between us has widened so deeply. Here’s my call: Let’s work together to become responsible capitalists. An example: My choice to use a fabric bag instead of a plastic one at the grocery store seems ridiculous to you if you have not lived in Los Angeles for the last six years. Now, there are many ridiculous things about living in Los Angeles, but California’s commitment to banning plastic grocery bags is not, in my opinion, one of them. What California understood is that when you embrace a new behavior and it’s perceived among your friends as cool, then they do it, too. Growing up in the boroughs of New York City in the ’90s, we would call those friends “biters.” The biters saw your new haircut, your new Champion sweatshirt, your new Capezio shoes, and they had to have them. The idea is still a fundamental of selling, well… anything. If you do something, your friends will, too. And if your friends do it, then so might their two or three relatives. And their kids. And their classmates. And their teachers. In the ’60s, it was a color television; in the ’90s, it was MC Hammer pants or Tupperware for Mom; in 2020, it is a fabric grocery bag or a fashionable mask.
And when a behavior — or an idea, or a product — spreads and goes viral, a market is created and the inevitable market opportunity emerges. “Market opportunity” is business-speak for the “chance to make some mo-ney!” The fabric grocery bag cannot only be sold for $2.99, but it can be tagged, labeled, branded, shipped, and gifted. You too can carry around your sliced mango in a Whole Foods-branded nonplastic bag. Do you feel cool yet? This is how capitalism can be a force for good, by marrying the art and science of marketing and branding with products, services, and behaviors that make the world a better place.
This is not a new idea, but it is high time we fully embraced it. Because of the crisis, every one of us knows — in our bones — that even though every action we personally take may seem insignificant, if you multiply it by 328 million people, it can have great or dire effects on our nation. That scale gives us far greater power as individuals than we understand, or that the great forces which currently run our economy, and arguably our lives, give us credit for. In fact, most of them don’t want you to understand your power. Why? Because if you don’t understand your true power in the process, you can remain on autopilot. And if you’re just too busy to pay attention or to complain or to rise up or to strike, well, then they can keep doing what they’re doing: getting disgustingly rich. But when we all come off autopilot, it all collapses. Within weeks. We just saw it with our own eyes. The empty streets and malls, the quiet downtown centers, the rush hour that is not — these are proof positive that without constant daily cash flow from every one of us, the American economy, along with the global economy, crumble almost overnight.
If we want and expect to lead long and fruitful lives, the slowdown and the great despair that comes with it cannot continue. We cannot, my friend, burn it all down. We must fix it. I have news for you: The fix is you. I don’t mean that in an obtuse, crazy, Jedi-master way. I mean it literally; what you and I do next matters. It matters for our ourselves, our parents, our kids, our future grandkids, and even for our living grandparents (the “high-risk” generation that so many have been so willing to let perish). Like it or not, we are in this together, you and me. We must reject the notion that somehow my getting what I want and need robs you of getting what you want and need. We must reject the idea that there are only a certain number of seats at the table, and if you get one then I lose one. And we must reject the belief, so deeply rooted in each of us and in our culture, that we cannot work together for the greater good.
So what do we do next? I can tell you to consider marching in the streets, and maybe because you are even reading this essay this far, you will consider that an option. There is a time and place for that. In my opinion, the time is November 3, and the place is every street in America. At that point, we will use the power of our voice and then the power of our votes to decide who will lead our communities, our states, our houses of Congress, and our nation.
What can be effective right now is a full-on cleaning house of your own personal economy. Every day, you give dollars, minutes, and clicks to any number of brands, celebrities, media outlets, and businesses. You think they are meaningless. They are not. They are your personal power. Because when you “scale up” those dollars, minutes, and clicks, that personal power becomes collective power and someone somewhere is getting that much richer, more famous, and more powerful — all thanks to you. The question to be asking yourself right now, and asking your family, is this: Who and what do you want to support? To whom and to what do you want to give your time and money?
Have you ever sat down and tracked your dollars, minutes, and clicks? Because I assure you that big business, big tech, and the big forces who want those dollars, minutes, and clicks most certainly have. Sit down and do it. Take one month and look closely at just how you spent your money, your time, and your energy. And then cancel every autopay, cancel every subscription, cancel every membership, cancel every commitment. Get off autopilot. And take this Great Pause to breathe. This is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to unsubscribe so that you can resubscribe to a life you actually want. All I wish for you through this keyboard right now is that you make a conscious decision about what you want your life, your wallet, your calendar — and, by extension, our world — to look like when we #reopen.
Right now, we are all experiencing “the dark night of the soul.” Screenwriters use this term to refer to that moment when the main character has lost everything, has not achieved his or her goal, has been beaten up and broken down, and is at her or his lowest point. You know this part of the movie. It takes place about three-quarters of the way in. The character is alone in her bedroom, his shower, her car, a forest, a cave. And they must look inward before they can move forward. That is where we are as a nation. We have ridden the “fun and games” upward arc of the consumer free-for-all of the 20th century. We thought we were invincible. And then we fell. Flat on our face. Thanks, Covid. And now, here we are, alone in our houses, surrounded by loss, many in great despair, being asked to look inward. There is no brand, no leader, no voice that can help us now. We have to help ourselves. This is the moment in the movie that the truth comes out — the truth of who we are and who we most want to be. Armed with that truth, our main character heads into the next act with a better understanding of herself or himself and a revived purpose in the world.
What is your next act? And what is the next act for America? How do we as a country look inside, find the truth, and reemerge to create a wildly fantastic new chapter — one that is fairer, more just, more dignified, and more aligned with who we are as a truly good people? I assure you that if you use this Great Pause to look inside — at yourself, your fears, your dreams… and your calendar, your checking account, your social media — and if I do the same, and we both find our truth, we can both emerge a purer version of ourselves. The actions we take as our better selves and toward our own better future will spread. The biters will follow. Our new behaviors, rhythms, and spending habits will get multiplied. It will all scale up. It will all go viral. And we will harness our new understanding of how this all works to do some good in this broken world.
This is Part II of a series based on the essay “Prepare for the Ultimate Gaslighting,” which went viral around the world, with more than 20 million readers. Read or listen to Part I here. Read Part III here. Follow Julio Vincent Gambuto on Medium.