Over the lockdown period, a number of theories on the future of our society have been advanced. Some of them revolve around ‘The Great Reset,’ in which a bungled public health response has been leveraged by powerful interests to bring about a joyless, technocratic future. Others involve mass vaccination as a route to depopulation. There are more too: that we’re headed to a social credit system, or more optimistically, a ‘great awakening’.
Although we may all have an idea of what we believe the future looks like, I am going to hold my hands up and say I do not know. I’m also sceptical of those who say that they do with absolute confidence. What I will say though, is that I believe we are at a crossroads. We are not committed to a set outcome.
What the body politic does in the coming months will, however, determine where we end up. Will enthusiastic compliance with what has come before lead us into a biosecurity-obsessed hellscape? Or will the drive of people to realise their own humanity lead to a new age of enlightenment in which we honour and recognise all that makes us who we are, even if some of those things are chaotic and risky?
Lockdowns and social distancing are not going away. If and when these measures are lifted, there is no guarantee that they will be consigned to the scrapheap of abhorrent ideas, never to be used again. They are, after all, an ‘innovative intervention in pandemic control’, as the Times proclaimed in December 2020 in an interview with Neil Ferguson.
What will the future look like as a result? Here are a few scenarios of my imagining, written both to give rest to my own anxiety and to remind those reading this that nothing is certain.
Our lives are a poor facsimile of what they once were. People, unwilling to choose a full life over a long life have welcomed in a world in which physical contact between humans is highly stigmatised, if not outlawed. In doing so, they have centralised their communication in means that can be absolutely controlled by technology companies and governments.
This will lead to a suppression of unorthodox, or ‘illegal’ ideas and speech, since interaction in physical space between people has now been outlawed, and companies slavishly follow government edict. Since law changes so rapidly in this world, what’s permitted to be communicated changes too.
Uniformity in thought will result, with dissent crushed. Not through heavy handed policing, but the ‘lockdown’ of ideas. By analogy to a virus, their transmission will cease due to a lack of transmission routes (social networks, web platforms), and available hosts (people able to view dissenting content). Those with alternative world views will find themselves mentally and physically isolated, withering, unless they are able to successfully conceal their beliefs.
Bodily sovereignty will become a thing of the past, treated with the same disdain as female genital mutilation or slavery are now; the sentiment being that it was degenerate to allow individuals to make choices over how to treat their own bodies. Such loss of sovereignty may come in the form of forced and coerced vaccinations and medical interventions, like insemination, organ removal, chemotherapy, abortion or lobotomy. These will be portrayed as the government keeping us safe and healthy, or some form of ‘body maintenance’, since in this world, reductive cliches, hysteria and flawed logic (‘if you don’t take your booster, you’re a murderer’) are used to manufacture consent.
People will accept the changes to their bodies with open arms, since the media they consume will have conditioned them to. They no longer have their own, internal, principles or values, meaning that what is ‘good’ and ‘bad’ now always comes from an external source.
Now that almost all human interaction proceeds via a centralised channel, questioning actions defined as ‘good’ or or ‘bad’ by any future regime will be impossible. People will grow to be physically and mentally weak, socially stunted and slavish. They may feel profound anxiety and sadness, yet not know why. They may also yearn for a different life but dare not express those thoughts.
Following the total loss of bodily sovereignty life expectancy will increase. This is considered cause for celebration. After all, treatments like mechanical ventilation can keep the body going long after the soul has departed. This does not translate to a life spent in love, presence and the realm of the real. We no longer look at the fullness of one’s life as the mark it being lived well. We now only look at its length.
Since individual health has been outsourced to the state, any loss of health is regarded as either a failure of the state or the act of a criminal; most likely the latter. Becoming ill will become a moral failing, punishable by law social stigma or both.
In our monomaniacal pursuit of long life an end to the uneasy truce between the microbial and the human occurs. We watch for any and all changes in the microbiome. We screen every mutation, every frame shift, every switch of a G, A, T, C, U in a nucleic acid sequence for potential threat to us. We will have made a biological citadel. This will become our guiding purpose. Not knowledge, art or the cultivation of both through technology, and a strengthening of our interpersonal bonds. We shall strive merely the avoidance of death, interspersed by orgies of consumption and distraction as a way of navigating the hell we have made for ourselves.
