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What The 1920s Can Teach Us About The 2020s

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article solely belong to the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Fresh Toast.

Our Middle Eastern wars seem to be finally ending and we all hope that a vaccine will end the current pandemic. But what will our “new normal” look like?   

Last month, the New York Post published an essay, “New York City is dead forever” by James Altucher.  

Altucher is a New Yorker who loves his city, so this was not the slightest bit of schadenfreude. Of course, many New Yorkers were outraged, but his points were based on real numbers that paint a very grim picture, especially for Manhattan, the heart of the metropolis.   

Although the pandemic is the immediate cause of the city’s problems, the fundamental threat is simply “bandwidth.” As Altucher explains:

“In 2008, average bandwidth speeds were 3 megabits per second. That’s not enough for a Zoom meeting with reliable video quality. Now, it’s over 20 megabits per second. That’s more than enough for high-quality video. There’s a before and after. Before: no remote work. After: everyone can remote work.  

“The difference: Bandwidth got faster. And that’s basically it. People have left New York City and have moved completely into virtual worlds. The Time-Life building doesn’t need to fill up again. Wall Street can now stretch across every street instead of just being one building in Manhattan. 

“We are officially AB: After Bandwidth. And for the entire history of NYC (and the world) until now, we were BB: Before Bandwidth. Remote learning, remote meetings, remote offices, remote performance, remote everything. 

That’s what is different.”

Obviously, “bandwidth” is more or less the same in all major cities, so while the problems may be greatest in Manhattan, “bandwidth” is going to have a similar impact everywhere in America, including Los Angeles and San Francisco.. and around the industrial world. In Los Angeles the greatest visible impact may be reduced traffic, long the bane of the city. San Francisco may return to its old culture of art and eccentricity.  

So the 2020s are going to be a decade of resetting all aspects of our lives driven by technology and its cultural impact. Consequently, it might be helpful to look back one hundred years to another decade of rapid social changes driven by new technologies… after a pandemic. 

GoFire
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Sometimes decades are clearly defined. The 1920s really did begin in 1920 after the “Great War” (WW1) and the “Spanish Flu” pandemic, and then came to a crashing end with the stock market crash in late 1929. The 1930s then began with the Great Depression and ended with WW2 in September, 1939. Other decades were not so neatly defined, but right now I am fascinated by the possible parallels between the 1920s and the 2020s. 

Our Middle Eastern wars seem to be finally ending and we all hope that a vaccine and/or testing and/or treatments will end the current pandemic. But what will be our “new normal”?   

We can find some clues looking back a century.  

In 1920, women finally got the right to vote, and a century later it looks like they really meant it. Four years ago, Hillary Clinton ran for President and won the popular vote by a wide margin, and this year Kamala Harris may well become the most important Vice President ever. Of course, we know that having a nominal right does not per se create equal opportunity. It takes time, hard work and persistence, something women have always needed, and women of color even more so. But women finally have a major presence in almost every part of our business and politics.  

RELATED: Why Is No One Talking About The Drug War (Marijuana) In The 2020 Presidential Election? 

In perhaps the most important parallel between then and now, the 1920s were also a period  of major technological advances that had an enormous cultural impact. First and foremost, mass electrification made the modern world possible for everyone except the very poor.   

The new automobiles made it possible for women to travel without a man to handle the horses. The telephone made it possible for women to communicate on an equal basis with men. Zooming just takes that to a new level.  

Similarly, we have already come to take “smartphones” for granted, but they have had a major impact on the drive for minority rights and criminal justice reform, by making the problems impossible to ignore. Without them “we” would have no idea what is really happening on “the streets.” 

In another parallel, in 1919 alcohol prohibition became federal law, via a constitutional amendment, and it was almost immediately defied by several states and cities, most notably in New York, and most notoriously in Chicago. 

