The Fear We Have

When I was a student in my first year at translation school, we read a short story by Isaac Asimov called The Fun They Had. It was a futuristic story, the type Asimov was made famous for, set in 2155. It predicted the end of the physically written word and the obliteration of the standard classroom, the type we used to have until very recently…March 2020.

Asimov’s piece predicted ebooks, called “telebooks” in the story and firmly integrated into people’s TVs rather than the more specific computers we know today. In the short story, Margie is asked to write about “school”. The school of the reference is the “old school” where people had face-to-face interactions with a teacher and where telebooks were written on paper…”centuries and centuries ago”.

I could continue to elaborate on Asimov’s story (by the way, one interesting fact about Asimov is that he wrote magnificent books on Roman History and even an Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare, a must in any personal library, if you ask me), but the title of my blog post is simply a poor attempt at making a different point: seeing how the future fits into the palpable feeling of today’s present and future — at least as I imagine them.

The 2020 pandemic is disrupting all sorts of relationships: economic, political, social and — most importantly — human. The world has turned upside down and humanity has been compelled to forget about life as they know it, at least for a considerable amount of time. We are quite ignorant of the risks we are taking now as we are of those we will have in future. We want to rush into a normalcy that will likely come at a cost, and yet we cannot stop the feeling. The fears, if they are not altogether conscious yet, will become so very soon.

Many analysts and reporters have spoken about how the pandemic will change the workplace, how so many more people — and students — will go virtual perhaps forever. Yet, the message of how vulnerable those workplaces have become, regardless of whether you work from home or an office, is more muted. Companies are not the same and will not be the same. Yet people will lose their jobs and the marketplace will become precarious. It might take a few more months but this much is true: it will happen.

The fears I have revolve around those issues. On a personal level, I expect to be impacted by them in one way or another. I will either lose my job or see my income severely reduced by end-2020. How my impairment will be a benefit to someone else across the table is yet to be seen, but there will be a benefit to someone. Most likely, I will see it in the deep pockets of the same people who had benefits before COVID-19 and were never posed to lose them in the first place, pandemic or no pandemic.

The power games will continue to exist, even if we were to switch fully to Asimov’s world. Companies will develop ways in which they can lay you off remotely and ways in which they can make your biggest fears come true. In fact, the virtual framework will make some of those uncomfortable interactions easier for HR and harder for the recipients. The same might apply to people, who might be inclined to end relationships by text or Zoom rather than go face to face, even after a vaccine is found and the promise of full normalcy becomes a reality.

In short, whatever remains in place after COVID-19 will not be too different from what we had before we were struck by a global pandemic. The economic gains will likely go to the same beneficiaries they went before, while they stay safe in their vaulted territories.

Aware of the bloodbath that is coming, I cannot help but think it ironic that today many extremists cite Orwell’s masterpiece, 1984, on social media thinking that passages of the novel support their unique point of view. There is no doubt that Orwell was a visionary. However, it should be noted that the book ends on a different note: “If there was hope, it must lie in the proles…”. I am sure this assertion would prompt many of those who have easily quoted him to do so. Certainly, to know as much they might have to read the whole book or “telebook”.

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