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Vaccines usually take 10 years to develop. The impetus of global lockdowns has given us one inside of a year. Once again, in a time of crisis, humanity has demonstrated its incredible reserve capacity.
It’s not as simple as an unusually focused commitment of resources, although that has certainly helped. The removal of bureaucratic barriers was also very helpful. But I’d guess an important factor, though unquantifiable and so overlooked, was the sense of purpose and duty that scientists and technicians and everyone else felt as they worked on one of the hundred-plus vaccine efforts of the past year.
Per usual, it was an imminent sense of crisis that spurred America to focus its resources and Americans to act with purpose. It was the threat of Germany and Japan in World War II that boosted America’s annual aircraft production from less than a thousand in 1939 to nearly 100,000 in 1944. Over the course of the war, that threat of annihilation allowed President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Class of 1904, to move more than half a million people into the middle of the New Mexican desert and propelled them to split the atom.
We waited 49 years from the Wright brothers’ first flight to the first commercial jet — we waited only 17 more to put a man on the moon. Why? Sputnik scared us. We organized and focused ourselves. And NASA scientists worked invigorated by a sense of duty and urgency.
But even more surprising than our capacity to rise up to a threat are those moments when humanity leaps forward seemingly unprompted. Take the rapid rise of Wikipedia. A bunch of amateurs, working in their spare time, built and maintained an online encyclopedia of 52 million articles that has become the eighth-most viewed website in the country. Even more incredible is how quickly it happened. Long before Jimmy Wales founded Wikipedia in 2001, the world apparently had thousands of people with incredible amateur passion for, collectively, every conceivable field of knowledge. This capacity was always there, deployed at cocktail parties and pub trivia nights like so many undirected air molecules until Jimmy Wales flapped his butterfly wings and created the hurricane that is Wikipedia.
Math Stack Exchange, a website where users ask and answer questions about math, is a similar project to Wikipedia. It has a wonderful feature that shows the number of “people reached” by each user — the aggregate views of their questions, answers, and comments. It’s remarkable how many users have reached thousands of people. Some have reached millions. I’m always amazed at the sheer number of people, in various fields, who know and love enough abstract math to spend their time answering questions. These people have always existed, but they suddenly reach millions thanks to Stack Exchange. A question is answered once as well as possible instead of a thousand different ways at tables and classrooms and dorm rooms scattered across the world.
But Wikipedia and Stack Exchange are the exception in that far more often, we access humanity’s immense reserve capacity only fleetingly. For the most part, an extraordinary portion of human activity is disorganized and undirected.
That may seem a radical claim in our capitalist age, especially to an oversubscribed Harvard student who GCal’s their naps. Certainly, we live directed lives relative to any prior point in history. Perhaps counterintuitively, although our greatest individual leaps of focus have been acts of government intervention and control, capitalism is in many ways the project of increasingly organizing human society. Milton Friedman encapsulates this in his parable of the pencil, describing the immense organizational structures that are created in order to manufacture something as simple as a pencil. Indirectly, slowly, but far more steadily than any government intervention, capitalism pushes to more efficiently draw on our reserve capacity.
But despite the long march of capitalism, relative to our greatest bursts of human organization, our society spends most of its time with a great deal less focus and purpose.
Thank god. The pandemic, after all, has also revealed the perils of seeking to permanently access reserve capacity. Just-in-time shipping strains supply chains in times of crisis. I remember one meme describing a country of “paycheck to paycheck people working for paycheck to paycheck companies taxed by a paycheck to paycheck government.” When companies optimize to the nth degree, even a small exogenous change can be disastrous.
Of course these observations are far too general to inform policy. I’m not suggesting that we don’t tap enough into our reserve capacity, or offering a suggestion as to how much we should. In the wake of a breathtaking, border-line unbelievable 12-month vaccine effort, I’m just writing to record my amazement at humanity’s vast reserves. Welled up in people, welled up in peoples, springing forth in every crisis and, sometimes, just for the hell of it.
Aurash Z. Vatan ’23 is a resident of Mather House. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.
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