Many parts of current reality, from talking wristwatches to smartphones and sophisticated industrial and domestic robots like Amazon’s Alexa, Roomba vacuum cleaners and many more, occurred in science fiction stories decades before becoming everyday devices.
So it pays today to consider where California and the rest of modern civilization may be headed, with online work and education expanded exponentially as part of the effort to curb the worldwide COVID-19 viral pandemic.
Increasingly, people communicate by computer, smartphone and smartwatch rather than in person. Isolation grows ever more common; “social distancing” is officially mandated as a key anti-virus tactic, with violations potentially punishable by fine or jail time.
So a look at one of the first times something like this appeared in literature and the extreme form it took there might be appropriate before the current reality becomes habit in California, where many of the world’s trends are set.
That first appearance came via the distinguished author Isaac Asimov’s 1957 novel “The Naked Sun.”
The book sees humanoid robot Daneel Olivaw and his human detective partner Elijah Bailey, natives of earth, travel to the fictional planet of Solaria to investigate a murder. On Solaria, they find a civilization of vast plantations, each inhabited by only one person.
The planet’s rigidly-controlled population of 20,000 is supported by ten thousand times that many robots, who do all the work. The few humans, virtually always isolated, communicate almost exclusively by hologram — their real-looking but ephemeral images projected across thousands of miles, a potential technology far more advanced than the so-called holograms used on some drivers licenses and credit cards today.
Face-to-face communication, especially of the sort needed to reproduce, is seen as dirty stuff on Solaria, even if it’s occasionally unavoidable.
In the face of the coronavirus, things have not yet gone nearly that far. But today’s great expansion of working remotely by computer and other “smart” devices is creating changes for many millions. This includes schoolchildren who get lesson plans and some supervision from teachers working at home via tablets and computers, some supplied by school systems. Even television reporters now perform live standups with backyard hedges or living rooms as backdrops, rather than the usual graphics like video boards with weather maps.
It’s a massive change that seems to work in this hopefully brief period when parents are forced to shelter at home to avoid either spreading or catching the virus. But what happens if parents return to work, but schools remain closed, as Gov. Gavin Newsom has hinted they might until next fall?
That’s unknown. But California has far too few day camps and other day care programs to handle the millions of children who might soon need supervision from someone other than a parent.
What’s more, despite offers of free Internet service from companies like Verizon, many children lack connectivity in their homes, but can’t go to Starbucks, public libraries or other commercial sites to pick up wifi connections, because most such places — when they reopen — still won’t cater to unsupervised children.
Meanwhile, working life in California and many other locales has changed radically since shelter-in-place became common government policy. Many workers already had no need for access to bulky file cabinets, drawing boards, easels and fax machines. They could find almost everything they need online with laptop computers costing as little as $200 each and, in some cases, mere tablets that cost much less.
What happens to them when the pandemic runs its course? Will employers still want to pay rent on many thousands of square feet of office space when they’ve seen their employees can use kitchen tables? The relatively few times employees actually need to see their bosses could be accommodated by renting a large room. Will workers still want to make long commutes? All this might not work for food service workers, but no one yet knows how permanent the changes imposed on restaurants will become, how radically today’s experience might alter California’s future.
No one knows if all this means fewer humans will eventually be needed, alá Asimov’s Solaria. But while the changes are new, the concepts they’ve begun bringing to life are not.
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Email Thomas Elias at firstname.lastname@example.org. His book, “The Burzynski Breakthrough, The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It” is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit www.californiafocus.net.