The setting of an awful precedent
You and I are sat two metres from one another in a restaurant, having filled in the requisite contact tracing forms. This time, they’re not to stop the spread of SARS-CoV-2, but some other contagion. Having presented our vaccine passports at the automated turnstiles into the restaurant (bouncers and greeters having become a thing of the past), a masked, visored-up waitress beams us our bill after a somewhat satisfying meal. We pay by card, leaving no tip for the waitress. After all, no rapport has been established between ourselves and that pair of eyes behind the mask – you do not tip people you have no liking for. We elbow bump (since to handshake indoors would get us thrown out) and go our separate ways.
There’s a slight problem with the ‘virus-security’ of what I’ve just described though. We weren’t supposed to be eating at the same table; there was a ban issued on people mixing from different households last week, but here we were. Surely, the turnstiles would have picked up that we’re from different addresses? If not there, then the waitress must have had an inkling we aren’t from the same household?
Well. The waitress knew we didn’t live under the same roof. The turnstiles did pick up our different addresses. It’s just that nobody did anything about it. Despite the imposition of and compliance with so many distancing measures, most people just skirted around them. Life carried on in a similar vein to 2019, with the exception of the permanent banning of mass gatherings, i.e. weddings, funerals and concerts.
That didn’t mean they didn’t happen. It just meant that anyone resourceful enough was able to fabricate a reason for gathering under the many exemptions from the ban. This has meant the number of business meetings and support groups that have only met once and with some remarkably inventive dress codes has skyrocketed.
Nobody really understands why any of these impositions on gathering, mixing and attire (e.g. masks) still exist. No-one follows them to the letter, yet many are very quick to admonish those who are breaking the rules in a way they don’t like, be that not wearing a mask outside, or having the wrong number of people in your house. In what’s left of public life, almost everyone you might encounter parrots the same lines about protective barriers, PPE and health passports being necessary for ‘the greater good’. No-one quite knows what that good is, nor did they ever ask the ‘greater’ what was actually ‘good’ for them.
Mentally, the public moved on from this particular pandemic months ago, perhaps about a week after the first lockdown for this pandemic was declared. Admittedly, some of its number were scared, but the fear was real for many, as it was for the COVID-19 pandemic. That one changed everything.
At the start of this pandemic, you got the chorus of voices you always did when a new pandemic rolled around, calling for maximum suppression, ‘zero disease’ and lionising whichever world leader took the most insane and disproportionate measures to handle it, but nobody really cared about it all. It had become the topic of a 30 second exchange over a virtual coffee break at work, but treated with the same gravity as how drunk Karen from accounts had gotten at the last Zoom social, or the weekend football score.
Why all the theatre then, in spite of the irrelevance of any measures we threw at a new disease? Why then, all the submission to this most incompetent of biosecurity states, that couldn’t stop the violation of restrictions even if such flouting was staring it in the face? Because it was necessary.
I don’t mean necessary to protect public health. I mean for the economy. Sometime in the mid-2020’s, it became very very clear that certain industries just weren’t coming back. High street retail, office-based work, in-person performing arts, low-cost air travel and silly luxuries like cancer screening.
All this destruction created a lot of unemployed people, who needed jobs and there just wasn’t enough money left to pay people not to work. So we needed to get people back to work. How did we do this? We redirected that displaced labour towards building and maintaining a biosecurity state.
We birthed towering industries: making masks and reagents for testing, developing apps to gaining access to venues and facilities, and the infrastructure necessary to manage all of the data that resulted. A black market for forged health credentials and other ways to play the control system (e.g. fake vaccine passports and negative tests) emerged in tandem, with the acquisition of these credentials being treated with the same social stigma as smoking cannabis in the late 2000s.
Many orchestral musicians, actors, opera singers, publicans, pilots and others whose jobs were ‘no longer viable’ re-skilled to join these new, industries. As many others did in the time before COVID-19, this reskilled labour force struggles with the purpose of its work. Life is pretty good between lockdowns, if not more annoying, what with all the vaccinations and tests we have to take to do anything vaguely human. Everyone knows it’s nonsense, but there’s just too much to lose in dismantling this system. Many suffered and died due to the collapse of industries during the COVID-19 pandemic, and a similar thing would happen if we were to destroy this biosecurity state and replace it with something less dystopian. Anyway, if the constant intrusion of the state on your being gets too much, you can schedule an ‘essential’ trip to a friend’s house to pound a few beers, or alternatively set up a business meeting that happens to take place at a poker table.
A neutral future
We’re back to 2019 normal. Lockdowns were like Brexit, tremendously polarising (and damaging/necessary, depending on how you look at it), but in the past now. ‘Freedom Day’ has come and gone, vaccines appeared as some sort of deus ex machina and are credited with the curing of all ills.
Masks and some security theatre are more prevalent, juxtaposed with forms of greeting falsely thought to lead to infection (handshakes etc.) becoming a thing of the past. Joe and Jane average thought of lockdowns as important, and great for driving down infection. They cite them along with vaccines as the reasons why we are free once again; and not that powers that be have finally decided to stop intruding on our lives.
They say this not because they really, intuitively believe it, but because it’s what the media them is the case. Now that they’ve had their second doses of vaccine, posted about it on some social media platform, they’re ‘safe’ and ready to party. For them, the events of 2020 onwards were never about an assault on liberty or what it was to be human, they were just irritated that they couldn’t engage in their hobbies. Now that they can, nothing about the violation of their ‘rights’ really matters any more.
It’s A-OK for lockdowns to be reinstated according to these people, since the worst thing about them is that the places they’d normally pass the time in are shut, and any critical thought about what will be happening can just be rationalised via clichés: ‘it’s just great that we can get through this together, and besides, we haven’t had a cold all year!’
There now exists a parallel section of people who have watched the enthusiastic acceptance of lockdown measures and the relentless scrutiny of health parameters with horror. They might refer to what they have experienced as a form of trauma. This may culminate in their being far less trusting in the people around them, greater bitterness, suspicion, and overall cynicism towards the lockdown-supporting public.
We may see the outward expression of these traits as more reclusive behaviour, a reduction in extroversion, agreeableness and a general unwillingness to contribute to the common good, in the form of working to rule and ‘gaming the system’. Materially, we’re all going to be that little bit poorer, but it could be far worse, all things considered.
Were I to write more hopefully about this world, I might say that a new found appreciation for community, togetherness, decentralisation, non-involvement of government in intimate life takes root, against the backdrop of the socioeconomic damage caused by restrictions.
This means, that in spite of what ‘measures’ are deployed to contain future threats, there will be more visible opposition to their imposition. In fact, we may be lucky enough to see protests and resistance before any future lockdown!
This opposition may translate into lockdown policies getting shelved simply because they’re not popular. At an extreme, the imposition of lockdown measures may lead to differences in opinion as deep and severe as those leading to the Capitol riots or even the Troubles in Northern Ireland. The resulting unrest may lead us the asking of some salient questions on the boundaries of power over civil life.
Really building back better
Over time, we’ve realised a few things: state regulation of the most intimate parts of our lives is flat out wrong. Any attempt to do so, will be punished severely by the public. But that’s not the end. We now have a more proper understanding of the scope and limitations of science, and where it can and cannot be used to inform policy.
We’ve decided it’s important for future generations not to make the same miscalculations that we did. We teach them about the scientific method, critical thinking and logic. We also teach people to understand how events in history relate to one another in a patterned sense, not only looking at the behaviours expressed in particular persecution and mass hysteria events, but what the behavioural similarities are, across persecution and hysteria events through history. As a result, we, the public know when a mass panic is brewing, and can act to quell it.
In becoming aware of our collective fallibility and the importance of intellectual diversity in decision making, decisions with far-reaching consequences are taken after reasoned debate between informed experts with no competing interests. The public can spectate and contribute to these debates in real time along with those responsible for making policy decisions. Due to our education efforts, these debates rarely, if ever descend into ‘mob’ thinking.
Technology monopolies are broken up after a realisation that they are bad for intellectual diversity. This leads to a proliferation of alternative narratives (conspiracy theories) surrounding various events on now decentralised, privacy-conscious social media platforms. Instead of trying to mute these narratives, neutral parties are invited to confirm or refute claims made. This ‘fact checking’ service can be requested by the readers and viewers of social media posts; a service often used by our logic-aware public. The resulting ‘fact checks’ are without bias, very detailed yet also readable and are never used as the basis of censorship.
Once a conspiracy theory gains some mass appeal, those most involved in propagating the theory are invited to debate with those aligned with a more conventional narrative. From time to time, the conspiracy theory is shown to be what’s actually happening, in contrast to mainstream narrative. Audiences of these debates, cognisant of emotional and logical fallacies due to our overhaul of the education system, know full well when they’re being lied to.
It is against this backdrop that technological developments serve to liberate and help us live more vibrant, authentic lives in the real world, as opposed to slowly enveloping the human experience as it is now.
These scenarios are what I think the future may hold. I could of course be wrong, and the list isn’t exhaustive. So, what do we choose? Where do we go? It’s up to all of us.
We really are in this together.
We would do well to choose wisely.