Futurism is such a solace in times of trouble. Most people like to think back to some supposed golden era, when times were supposedly simpler, but crisis always makes me think of historical versions of the same type of crisis, and that’s never good. When I heard that COVID-19 had been given a name, the first names that came to my mind were “Justinian” and “Boccaccio” - which, if you don’t already know what I mean, should at least be an interesting half-hour of web browsing.
I studied history just long enough to know that I don’t want to live there!
I think forward. I mean, someone has to. Why do images of the future always turn out so dystopian? Because 1. we lack imagination and 2. we fear change. As a species. The individual ego dies but humanity as a whole carries on, smarter and more sanitary every time.
This is what I picture.
Urban people live in personalized pods that are sanitized by UV light. Almost all possessions are digital, including music, books, movies, games, and artwork. It’s possible to 3D-print objects like a new toothbrush or pair of socks, and then just toss the waste material back into the machine to be remade into something else.
All city food is inspected, cleaned, chopped, prepared, and served or delivered by robots. The only human hands that touch it are yours, when you eat it.
Sanitation is built into restroom fixtures, water fountains, railings, and other surfaces.
Everyone is wildly bored because there’s nothing to do but passively be entertained and waited on. It’s like being on a space shuttle without actually going anywhere.
Actually I don’t think that’s true at all. I think in a world like this, some people would adore it and others would run off to become Amish. Some, like me, would be urban most of the time and go off to the wilderness part of the time to recharge. It’s so much more interesting when it’s wild enough for the top-tier predators to come back.
We still want wildness, even when it tears into the tent, clamps its jaws around our head and drags us into the underbrush.
Why do we continue to find the past so hauntingly attractive, even when it’s demonstrably so grubby and smelly? When the plague could come and kill 30% of the population or wipe out an entire city? When for decades the leading cause of death was not heart disease, stroke, cancer, or war but tuberculosis? When a paper cut could give you tetanus and kill you in three days?
We’re squeaky clean compared to earlier humans, no offense to any particular century or culture but it’s true. We have incredible sewers and water treatment plants, flush toilets, running water, automated soap dispensers, and even better, we have vaccinations. There is now a vaccine for a common childhood disease that killed my first cousin once removed about 60 years ago.
In the future, there will definitely be new and improved vaccines. I’ll bet a flat green American dollar that they will be free to all comers. Quite probably there will be a universal flu vaccine and a universal rhinovirus vaccine and a universal coronavirus vaccine. And, equally probably, there will be refusers and deniers and scoffers just as there are today.
The more common the vaccine, the less people care. They take herd immunity for granted. Dude, I have close relatives who have been taken down by mumps, by scarlet fever, by tuberculosis and even by chicken pox. We can largely ignore most epidemic illness because of the concerted effort of health professionals and the scientific community throughout the Twentieth Century.
We live the dream of every parent who ever cried over a child’s deathbed, “Make it stop!”
This is why I think the biggest deal about the future will be better and better health care, because that’s always been our first priority. It’s the main thing people will bankrupt themselves for. People will risk their lives to care for other people when they are sick. Others will work day and night, hunched over in a lab, trying to develop treatments or vaccines or anything at all that will work.
I think what will change is faster communication, cheaper and faster diagnostics, and cheaper and faster vaccine and drug development. As we get better at research and better at logistics, better at crisis response, there will be parts of the world that get by mostly epidemic-free.
And, in response, at least for now, more intellectually lazy people contributing to one of the all-time great tragedies of the commons, abdicating on herd immunity.
I think in the future we’ll be marginally better at public service announcements and understanding the psychology of the refuseniks. Probably we’ll also get better at isolating people.
What is more likely to save us is the innovation curve of the service industry. We’ll go on smearing our greasy fingerprints all over everything, only institutional changes will gradually adapt around our behavior. We’ve all been taught incrementally to do things like wait in line, use tablets to place our orders, read the signifiers on little sauce packets, and sort our trash. A lot of the sanitation and trash hauling is transparent to us as we go about our business.
Mostly, we buy what is available in the form factors that are presented. We quickly adopt innovations like voicemail or seatbelts or drive-thru windows, and we learn to understand new icons in a way that may even be accessible to habituated wildlife.
We’ll be cleaner and healthier in the future because decisions will be made above our pay grade. For instance, right now industries from airlines to banks to coffee shops are making adjustments, as much to keep the money machine humming as to protect their customers and employees. Commerce only works for the living.
Ten years from now, we won’t even remember exactly how it happened. We may only realize how much things have changed when we try to look backward, just as it’s hard for me to remember what it was like before smartphones + internet access + GPS. I remember the specific day I learned how to do a Boolean search, but I have trouble reconstructing how I used to think before that day. It’s going to be the same with the near-term future.
Right now, we can order quite a lot with the touch of a button. In the future, it just won’t be a physical button and we’ll be subliminally discouraged from touching anything at all.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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