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19 August 2021

Davos man’s vision of a post-Covid-19 world makes my skin crawl

A video by the World Economic Forum promotes a sterile, digitally-driven society that sacrifices the joys of being human.

By Rachel Cunliffe

Most of us at some point over the past 18 months will have fantasised about ways this cruel pandemic might be able to improve our lives. Perhaps we’ve wondered whether the global cooperation and rapid technological progress we’ve seen when it comes to vaccines could be channelled into tackling the climate crisis; if the renewed sense of community spirit that emerged during lockdown could pave the way for a more engaged, localised form of politics; or whether a silver lining of the struggles faced by working parents when schools and nurseries closed might prompt a rethink of gender roles so childcare could be split in a more egalitarian way. 

What we probably haven’t fantasied about, however, is a world of endless takeaways, solitary working and plugged-in children, punctuated by lasers scanning our heartbeats to identify us if we ever leave the house. 

This dystopian take on the post-pandemic future is the topic of a new video released on 17 August by the World Economic Forum. It is accompanied by an article, in which the technology consultancy Cognizant has “asked internal and external thought leaders to share their vision of this fundamental digital transformation”. 

The video, soundtracked by eerily chirpy synth-music, is captioned “This is how our lives could soon look”, with the strapline “Take a peak at the future”. Leaving aside the misspelling of “peek”, its contents offer a chilling taste of what the elite “Davos men” who fill the ranks of the WEF may have in store for us.  

The future of work is depicted by people either working from home or sat in siloed Perspex pods, with their offices “reimagined” – perhaps as client showrooms! Or research labs! – and stacked with hand sanitiser and check-in QR codes. While this may be how many offices look right now, it shows a distinct lack of imagination to assume it’s the QR codes, masks and alcohol gel that people really want to keep when the pandemic is over.  

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Next we have “15 minute spaces” – the idea that everything you could possibly need in life would be found within a 15-minute walk of your home. While itself not a bad concept (urban researchers have been considering the idea for years) the WEF version suggests these spaces could contain bars or galleries to “enable workers to build new social networks away from the office”. The idea that we might already have friends who perhaps don’t live in our immediate neighbourhood, or enjoy visiting art galleries based on the art displayed there rather than their proximity is not considered. Nor is the notion that people might want to venture outside the one-mile radius where they both live and – thanks to the reimagining of their office as a shiny new research lab – work. 

The less said about “cloud markets” (the third WEF item) the better. Essentially, we can expect to see restaurants replaced by “ghost kitchens” that simply deliver takeaway food, which a sad-looking woman receives while wearing a mask in her own home – remember, this meant to be showing the world after the pandemic is over. Such ghost kitchens, we are told, exploded in popularity during lockdown – which the video makers have taken as proof that people prefer them to the restaurant experience, forgetting that takeaway was the only option when governments made going to a restaurant in person illegal.  

“You could be identified by your heartbeat” reads the jolly text on the fourth item, as if this is the technological breakthrough we have all been waiting for. “Facial recognition systems are often stumped by masks”, apparently, so in the post-Covid world where we are all for some reason still wearing masks and desperate to find alternate ways to let our technology track us, scientists have the answer: laser beams that identify your unique heartbeat, presumably whether you want them to or not. It’s not just for security, we are told, but could be used by shoppers to “personalise their visit”. Charming. 

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The final item is the most disturbing. It revolves around education, extolling the benefits of home-schooling for children (whose parents presumably don’t have jobs) as long as they have “digital tools”. The children in the video are all around primary school age (one of them can’t be older than five), and are seen working alone, plugged into headphones and staring at a video lesson. Any parent who has had to home-school during the pandemic will know that sticking a Year 3 child in front of a screen and expecting them to learn what they would have with a teacher in a classroom is delusional and cruel – but it seems the video makers think otherwise. The importance for children of socialising and making friends isn’t mentioned – the focus is instead on the benefits of “improving digital skills”. Who needs friends when you can use Zoom, right? 

It’s a relief to be informed that education doesn’t have to be entirely remote, but could instead be a “hybrid of school and home-based learning”. But the scene we are then greeted with is a group of subdued kids (again primary-aged) sitting outside and tightly masked. This, we are told, is “education in the future” – a future where masks are still mandatory and where children don’t play.  

[See also: The debate around office returns misses an opportunity to make work better]

“What pandemic-era changes would you like to become permanent?” asks the text at the end, reminding us once again that this – the lonely takeaways and the Perspex office pods and the masked children – isn’t meant to represent the compromises we have all had to make to contain the spread of a deadly virus, but the future beyond Covid-19.  

It is a future devoid of any kind of humanity. Relationships, connection, the human desire to explore and experience – these have no place in the sterile, digitally-driven world these WEF thought leaders envisage for us. It’s enough to make even the most rationally-minded viewer wonder if some of the Covid conspiracy theorists might have a point, with their claims of shadowy business interests exploiting a global health crisis to further their own ends. 

I’m sure that isn’t the case, but the tone-deaf remoteness of this digital future makes my skin crawl. We have all suffered so much over the course of this pandemic. There are so many ways we could build back better, harnessing technology for something more worthwhile than turning our hearts into digital ID cards. Instead, our elites have come up with a dystopian techno-vision that sacrifices joys of what makes us human.

[See also: The inconvenient truth is that working from home can make parents better employees]