Recently, I was approached by the Center for Humans and Technology at Eindhoven University of Technology to write a short story about the potential impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on our future society. The short story was to be written to mark the launch of a short story contest with regards to “Living with and after COVID-19”. I decided to write a story about a fictional family living in the year 2033. Ben and Wendy Adkins have two kids, and their eldest child (Rachel) who has to complete a school project on the differences in society between 2015 and 2033. The story is available to read at the TU Eindhoven website, and can be read below. Enjoy!
It had been a long day for Ben Adkins. His eyes were weary from staring at flickering volumetric images of his colleagues. Ever since the introduction of the Health Act 2027, weary eyes had become the norm for Ben. The novelty of welcoming 3D impressions of his colleagues to meetings in his home had worn off though, particularly when it involved colleagues virtually visiting his home, colleagues that Ben wanted nothing to do with outside work hours.
Ben stood up, and stretched his arms over his head. His home office afforded him a pleasant view of his pristine garden. The sun broke through the trees at the rear of the garden, casting fractal shadows over the short grass. At that moment, he thought that he should spend more time relaxing in the garden than he normally did. But that all depended on the health-weather forecast of course.
As he made his way to the door of his home office, he tiredly spoke to the room. “Immersion V zero seconds off.” Immediately, his office dematerialised to a singular point of bright light, flashed, and vanished.
He exited the office, turned right, and headed downstairs. Just as he reached the final step, his wife Wendy emerged from her office to his right. Ben and Wendy had been married for 17 years. Wendy was a senior neurosurgeon, and one of the country’s foremost experts on remote robotic surgery.
“Tough day at the office?” asked Ben.
“Yeah, we had connectivity issues with da Vinci XII today,” replied Wendy. “Required a new software patch, and then some calibrating. But fortunately da-V came back to life.”
“Patient make it?”
“Yeah she made it. C7-C8 spinal cord nerve regeneration and attachment. She’ll be on her feet again in two to four weeks. How about you?”
Ben sighed before he responded. “Oh you know the usual deadlines. The threat of yet another pandemic looms large, and stories need to be checked, and double checked. Joys of an online editor-in-chief eh”.
Just as Wendy was about to console her husband, the kitchen door burst open, and the doorway was filled with a panicking teenager.
“Mom! Dad! You’ve got to help me with my school project! It’s due in two days, and you promised that you’d help me! You’re the experts on this!” Rachel, the couple’s oldest child, was in a bit of frenzy.
Ben could see the signs of stress on his daughter’s face, and he knew from experience that it was best to step in when she was in such a state. “Sure thing Rach. Just give us a few minutes to get dinner started”
Rachel had already been through so much. She had experienced the Covid-19 pandemics of 2020 and 2021, and then when the planet thought the worst was behind them, Covid-19’s dastardly cousin SARS-CoV-3b, the pathogen spread by pollen and natural aerosols, decided to show up in 2023, causing even more havoc. When the first Covid-19 pandemic struck, Rachel was only four years old, and when SARS-CoV-3b showed up, she was almost eight years old. Despite being so young, she still remembers the early days of face masks and hand sanitisers, but not very fondly.
Then when Rachel was ten, the world went through the month-long Silence Riots of 2026 – the demonstrations that crippled the everyday workings of many countries. The riots changed the very fabric of society. Schooling, work, living, and human interactions were all redesigned. Freedom to go and do whatever you wanted to do ended. Stricter, safer monitoring and controls took its place. People were sceptical at first, but once the worldwide Health Act of 2027 came into law, society became restricted and for the better.
“Okay, about face Rach. Go sit at the kitchen island, and we’ll talk while we cook,” said Wendy in an assuring tone.
Rachel turned and jumped back over the threshold of the kitchen door, and sat at her favourite stool on the right corner of the kitchen island.
The kitchen was modern and spacious, combining the best of late-2020s designs with classical late-1990s ambiance. In the middle of the room stood the aforementioned kitchen island with four stools equally spaced at one side. The opposite side was clear of obstacles, and it was here that food was prepared before cooking it on the appliances located behind.
“So remind me again – what’s the topic of the project?” asked Ben while he was washing carrots in the island sink.
Rachel turned back two pages in her yellow-covered notebook to find the exact title of her project. “It’s for history class. I’ve to write about the differences in terms of technology, human interactions, and in society between 2015 and now. And since you and Mom were alive back then and I wasn’t, you’re my best source of information.”
Ben looked up at his daughter, and then turned to his wife. “I think our daughter is suggesting that we’re old darling.”
“We are!” laughed Wendy.
“What do you think Scott? Is she right?”
The couples’ five year old son sat at the left corner of the island sketching in his drawing notebook. He looked up from his latest doodle of his favourite superhero Spider-Man. “She’s right Dad. You and Mom are old.”
Ben smiled at his son. “Thanks for the support S.” He then turned to his wife. “You hear what our son just said hon?”
Wendy was busy preparing the 3D-Food printer, as she wanted to make some fresh fusilli for dinner. “Yeah, he’s a real charmer alright.” She turned, and winked at her son.
