A Dispatch from the Infected Future

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Header image by Phoebe Edith

In this text, I tried to extrapolate some of the most pessimistic projections of the COVID-19 pandemic (along with some other trends) by 7 years, and merge it with the familiar style of first-generation cyberpunk writing.

The countermeasures to infection have been rolled out swiftly & mark a substantial departure from the recent norm. Just as nomadic precarious contract work became ubiquitous, we’re seeing exactly that sort of work shut down as a medical risk.

Because those folks have had their social safety net eroded away, even right-wing politicians have been forced to adopt policies that have been among the most far-fetched dreams of radical leftists for decades — basic income, rent jubilees — just as the popular demand for those policies has reached near-revolutionary levels. These responses are supposed to be temporary — but as any engineer or administrator knows, ostensibly-temporary fixes are among the hardest to discard.

Life will change in other, less easy-to-predict ways.

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Photo by Amelia Brown on Unsplash
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The fashion industry relies upon laborers working physically close together — obviously a danger (even to the upper-class managers). As the labor necessary to mass-produce clothing out of cloth ceases to be logistically viable, we might see a return of paper clothing — especially if people are spending most of their time indoors.

Paper clothing can be produced automatically by machines that aren’t much different from regular printers, & can be recycled in the home. The same processes can be used to make masks, although they may not be up to the same specifications as mass-produced medical masks.

With ingenuity, papercraft clothing and accessories can be made striking or attractive, although they cannot be made particularly durable.

In a world where people don’t go outside much, public infrastructure will need to be low maintenance. Construction work often cannot be done with a small crew, so it will be done less often. Solar-powered street lights already exist, but will probably become more common.

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Photo by Joe Ciciarelli on Unsplash

Although car traffic will become less frequent as people stop commuting to work, repeated freezing and thawing will still create and widen cracks in asphalt, eventually breaking it up entirely. Paved streets will become gravel, as they have in some parts of Cleveland as the result of lack of maintenance.

Lowered emissions from traffic is not enough to keep the world from warming, & so we should expect the trend of increasingly mild winters to continue. Of course, lots of people who would normally have cars for commuting purposes will get rid of them, and these warmer winters will be more comfortable to walk in.

We should expect telepresence control of cars to take the place of ride sharing — but probably along the same general business model as Uber and Lyft. The slightly higher risk from tele-operated vehicles (due to lag & the threat of actual disconnection) will be compensated for by the substantially lower traffic, and even without taking that into account, folks will probably consider it safer than riding in a car with another human being.

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Photo by Max Bender on Unsplash
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Image from National Geographic

We can learn a lot about how people would act in a world where going out is discouraged by looking at the behaviors of hikkikomori and the technologies that enable them. Vending machines and 24-hour convenience stores are a godsend for the pathologically socially anxious, and a lifesaver in a prolonged pandemic.

Contact with human clerks can be avoided altogether using automation, but many of the tasks that must be performed by convenience store clerks, while they can be performed by robotic arms paired with a skilled operator, cannot be performed by current AI today. We should expect telepresence to bridge this gap, with clerks working from home along the call-center model.

Since a prolonged pandemic gets rid of whole classes of service jobs (waitstaff, much of restaurant kitchen staff, taxi and rideshare drivers), we should expect UBI or something similar to be instated. This will probably lower the number of people willing to work as clerks in convenience stores. However, since those stores will get less frequent traffic, telepresence multiplexing makes sense: have one person administer many stores.

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Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

On the other hand, we should expect performance-oriented jobs like video game streaming, vlogging, and streaming-video sex work to become much more common, as the difference between doing it as a hobby & doing it as a real job blurs.

Some previously-unnecessary tasks can also be fully automated. For instance, if the portion of the store that customers have access to is kept separate from the portion of the store where stock is kept & food prepared, that section can be automatically sanitized, so long as there are no customers in the store.

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Photo by Andrik Langfield on Unsplash

The popular (though controversial) article Flattening the Curve is a Deadly Delusion suggests that the social isolation policies necessary to produce an eventual 70% infection rate without overwhelming hospitals would need to extend out for ten years. This would mean there would be teenagers who were too young to remember the concept of a sit-down restaurant, a school, a concert, or a movie theatre.

Smart phones have only existed for 15 years, and most of us have a hard time imagining life without them. After a decade of self-isolation, how many of us would find going out to eat equally unimaginable?

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Photo by Lianhao Qu on Unsplash
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Photo by Tirza van Dijk on Unsplash

A society of people living indoors and communicating over video chat will probably take full advantage of the creative possibilities of custom clothing. To the extent that most people perform labor, they will probably do so by performing for each other in exchange for tips, and just as youtubers have embraced elaborate sartorial statements, we should expect the larger amateur entertainment industry produced by lower barriers to entry and lower barriers to profitability to engage in an arms race of creative fashion.

Written by

Resident hypertext crank. Author of Big and Small Computing: Trajectories for the Future of Software. http://www.lord-enki.net

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