“Speakeasy” entered the language, and “flappers” could actually have a drink in public, so long as it was private, but the culture was permanently changed by prohibition. A few of the speakeasies survived, most notably 21 Club, a wonderful place. 

Today, marijuana prohibition is still federal law, but it is being successfully resisted by more and more states and cities. Alcohol culture still shows the influence of “prohibition” (until recently the very word still seemed to apply only to alcohol), but we finally see it being used for contemporary marijuana policies. Unfortunately, the same stupidity that made a mess of “repeal” is making a mess of “legalization.”   

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Of course, “repeal”, the end of alcohol prohibition, was hastened by the Great Depression, just as the Pandemic Depression is hastening marijuana legalization. But the politicians should be focused on cannabis policies that create jobs and not just a source of tax revenues… or social engineering.  

The Great Depression was especially devastating to farmers and coincided with the Dust Bowl, a major environmental disaster aggravated by bad agricultural practices, especially growing crops not suited to the land. Hemp is actually good for the land, and hemp seed is highly nutritious, and hemp fiber has many uses.  

SEE: Prohibition 2.0 Making a Mess of Marijuana Legalization. Just Get Out of the Way 

The storms that are ravaging the Midwest are a reminder that corn, as a monoculture crop, may be untenable, literally. If the DEA would get out of the way American farmers may be able to avoid bankruptcy by having a real market for hemp.  

Now women are finally taking leadership roles in the cannabis business in what was a mostly male world. Women will also play a key role in developing legal on-premise consumption venues, semi private “clubs” where women will be comfortable. The best prototypes would be the Cannabis Social Clubs in Barcelona, or Barneys Uptown Bistro in Amsterdam. 

Interestingly, the Spanish Flu pandemic did not seem to make any lasting impact on the 1920s. It almost seemed forgotten. People crowded into big parties. Baseball drew huge crowds. Ocean liners were popular with the rich and famous. I think that this bodes well for next year. We are social animals, and I think there will be some great parties… Eventually…  

Speaking of “Ocean Liners”, cruise ships may or may not come back, but tourism in the 2020s is apt to be much more expensive than previously, because the pandemic has devastated the travel industry and has also demonstrated the problems with “over-tourism.” Paris may not be Hemingway’s “Moveable Feast” again, but at least we will be able to move.  

Just as smart phones and the Internet changed the world in the last two decades, technology changed life in the 1929s. “Between 1923 and 1930, 60 percent of American families purchased radios. Families gathered around their radios for night-time entertainment.”  

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And radios really strengthened the family because it offered a shared experience without leaving home. It also created a “shared experience “ in a huge nation. Decades later, television reinforced that trend. Now as families get smaller, and the population is aging, technologies are facilitating living alone, and we are drifting apart. 

By 1920, silent movies had become a major art form creating the first international celebrities, including women, and “movie palaces” were jammed. Again, movies were something that could be enjoyed by the family. By the end of the decade the “talkies” had taken over, and musicals would make major “stars” and really took the “celebrity culture” to another level. We still marvel at The Wizard of Oz. 

Today, “Hollywood” is both the victim and the beneficiary of the new technologies. Computers are making “films” (an old technology word) easier to make, but a combination of streaming and huge high definition television screens is devastating the movie theater business. Streaming has become a major catalyst for social change. Even after the pandemic, streaming will provide new ways for artists to communicate with new audiences. 

SEE: We Must End Marijuana Prohibition For Economic Recovery In A Post Pandemic World 

In transportation, Henry Ford’s technologies dominated the 1920’s just as Elon Musk’s will dominate the 2020s, but it is worth remembering that General Motors overtook Ford by the end of the decade. Will GM be the new GM? Possibly. In fact, every industry is being forced to change faster. “Future Shock” seems like an understatement. All change, or all fall down.  

In the meantime, fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy decade.  

Richard Cowan is a former NORML National Director and writes the weekly nationally syndicated column, Marijuana Weekly News with Richard Cowan.  

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