Zooming into the future: What will tech life be like a year from now?
It might be hard to imagine what the world will look like in 2021 – but judging by how things are going right now, a technology writer offers his predictions.
Well into a global coronavirus-enforced quarantine, it is hard to imagine what the world will look like in a year’s time. But a pessimist is never disappointed, so here are some very early predictions of the situation this technology writer might be reporting on a year from now.
It’s early 2020. Our tech-assisted lockdown starts well. There has never been a better time in history to be self-isolating, we say – all those videos of people singing from balconies, the FaceTime “quarantinis” offering a virtual cocktail hour, the group video catch-ups on Zoom and Houseparty with old friends near and far.
In the early weeks, I “meet” more of my London neighbours than in several years living here – even if the bonding all happens via WhatsApp. Countries close their borders and travel is impossible, yet somehow the world feels more connected than ever.
App developers rise to the challenge. The crisis only boosts the Internet’s spirit of chaotic creativity – from new ways for remote workers to keep in touch, to online calculators for measuring toilet-roll usage, to Slack-based book groups.
But before long the Internet starts to get overwhelmed. Too many kids playing Fortnite, too much Housepartying. And at some point in 2020, Facebook, YouTube and Netflix agree to throttle their streams to preserve the bandwidth needed for remote working and home schooling. It soon becomes clear that it isn’t enough.
And so the government has to rule on what online services should be deemed “essential”. Zoom, Google Hangouts and FaceTime make the cut; media that don’t have to be consumed live, like movies and music, don’t. “Stream shaming” becomes a popular pastime: Flatmates and neighbours calling out those they suspect of jamming up the local broadband connection or using VPNs to evade bandwidth rationing.
There are other side effects, too. Millennials discover TV schedules. Teenagers acquire their parents’ habits of squabbling to get on the landline. iPod prices shoot up on eBay, though many have been stuck with someone else’s pre-downloaded music collection for months on end. The hipsters who were sneered at for fetishising vinyl records and 20-year-old PlayStations have, it turns out, the last laugh.
Text messaging, of course, still flows freely. WhatsApp becomes so essential that some countries try to nationalise it. Chat groups are created to assist self-isolating neighbours. People run errands for others they have never met.
But self-moderating WhatsApp networks and Telegram channels can be haphazard places. Being a WhatsApp group administrator is harder than it sounds. As members fret over delivery slots and opening times for local supermarkets, cries for help can be missed.
New groups are constantly created, veer off-topic and are then replaced with new “essential” ones. Nobody remembers which group is for what – except the one dedicated to sharing pet photos.
Would civilisation have survived without an Internet full of kittens? When you might face the prospect of the army being sent out to accompany online delivery trucks, a 24/7 Zoom stream of a particularly adorable golden retriever is one of the few things that can help preserve a semblance of normality.
By mid-2021, it is a year since Hollywood production began to be halted. In the absence of any scripted shows, all TV is reality TV and reruns of reruns. As well as the aforementioned dogs, the most popular broadcasters on Zoom and Twitch include baking shows, children’s entertainers, yoga classes, marriage counsellors and lessons in self-hairdressing. With most major sports leagues shut down, virtual horseracing somehow still draws a crowd, even though everyone knows it is fixed.
Throttled streams. Crashing ecommerce sites. Essentials-only shipments. The strain that even the largest online services experience early in the coronavirus outbreak also reminds us just how valuable a role the offline world still plays – the radio broadcasts, the local grocers and the independent services that were too easy to overlook when going online was merely a convenience, not a matter of life and death.
We will not survive this crisis without Big Tech but we will never make a full recovery without nourishing our high streets, our neighbourhood restaurants and our corner shops. When the world finally goes back outside, we will have placed enough Amazon orders to last us a lifetime.
By Tim Bradshaw © 2020 The Financial Times