In the last column we looked at some potential pandemic-driven ways that technology could advance in the next couple of decades. The last couple of weeks, as things have started to reopen, have brought to mind some additional ideas as well.
That said, I haven’t heard of any companies developing a very loud robot that rolls around crowded parks yelling, “Go home, you idiots!” and maybe whacking people with pool noodles. (Would a catapult be too much, y’think?)
As I previously alluded to, a lot of likely advances will centre around bodies. How we use them (or don’t, these days), how we keep them safe and what happens when we’re done with them.
There are more than 100 teams around the world studying the SARS-CoV-2 virus and working on potential treatments and vaccine options. The most optimistic projections are for a vaccine within a year or two, which would be unprecedented in human history.
Pandemic relativity: A two-year span seems insanely fast from a medical research perspective, and yet seems like forever when it means you can’t hug your mom.
Some of this work will not bear fruit, at least toward our current goals. But some will, and there are likely to also be beneficial peripheral discoveries along the way.
In addition to a better understanding of bodies, disease and treatment, there will likely be advances in manufacturing, storing and delivering treatments and vaccinations. Not to mention rapid testing technologies.
After all, we’re looking at attempting to achieve herd immunity for nearly 8 billion people, like, yesterday. And the world is not an even playing field in terms of medical resources and infrastructure.
In the meantime, people will continue to die, at times in overwhelming numbers. In some places it’s become a major issue over the last few months. With that as the reality, we need improved ways to manage the dead as well.
There’ve been horror stories from hot spot cities where funeral homes and crematories can’t process bodies fast enough. The refrigerated trucks don’t always arrive before the need is critical. This is natural disaster aftermath imagery for many, but really, is that not what we’re experiencing?
With this pandemic there has been a lot of thoughtful discussion about what constitutes a “good death,” because so many are not getting them. People are dying alone, their loved ones can’t say goodbye and it can be hard to maintain standards of dignity and humanity when people are biohazards and create logistical issues before and after their last breath.
Surely we can do better. Imagine if it could be safe to hold someone’s hand in their last moments, no matter what the contagion. Imagine those who had wanted to donate organs could still do so. Imagine refrigerated trucks were never needed.
The death care industry tends to be slow to change, for many reasons. But now is exactly when we need change, and can overhaul industries that were already poorly serving so many.
For handling the dead, perhaps it’s time to expand availability and knowledge of options like alkaline hydrolysis or green burials. Newer tech or no tech, more options for people’s final wishes, kinder to the environment, and no more overloaded funeral homes and crematoria. What even better solutions are there?
The grieving process these days is… not great. Aside from the lack of gatherings and hugs, I have an idea that one issue with virtual gatherings is that we only have one mental template, which is basically a version of how we generally hold meetings.
Even with friends, gatherings by video can be stilted, tiring and sometimes just… weird. Those are words you don’t want to apply to the grieving process.
One friend mentioned having attended a streamed funeral service, which she found very strange, although it did enable a greater number of geographically dispersed people to “attend.”
A big part of funerals, and the comfort they provide, is the ritualistic aspects, but a lot of that doesn’t work the same, or well, in a virtual format. I’m trying to imagine a congregation singing… in their living rooms…?
Would it help to have better ways for attendees to interact? Like what? Chat functions certainly aren’t it.
In the Canadaland podcast’s “isolation interviews,” many of the most interesting and thoughtful answers have been to the question: “What’s something you think may never be the same?”
The most intriguing and thought-provoking theme has been regarding human interaction and touch. It goes far beyond hot takes of “The end of the handshake!” Social and personal space requirements vary among people and groups in our lives. The grieving process is a key example.
But day to day, how does a world that had been reckoning, to some degree, with #MeToo, extend that into interactions of the future, in person or virtually, when physical access to people is so much more fraught?
There’s already legal precedent that intentionally coughing on someone can lead to assault charges. What about non-consensual touch? In a virtual environment? The law and how it’s applied is way behind on what bodies mean in this new reality.
I’ve already seen a few pieces on why we tend to find Zoom meetings more tiring than in-person meetings. As much as I enjoy the video chats with friends, they’ve definitely lost a lot of their novelty, especially when the same topics of conversation come up over and over.
But since we’re not going to be crammed together at conferences, startup weekends, symposia and all manner of social events any time soon, how is “getting together” going to evolve? Do we all strap on VR headsets and become our own Sims? If we had the option to do so previously, why hadn’t we already broadly embraced it?
Will there be guidelines and etiquette not only around virtual interactions and personal space, but in how we appropriately “skin” ourselves depending on the setting? Is it okay to show up to your team meeting as a pink dragon, or is that not business casual enough?
If we had immersive virtual schools – making the unlikely assumption that equal access could be arranged for all kids – should a standard virtual uniform be required for all the reasons they already are in some schools, and so those who can’t afford customizations, or aren’t interested in them, aren’t singled out?
I don’t know about you, but these days my brain isn’t working anywhere near the capacity needed to suss out or innovate around these complex issues. Here’s hoping our bodies stay healthy and our brains get better so the future looks brighter.
In the meantime, though, stay safe. Stay home. Wash your hands.
M-Theory is an opinion column by Melanie Baker. Opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Communitech. Melle can be reached on Twitter @melle or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.