Scott was quiet and shy. He had just started primary school, but he was having problems adjusting to the new safety routines. While he had used bio-aerosol testing devices at home, in cinemas, and at playgrounds, Scott found it difficult to have to test every morning and every evening at school. He didn’t understand why he should have to test twice more per day, considering that he had completed similar tests at home every evening. On the other hand, it had become second nature to Rachel.
Ben and Wendy knew that it was important for Scott and Rachel to attend school with kids of their own ages. Human interactions had to be preserved, particularly when it came to learning how to develop friendships and relationships. Of course, they knew all about the Plato series, the home teacher robots developed by Alphabet technologies that they frequently saw on the VL (volumetric live) advertisements. But recent studies revealed that spending so much time with a teaching robot can be detrimental to a child’s development. They certainly didn’t want that for their kids.
While Wendy and Ben mainly worked from home, they still met their colleagues or friends in highly-coordinated events. Last year, they attended Ben’s youngest brother’s wedding. 100 people attended the festivities, and it was a fantastic day. However, all guests had to submit their biometric data for a period of 6 months before the wedding. Although Covid-19 and most of its pathogenic relatives were largely under control at that point, researchers were having trouble keeping up with the rate of mutations. Vaccines were arriving, but, in many cases, they didn’t apply to the latest strains.
Rachel was slightly irritated by her parents’ exchange with her younger brother, so she decided to remind the room that her project should take centre stage. “Can we focus on me for a moment please? I’ve got a serious deadline Dad!”
“Okay okay. Start your questions. What do you need to know?” said Ben as he finished cutting carrots.
Rachel corrected her posture, sat up straight in the stool, and started her iRecord device on the counter. “Question 1. When and where did you meet?”
“We met at a salsa party via a mutual friend in 2012,” answered Wendy. “You know this, I’ve told you it a hundred times.
“I know, I know,” said Rachel. “I guess you miss salsa parties, well the way they were before Covid-19”
“Most definitely. Before all of this, we could just turn up at a venue, meet our friends, dance, and leave,” Ben said as he finished cutting some tomatoes. “I can’t remember the last time we went to a salsa party, but it was arduous. We had to provide three months of biometric data, and then prove that we hadn’t been to any unregulated events in the six months before that.”
Rachel turned the page of her yellow notebook. “Okay. Question 2. I remember when I was younger that we lived somewhere else, before Covid-19 that is. What was it like to buy a house then?”
“Compared to now, it was super-easy,” said Wendy. “Back then, you just had to provide your bank statements and employers contract. When we bought out first house in 2015, that seemed like a lot. But when we bought this house in 2028, we had to provide all of these details, as well as our biometric data from the past three years, in addition to medical reports from our doctors.”
“Why would the mortgage people need all of that data Mom?”
“Because we had to prove that we could afford the house and that we were healthy enough to pay the loan back. I work in healthcare but I’m a remote neurosurgeon, which means I don’t have to be in the same room as the patient to operate on them. However, I still need to go to the hospital every now and then when some patients are sick after an operation. This means that I’m in the hospital for some time, and there’s a chance that I could pick up something. Hospitals are really clean nowadays, but that doesn’t mean that a new strain can’t find a way to spread there. And if I am sick for longer than 14 days, my salary drops by half until I’m better. The biometric data that we gave to the mortgage lenders includes information on the strength of our immune system. The stronger our immune systems, the better chance we have of getting a mortgage. This explains why we’re eating so much fruit and vegetables, and growing them too. We need to stay healthy, so that we can work and pay the loan. Credit all comes down to health, and biometric data is the new currency”
Rachel had never asked her parents about mortgages before. She was 17 years old, far too young to think about buying a house, but she was genuinely shocked that a person’s immune system was taken in consideration when getting a mortgage. She jotted down some notes in her notebook, and then found the next question. “Question 3. What was it like to go to the cinema in 2015?”
Ben and Wendy loved the cinema, and they missed how easy it was to go.
Wendy caught Ben’s eye and gestured him to answer. “It was really easy. You could book a ticket online, collect it from a machine, get your popcorn, and take your seat. No biometric data check, no aerosol pathogen test, and no physical distancing. We miss the old cinema.”
The mention of popcorn took Scott’s attention away from his latest sketch of Spider-Man. “Can we have popcorn for dinner?”
Wendy looked up from the fusilli-making process. “Not a chance Scott. Rachel, what’s your next question?”
“When did you start having to submit your health data?”
“Well, after the first Covid-19 outbreak of 2020, the push for continuous on-body sensing started, using commercial sensors like those in the AppleWatch or FitBit. Do you remember the FitBit Rach?”
Rachel shrugged her shoulders. “Nope, what’s a FitBit?”
Her mother laughed. “It’s not important for this discussion. What is important is that sensors like those in the FitBit could record heart rate, breathing, coughing, and body temperature. All of these could act as indicators for diseases such as Covid-19. But Covid-19 affected people in different ways. Some people didn’t develop a cough, some people had headaches. So in 2022, the year before SARS-CoV-3b, implantable biosensors that could check for the presence of pathogens in the blood were developed. Me and your father were among the first wave to have them implanted in our forearms. They continually monitor our blood, and they only need to be replaced once every six years.”
