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Innovation Economy

It actually may be the end of the world as we know it

Futurists and sci-fi writers look ahead to how the coronavirus could reshape everyday life

People strolled through the Arcade Building in Coolidge Corner.  Most of the businesses inside were closed last week.
People strolled through the Arcade Building in Coolidge Corner. Most of the businesses inside were closed last week.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

The world has never felt quite this much like a dystopian science-fiction movie with an overheated, overwritten plot.

And it can be tough — for me at least — to think past the newest alert on my phone, or the next to-do on my list. So how do you get a view that extends beyond the latest twist in the coronavirus crisis?

I did two things. First, I sought input from business people on Twitter. In your business’s current planning, I asked: “When do you expect the crisis will have subsided?” I got more than 900 replies, and 78 percent of the respondents said they’re betting on about six months — by roughly September. That number was split evenly between people who are expecting their companies to be returning to some kind of even keel by June, and those looking to September, instead. (The remaining 22 percent expected it to last until December, or even into 2021.)

Then, I took that September timeframe and asked a handful of business futurists and science-fiction writers what they expect the world to be like then. Their responses have been edited for length.

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THORNTON MAY, founder of Digital Value Institute, a think tank of tech leaders

In September 2020, the world will not have returned to a pre-virus status quo. This thing will change every part of society and our economy.

As a futurist who believes in the power of human agency to make the world a better place, there are a couple of bright spots.

We will come to appreciate the truly critical bits of infrastructure that modern life depends on — the food supply chain, the medical supply chain, and the logistical complexity of supplying stuff.

I think the whole “the kids aren’t going to school” thing might end up on the plus side. One, parents will now have to get involved in their kids’ education. Two, because the parents are working at home they might actually spend some time with the kids. Three, curricula for students will be customized and augmented. So in addition to following whatever online programs the local educational authorities come up with, parents and children will be able to take advantage of a rapidly growing array of online teaching resources.

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There are big opportunities for the tech industry to step up and start bridging the digital divide. In the Los Angeles Unified — the nation’s second-largest school district, with about 670,000 students — 80 percent of its students come from families living in poverty. This amount of poverty — independent of the virus — is a crisis.

During the Great Depression, the government created the Civilian Conservation Corps, which created/cleaned up the National Park System. Could we find a way of repurposing all the folks put out of work by the closure of all the bars and restaurants?

The biggest impact of all this will be political. George H.W. Bush failed in his second bid for the presidency because he did not understand the workings of the grocery checkout line [and was portrayed as being out of touch]. The electorate — faced with empty shelves and orchestrated visiting rights to grocery stores — will be no less kind to our 45th president.

By September 2020 we will have health forecasts, including the number of people who are infected; the number of people who have died; the number of people likely to be infected; and the number of people who were infected and who are now virus free. This will be accomplished via a mobile phone app.

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TOBIAS BUCKELL, science-fiction author and futurist

(Buckell chose to write about the world he envisions in December 2020.)

It’s almost Christmas. Many more families are choosing to videoconference their Christmas morning because it’s less of a hassle and danger than being exposed to the Christmas crowds. A lot more ordering has been done online, but that trend was already well in place.

For years, a family member who has a disability has been told he can’t work remotely and has been unable to pursue his dream job. But the collective work-from-home experiment the US took has broken the mirage that office work requires a cubicle, a place you go from 9 to 5 to be overseen by a boss. Supervisors have had to learn they focus on results, and not who carries around a clipboard the best.

Some companies will do the opposite, requiring employees to constantly prove they are working on computers and logging everything they do. But the focus on a results-oriented workflow, instead of butt-in-chair, will allow the nature of jobs to change.

There are far more gig workers. The massive unemployment surge and recession, however, mean many are feeling the bite. A lot of trade-based and off-the-official books economic activity is taking place, fueled by a new explosion of apps that help people share resources.

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There will probably be a rise in nationalist parties agitating and using the fact that the virus originated from an external source to their borders as a lever to engage in more racism.

The stunning unemployment rates, business failures, and disruption will have led to government intervention on a scale that neoliberalism hasn’t seen since the 1930s.

We are more germophobic, but we really value our third spaces more, like coffee shops and places to meet away from home, because many are unemployed or work from home and understand after getting cooped up so long how great it is to get out.

More communities stream their local government and allow online participation. Vote by mail, long suppressed by certain parties, becomes de facto in the US, with some moving to online voting.

JEREMY GUTSCHE, Trendhunter CEO and author of “Create the Future”

In all likelihood, we've emerged from the most intense period of this chaos and uncertainty. But restaurants, dentists, nail salons — everything is under incredible pressure, and small businesses are being crushed. The relief efforts are not really adequate.

We're going to have a really weird different world, in the middle of an election — a combination of finger-pointing and messages of unity. Who navigated the chaos better?

A different perspective is going to be Gen Z. They have an increased awareness of all things eco, and a desire for sustainability. They’re going to look at this and think about it as another example of the older gen messing the world up. They will compare the number of casualties to the number of people dying from environmental threats.

