Ladies and Gentlemen,
Welcome to the next generation of CINCHONISM (Conference Internet Chat on Interactive Social Media). Today, I give you…
Actually, that should read Zounds!
The exclamation mark is important. These unveilings are invariably relentlessly upbeat. I am a fresh-faced Harvard dropout in jeans and T-shirt, pacing the stage of a large amphitheatre and addressing, through a tiny microphone that looks like a mole on my cheek, the shareholders of my company Bookcase, who, when the curtain goes up on the ensuing video presentation, rise to give me a standing ovation as lengthy as that bestowed upon the Politburo of any totalitarian state.
But I have to admit, we are not quite ready for the roll-out. Still, stakeholders need to be kept in the loop going forward. So I will make some predictions as to how Zounds! will evolve.
Consider where we are now. I attend my German class, virtually, on a Tuesday evening (Dienstag Abend). We use Microsoft Teams. Who makes these titles up? Teams? It’s so corporate. I guess I’m just not a team player. But Teams, the package itself, is fine. There are usually half a dozen of us. I sit crouched over my Hewlett-Packard Stream and can see and wave to my classmates. The sound is good, the class goes well, and there are few glitches.
But now take a look at Zounds! Let’s say, again, that Zounds! convenes a meeting of six. For this, you will probably sit at your dining table. The other five attendants will join you, in hologram. The ambience of the class, as it once was in reality, will be faithfully recreated. You might even forget that you are not actually in a room full of people.
But there’s more. The deluxe version will add in tactile software. Aldous Huxley anticipated this in his dystopian Brave New World when he superseded the movies with “the feelies”. Now you can shake everybody’s hand. Next up, olfactory software. Freshly baked scones and freshly brewed coffee will be favourites on the run-up to the break. Attendants may wish to enhance their presence with a signature fragrance. Bookcase intends to market Virtute perfume and Itplume aftershave.
Of course there will be teething problems. These could be distressing to sufferers of synaesthesia. A voice could become malodorous, a holographic representation of a hand might become a pressure on one’s knee. There could be complicated and far-reaching misunderstandings. The entire confection could explode in a puff of incense reminiscent of the heavily perfumed late compositions of Scriabin. What a nightmare.
The real worry is that there actually will be people working on this stuff. In the midst of our current predicament, there is a piece of received wisdom doing the rounds, that digital technology has been a godsend in our social isolation. Personally, I don’t buy it. Don’t get me wrong; I think it has a place. Back in the 1990s when I was Senior Lecturer in Emergency Medicine at the University of Auckland, I ran video conferences with emergency medicine registrars in Waikato. They worked well, and I was saved a 300 kilometre round trip. But that was all I used it for, just as now, my German class is all I use it for. The real threat of the digital age is that its purveyors try to convince you that the product on offer is indispensable. A technology comes along, and its promoters get major organisations like the Police or the NHS to take it on, at vast expense, only to discover that it doesn’t work because it doesn’t fit the bill. I stopped practising medicine just around the time when IT enthusiasts were pushing the idea that email and tele-consultations were better than a face-to-face encounter. The irony is that, for the time being, they are right. This feels to me like a grotesque practical joke, as if some malignant classical deity has inflicted a curse upon us. We will become the stuff of myth, a people consigned to an eternity of remoteness.
I wonder if our governments have considered the really dark side of Covid-19. Dame Vera says, “We’ll meet again”, but suppose she’s wrong. Suppose there is no vaccine, no treatment, no spontaneous regression, and suppose every time we foregather, the R number goes up. It is an unpalatable thought, but I hope our politicians have at least considered it.
Now let us suppose that a vaccine is produced by Big Pharma, but it is hellishly expensive. Ten million dollars a shot. The NHS cannot possibly look at it. So the vaccine becomes the property of the super-rich. Now you have a select group of individuals who are immune. They can be issued with a Covid-free passport, and they can go anywhere they like, do anything they like. You might suppose they might elect to use their immune status for the benefit of mankind, and volunteer as carers and home helps, secure in the knowledge that they are safe. Or is it more likely that they will continue to mix with their own, in a club that is, literally, exclusive? They will be inheritors of the earth. Air travel will be impossible, unless you have a Covid-free passport and a private jet. You can hop from one five star gated community to another, and life will go on.
Meanwhile the rest of us, vulnerable to viral infection and still in lockdown, must endure a circumscribed life of stay-at-home, take a walk, and go to the supermarket, with a mask, once a week. The awful thought is that people, enthused with the latest digital technology, will think they’ve never had it so good.