“When will I be getting mine?” eagerly asked Scott.
“Like your sister, you’ll get your first biosensor when you’re 18. For now, you have to continue with the aerosol pathogen test, which is just as accurate,” said Ben. “And don’t worry we’ll have a big party when you do get it too!”
“Why don’t I have one now?” Rachel asked.
Before answering, Wendy checked on the boiling fusilli. “Well the updated Health Act from 2027 states that it’s now illegal for any state or sovereign nation to collect biometric data from anyone under the age of 18 using internal biosensors. It all comes down to privacy of data. This explains why you have to send the biometric data from your aerosol test to us every evening. We check the data as your guardians, and then we send it to the Central Biometric Database. So when we tell you to send us your biometric data in the evening, it’s because the government are the ones looking for it, not us!”
“The world was really different when you were younger Mom,” said Rachel.
Wendy paused, and reminisced for a moment. “It certainly was”
Rachel flicked through her notebook in search of one more question, which she found after a few seconds. “Okay, last question. What was it like to fly in an aeroplane?”
“Oh it was incredible Rach,” answered Ben. “You could fly anywhere in the world. You could buy a ticket online or at the airport, and get on a plane to any destination you wanted. The best part was breaking though the clouds to see the sun and blue sky. ”
“Will I ever get to fly in the future?”
“Maybe Rach,” Ben said. “But you don’t need to travel by plane to see the world. The worldwide modular Hyperloop network allows you to travel the world much faster. And in comparison to the aviation industry, it’s cleaner and safer. One of my reporters at the paper has just written a story about the Hyperloop being used to fully replace the shipping industry in the next decade. Hyperloop only transports people at the moment, but in the future all goods will be transported by Hyperloop. This means fossil fuels won’t be used on ships anymore. Anyway, it’s really difficult to keep ships fully bio-clean and bio-safe for people working there. When the vehicle is smaller it’s much easier to kill pathogens. All of the Hyperloop pods are easily cleaned in a special cleaning room using one type of ultraviolet radiation known as UV-C after every use.”
“The Hyperloop is so cool! I still remember our first Hyperloop trip when we went to Oslo,” said Rachel. “Scott you’re going to love your first trip!”
Before Scott could acknowledge that his name had been mentioned, a bing echoed around the kitchen. Ben’s sauce and Wendy’s fusilli were ready. It was dinner time.
Ben moved across the kitchen to get four plates for the meal. “Sonos On. Channel 30.”
Wendy didn’t like listening to the radio during mealtimes. “Why are we listening to the radio now, hon? We’re just about to start dinner.”
“I’ve got to hear the health-weather forecast. Remember I’ve got to be at the office tomorrow,” Ben replied.
“Yes of course. Safety first,” Wendy said.
By the time Ben and Wendy had finished their exchange, Channel 30 was on, and as they served the food, the bio-meteorologist started her report.
“Tomorrow will be warm and dry with an average temperature of 17 degrees. Average wind speeds will be 25 km/h. The warm conditions mean that general pollen levels will be high, which means that the dispersal range of SARS-CoV-3b-like pathogens via pollen and natural aerosols will increase. Be sure to take biometric measurements regularly, and check for updates on wind speeds and direction changes during the day.”
Wendy frowned, and looked at her husband. “Any chance you can postpone that office trip tomorrow?”
“I’ll have to check later.” Ben turned to his daughter. “You happy with our answers to your questions Rach?”
“Yep! Project is due day after tomorrow, but most of the work is done now,” Rachel replied.
“Don’t leave it until the last minute. Okay?” Wendy’s warning was half in jest.
After dinner, the family spent an hour engaging with some VL programs. At 21.00, Wendy got up and looked at her kids. “Okay, it’s a school night. Off to bed.”
Rachel and Scott meekly resisted their mother’s request, but they knew she was right.
As the siblings climbed the stairs, Wendy said, “Don’t forget to brush your teeth, and don’t forget to send me your biometric data!”
“We know, we know”, the siblings said in unison.
After another hour of VL engagement, Wendy and Ben went to the kitchen to clean-up.
As Ben loaded the dishwasher, he turned to his wife, “Those questions from Rachel brought a lot of memories flooding back. Remember those first months of Covid-19?”
“Of course I do,” she said. “I was in the middle of my neurosurgery training at the city hospital. It was manic.”
“Is there anything we should have done back then that would have changed the way the world is today?”
“Society as a whole should have followed the rules, we should have been more cautious at times, we should have respected the severity of the disease. It was in our hands.”
“Couldn’t agree with you more,” said Ben.
After the kitchen was clean and the uneaten fusilli had been stored in the fridge for Wendy’s lunch the following day, the couple left the kitchen.
Wendy was the last to leave. She stood in the doorway, and stared for a moment at Rachel’s notebook and iRecord device. She nodded dejectedly and she said to her self “We should have done more.” She turned to leave. “Appliances ten seconds off.” She walked out the door, leaving the door swinging slowly in its hinges, and climbed the stairs. Ten seconds later, the kitchen descended into darkness, ready to serve the Adkins family on another day during the pandemic years of the 21st century.