Predicting a future with covid. Barrymoltz.com photo
By Casey Bukro
Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists
“Life as we know it” is a phrase used so blithely and innocently in the past, before the coronavirus ushered in a global pandemic that turned life as we know it into a big mystery.
How long will this deadly disease continue to stalk the world’s population? How many more cases? How many more deaths? Can it be cured or treated? So far, there are more questions than answers.
In such uncertain times, humans respond by turning to an age-old tendency to divine the future with crystal balls, Ouija Boards, sorcerers, fortune-tellers and prophets. Today we call them predictions.
It’s always interesting to hear what people believe is in store for us. We normally get such reports at the advent of a new year, or the arrival of something totally unexpected.
One thing is certain: The disease already is changing life as we know it.
The AARP Bulletin appears to be among the first to make predictions on how life will change in the wake of this outbreak.
“Just a few months of life within the coronavirus pandemic has caused almost every business leader, researcher and planner to thoroughly rethink the future of America and how it will work for older Americans,” reports AARP, formerly known as the American Association of Retired Persons.
Americans might rethink past pleasures, like leisurely browsing in stores. Or living in a small apartment in a congested city. Or going to a ballgame with 50,000 others in the stadium. Or going to crowded restaurants. Taking frequent vacations. Or use public transportation.
Goodbye to handshakes
One epidemiologist, says AARP, predicts that handshakes will be retired, possibly for good. They said nothing about elbow-bumps. Others predict that downsizing retirees will choose less populated areas. Hyperattention to cleaning will be the new normal in aircraft, office buildings and wherever people gather.
It’s too early for a full exploration of how the pandemic will change future behavior, customs and policies. The coronavirus pandemic took the world by surprise, despite warnings from some scientists.
But this is a good time to consider whether past predictions by some of the smartest people in the world thought a pandemic or something like it was looming. For that, it’s worth looking at two reports delving 50 years into the future.
“What Will the World Be Like in 50 Years? 19 Futuristic Predictions,” appeared in Bustle.com in June, 2014, written by Seth Millstein.
“Predicting the future is tricky business,” allowed Millstein. “And while attempting to project decades into the future is damn-near impossible, plenty of people attempt to do so on the regular regardless. They’re called futurists, and it’s their job to predict what the world will look like in hundreds of years from now and beyond.”
Many predictions are comically off-base, wrote Millstein. The New York Times in 1920 proclaimed that “a rocket will never be able to leave the Earth’s atmosphere,” while Variety insisted in 1955 that rock and roll was merely a fad, and would “be gone by June.”
Predictions by leading minds
Millstein went on to list 19 predictions by some of the leading minds. Right at the top was, “disease will be more common, as everybody will be physically closer to everyone else….” Though a pandemic was not mentioned specifically, the prediction touched on the spread of disease and scored a point for the futurists.
Also touching on health, the report said going to a doctor for a checkup will not be necessary in the future. Run a scanner over your body and results will be forwarded to a health network.
Futurists commented on global warming, population growth and technological advances.
The pandemic clashes with two of the predictions: That a majority of people will live in cities and that air travel “will be exponentially more awesome.” The coronavirus already is putting a damper on those expectations as people flee crowded urban areas with high virus death rates and avoid sitting shoulder-to-shoulder on aircraft without social distancing. Disease is reversing those trends, at least for now.
All of us are racing toward what is blithely called “the new normal,” which is yet to be fully defined.
Future of digital life
Another fifty-year forecast, practically on the eve of the pandemic, looked at the future of digital life.
“Fifty years after the first computer network was connected, most experts say digital life will mostly change humans’ existence for the better over the next 50 years,” wrote Kathleen Stansberry, Janna Anderson and Lee Rainie, in October, 2019. “However, they warn this will happen only if people embrace reforms allowing better cooperation, security, basic rights and economic fairness.”
Their report is based on work by the Pew Research Center and Elon University’s Imaging the Internet Center. They asked 530 experts how lives might be affected by the evolution of the internet over the next 50 years. They included technology pioneers, innovators, developers, business and policy leaders, researchers and activists.
Disease is not specifically mentioned, but one finding involved living longer and feeling better. “Internet-enabled technology will help people live longer and healthier lives. Scientific advances will continue to blur the line between human and machine,” said the report.
Artificial intelligence is expected to take over repetitive, unsafe and physically taxing labor, leaving humans with more time for leisure, a claim made since the beginning of the technological revolution.
Hopeful and worrisome visions
The report is broken down into hopeful visions and worrisome visions. Among the hopeful visions:
* Digital life will be tailored to each user.
* A fully networked world will enhance opportunities for global collaboration, cooperation and community development, unhindered by distances, language or time.
* Expanded internet access could lead to further disruption of existing social and political power structures, potentially reducing inequality and empowering individuals.
Among the worrisome visions:
* The divide between haves and have-nots will grow as a privileged few hoard the economic, health and educational benefits of digital expansion.
* A powerful elite will control the Internet and use it to monitor and manipulate, while providing entertainment that keeps the masses distracted and complacent.
* Personal privacy will be an archaic, outdated concept, as humans willingly trade discretion for improved healthcare, entertainment opportunities and promises of security.
* Digital life lays you bare. It can inspire a loss of trust, often earns too much trust and regularly requires that you take the plunge even though you have absolutely no trust.
* The future of humans is inextricably connected to the future of the natural world. Without drastic measure to reduce environment degradation, the very existence of human life in 50 years is in question.
Some 72% of the respondents say there would be change for the better, 25% say there would be change for the worse and 3% believe there would be no significant change.
Updated predictions needed
The coronavirus was not yet loose in the world when this report came out. It might have changed perceptions and predictions.
Among those responding to the survey was John McNutt, a professor in the school of public policy and administration at the University of Delaware. He said:
“Not every technology is a good idea, and every advance should be carefully considered in terms of its consequence. On balance, technology has made much human progress possible. This is likely to continue. We will always have false starts and bad ideas. People will misuse technology, sometimes in horrific ways. In the end, human progress is based on creating a future underpinned by knowledge, not ignorance.”
It’s not a matter of good or bad outcomes, argues Erik Brynjolfsson, director of the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy, but rather “how will we shape the outcome, which is currently indeterminate?”
Fiona Kerr, industry professor of neural and systems complexity at the University of Adelaide, South Australia, saw it this way: “People love bright, shiny things. We adopt them quickly and then work out the disadvantages, slowly, often prioritizing on litigious risk. The Internet has been a wonderful summary of the best and worst of human development and adoption — making us a strange mixture of connected and disconnected, informed and funneled, engaged and isolated, as we learn to design and use multipurpose platforms shaped for an attention economy.”
Attention economy is the recognition of attention as a limited and valuable resource subject to market forces. The coronavirus captured world attention and swayed market forces.
The futurists and the experts most likely are rethinking their notions of life as we know it in the next 50 years.
The Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists was founded in 2001 by the Chicago Headline Club (Chicago professional chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists) and Loyola University Chicago Center for Ethics and Social Justice. It partnered with the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 2013. It is a free service.
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