As if we needed another reminder, we’re in a pandemic, right now in the year 2020. The pandemic is an unqualified tragedy, a global disaster. We grieve for the people we have lost and rightly lament the suffering of millions.
But we also cope. Many of us have been fortunate to continue our lives and livelihoods, thanks to various technologies and improvements we have inherited over the years.
What would it have looked like had this pandemic hit us 25 years ago, in 1995?
Cue the Spice Girls, NSync, Backstreet Boys music. Or Nirvana. Or Destiny’s Child.
The first and obvious thing we would notice is no video conferencing. No virtual backgrounds, no thumbnail-sized bag of pixels representing another human being. No “can you hear me now?”, though in 6 years time we would expect Verizon’s famous ad to show up. Video conferencing in 1995 was like flying cars in every year – something that was always around the corner, but never showed up. Imagine today’s workday with no video conferencing… we would have had to use actual phones to make actual calls! To other people! Not some 800 number.
Which would have been another problem. We didn’t have smartphones back then. I don’t know about you, but most of us didn’t even have cell phones, smart or dumb. Those video, no, phone conferences, would have to have happened over a landline. Shared by Mom, Dad, kids, everyone stuck at home in quarantine. Brings a whole new round of grief to scheduling meetings when everyone has to book time on the landline.
And that same landline was also our lifeline to the internet. Remember the squeaks, groans and twangs of dial-ups? The groans were mostly from us when someone picked up the phone and disconnected our download of a picture of Sporty Spice. Drawn in ASCII characters… because no Unicode. No reading Chinese or Hindi or Arabic letters. Or emojis. How did we ever manage without the laughing-with-tears-in-eyes emoji? We probably had to type it out, like some farmer from the 1950s. No heart emoji, no head exploding emoji, no beer emoji, no T(om) Hanks emoji to express gratitude. Makes you want to slam your head into your desk. No emoji for that either. It’s enough to make you cry, if you weren’t laughing out loud. Not LOL, because FYI IIRC, ROFL NSFW BRB was gibberish then. Just as now.
The slow internet speeds back then meant no video-conference of course, but also no streaming video. No downloading movies either because that would take like a day and a half, and we would have had all of those phone conferences to interrupt the download. Heck, no downloading music either. We would have had to rummage through our extensive CD collection to stick one into a physical Discman and walk around tethered to the 2-pound thing with wired headphones. But hey, it beat hauling a boombox over one shoulder. Life was great in the 90s! We would be hoping someone invents a tiny device, call it myPod or something, to hold our playlists.
The web was just beginning back then, which would have put a serious crimp in our quarantine-relieving online shopping. In the mid 1990s, we had heard a rumour that Pizza Hut was assembling a web page where you could select a pizza, press a button, and that would place your order. (Offer available in California only.) Ridiculous! Who would order pizza from a computer?! During a pandemic, the right way to order pizza would have been to swamp those landlines with calls for pizza. And stay on hold while “someone will be with you shortly”. And that someone couldn’t even be someone from Bangalore because outsourcing customer service wasn’t a thing yet. Heck, half the time, customer service meant going to a brick-and-mortar building and arguing about an extra charge of 25 cents on last month’s cable bill. We hadn’t begun worrying about Y2K because that was so far away, but maybe with a pandemic, we would have.
Back to the web. No pizza, no ordering any food. Or clothes, not even face masks. Or toilet paper. Or exercise bikes. Or bread machines. Or… anything, really. It would have been pretty miserable being cooped up at home, making do with the stuff we already had. There was this website coming up, called Amazon, where you could buy books – and books only! – and they would ship it to you in like 4 weeks. Which was pretty quick, when you thought about it. And the book would be a real, combustible book because… no Kindle. Or iPhone. Or Android. The Barnes & Noble Nook was yet to come, much less leave. But the nice thing was that because a little-known company called Google hadn’t yet disrupted search engines, searching for anything on the web was a pain, and with a sigh of relief, we’d thumb through the yellow pages. Which were actually yellow even when they hadn’t yellowed with age.
We would have filled our time writing letters to friends and families. On paper, because no Facebook, no Instagram, no SnapChat. But we had email, so we could indeed mass mail all our friends and family those gorgeous snaps we took of the last vacation. No chat or texts though, and IRC doesn’t count because that was for nerds only. We would have to pass the time looking for clouds in photos, not photos in clouds. And the only tweets we could enjoy would be from jaybirds, not jackasses. Even all of our stress cooking would have followed recipes on paper. Spilling Sriracha on a piece of paper, instead of kombucha on a tablet.
But hey, at least there was cable TV. Though most of it was unwatchable. Who needed 200 channels when the best thing on TV was Seinfeld on Thursdays at 9PM? With no such thing as binge-watching known to humankind, we would have sat on a couch with half of America to watch it for the first time ever. But, with a pandemic raging, we couldn’t rush to work the next day to discuss the soup Nazi, the re-gifting or yada yada yada. As for movies, with no Netflix, we could always walk over to the nearby Blockbuster and get a new DVD… oh wait, that would be closed during the pandemic. Maybe we could turn on the news and watch a president make a fool of himself. Some things don’t change.
What would it look like if this pandemic were to hit us in 25 years, in 2045?
Cue whatever passes for music in the future. Animal growls? Atonal postmodern compositions? Music from our alien overlords?
Obviously, if this pandemic were to hit us in 2045, we would have a cure. And a vaccine that probably tasted like apple pie or double caramel extra shot pumpkin spice latte or whatever it takes to make even anti-vaxxers take a vaccine. Not that we’d need a vaccine, because we’d all be enclosed in our personal force-field bubbles that ensured we never encountered another living being’s bodily fluids ever. But still, we’d take the vaccine, because pumpkin spice latte is forever.
But, let’s assume there’s no vaccine, and for some bizarre reason, the one bit of technology we won’t have invented by then is an Insta-Vaccine Fabrication Machine where you just throw in some store-bought ingredients, press a blend button, and hey presto! instant vaccine. Because that would be too easy.
Obviously, quarantining at home would be bearable because we would have holograms. Holograms of teachers on holographic whiteboards. Hologram buddies playing video games with us. Hologram happy hours. Hologram office meetings. Hologram parent and inlaws visits. Or not, if the hologram machine is mysteriously kaput just on those days. Hologram hangouts with Paul Rudd, who probably has aged to a gracious 37 by then.
Pretty sure that by then the Artificial Intelligence stuff will have reached and surpassed the singularity by then, and the machines will be running all ten billion of us. At the very least, the AI would be able to re-create a hologram of Einstein, or Beyonce, so we can chat them up. And even though we can’t step out, we can immerse ourselves – literally – in hologram versions of the old classics, like Star Wars, episode 26. Who could have known that holograms would be filling such a big void in our lives in a future pandemic?
Shopping for food would probably be easy because the three grain crops we would be left with and the four vegetables can be combined in only about a dozen ways. If you have tried a soy-spinach jello once, you’ve tried them all. Our expanded circle of compassion would have made vegetarians of all of us by then so meat would not be an option, although that cricket flour would be beginning to sound respectable.
Staying at home would be a hassle without pets though. That same expanding circle of compassion would have moved us to liberate all pets. The cats went feral, the dogs died immediately, half of them from overeating garbage. But, home would be a refuge from the overwhelming stench of overflowing landfills, the perennial forest/scrub fires and the random and unpredictable weather patterns, so there’s something to be said for that.
It’s hard to imagine what entertainment would look like in the pandemic of the future. After all, we’re a species that is entertained by watching other people play video games. Or watching people fail at microwaving a cup of water. For a species whose pleasure ranges from the intellectual depth of a Bach fugue to the interplay of emotions in a cat video, entertainment offers many choices. Maybe, in the future, news readers will be Shakespearean, all movies will be drawn by computer, and all presidential debates will include jousting. Maybe we will watch a president make a fool of herself. Because some things don’t change.