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In the entrepreneurial world, small- and medium-size businesses will be under a lot of pressure, but we’re also seeing a trend called instant entrepreneurship. It has never been easier to instantly become an entrepreneur. Start a website on Wix, go to 99 Design and have a logo made, go to Thingiverse, make a 3-D product, and then put it on Kickstarter and sell something. We’ll have a lot of people working from home, or laid off, and thinking about the businesses they could actually create, and looking for next steps.

There's going to be a dramatic remapping of the stores in your neighborhood. That will create new opportunities, and some new beginnings, but it will be a painful time of evolution.

From a business perspective, people are still going to have a fear of flying, and big meetings. You will think twice about having your lunch in the office fridge, and you will feel different about that high-five.

ANNALEE NEWITZ, science-fiction and nonfiction author, podcaster

I have a couple of scenarios I've been batting around in my head, which both feel equally plausible at this point.

Scenario One: As more people hunker down at home, more of our most vital and personal activities will have to go online. Lots of people are learning how to have serious meetings remotely, and how to work as teams in group chat.

Then there’s the arguably more psychologically vital stuff: I’ve been playing Dungeons & Dragons with my gamer group using videoconferencing, and watching TV with a housebound, high-risk loved one by hitting play at the same time on a TV episode and videochatting with him at the same time.

I’m not alone. A lot of us are cut off from our loved ones right now, and online connection is all we have. Suddenly “online” doesn’t feel like a fantasy realm. It’s our social fabric. The online world is going to become a fully robust public space, and we won’t want to see garbage and detritus everywhere. We will finally start to see social media companies taking responsibility for what’s on their platforms — information will need to be accurate, or people will die.

An Internet focused on maintaining connections with real-life loved ones and colleagues, as well as accurate information, might form the bedrock for a public sphere oriented toward stability and social welfare. We might see an election in the US where people vote for candidates who promise a government focused on social assistance, and have science-based approaches toward catastrophes.

Scenario Two: The pandemic rips through the population, aided in part by contradictory messages from state and federal governments, as well as misinformation online. As social groups and families are torn apart by disease and unemployment, people look increasingly to social media for radical solutions: violent uprisings, internment camps for immigrants and other "suspicious" groups, and off-the-grid cults that promise sanctuary from death.

[Social networks and message boards like] 4chan, white supremacist Discords, and Gab become the norm, as well as their left-wing counterparts. Having lost faith in the government and social welfare institutions, people embrace authoritarianism as a palliative. The White House blames liberal immigration policies for the pandemic, and a nation seeking radical disruption re-elects Trump, who promises to drain the swamp further.

My educated guess is that we'll see a little of both things, depending on where people live, especially because the pandemic is going to hit local communities unevenly.

SEABY BROWN, science-fiction author and entrepreneur

(Brown chose to write about the world she envisions at the start of 2021.)

It’s winter break 2021, just after New Year’s. Very few went to any in-person parties, but lots of folks used apps to participate in virtual parties. Families spend more time together at home since the second, and more deadly, wave of COVID-19 struck in October, spreading through young people returning from summer and back to school, falsely lulled into believing it was safe to do so by the waning numbers of new infections during the summer. Now it is the young people who are getting hit the hardest, since the virus mutated to be more aggressive in those young people who had viewed the virus as the “Boomer Remover” and ignored the social distancing directives. Like the 1918 flu, the second wave is the really deadly one.

With many parents out of work due to layoffs, more families are keeping their children at home and homeschooling in numbers higher than ever. School districts are looking to contract, with new homeschooling and distance schooling companies offering better ebook texts and Hollywood production style educational video series. Teachers are retooling to work as online tutors.

Unemployment in young people is soaring, leading them to boomerang back to their parents’ homes, relieving some of the housing shortages. Homeless people are being housed in hotels, motels, etc. that are now vacant due to restrictions on tourist travel.

Contact sports at schools and universities have been completely suspended. However, professional sports have resumed with mandatory testing and social distancing of athletes strictly enforced. The games are televised, but no crowds are allowed to watch it live. Since the economy is hurting and not everyone can truly be productive at home, factories and offices are open again. The saving grace is fast and inexpensive testing. Workers are spot-tested daily by many employers, others must test themselves each morning before commuting. Public transit is avoided, clogging the streets once again with private cars. Carpooling has become very unpopular. Ride-sharing apps are considered so last year, as fear of contaminated cars or sick drivers keeps users away.

Grocery stores and many other outlets have remodeled, and no longer allow customers to walk aisles and touch shelves that might harbor and transfer the virus. One shops online or at the counter, placing orders for goods for pick-up or delivery. Certain items are limited in the number that may be bought at any one time to reduce panic stock-piling.

Shopping and strip malls are ghost towns, and city planners are waking up to the fact that they were never good for cities to begin with. Researchers have failed to develop effective vaccines and shortages of vital proven retroviral drugs have led to a burgeoning black market, while pharmaceutical companies scramble to increase supply. Conspiracy theories abound.


Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner