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Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: Coronavirus: Business and technology in a pandemic

Grandpa, tell me about the days before the Great Distancing

When the dust settles and we start to accept the new normal, what will the world be like? We postulate one possible future through a not-quite-as-dystopian-as-you'd-think discussion between a young girl named Jayla and her wise old grandfather.

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Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

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In the video game franchise Fallout, the developers postulated a post-nuclear war scenario in which segments of the population survived the conflagration in hidden, fortified underground vaults. The game lets players experience what the world might be like if such a scenario took place.

Science fiction often starts with a question and then builds a story around the answer. What would it be like if a federation of planets peacefully colonized the galaxy? What would it be like if an alien arrived with powers beyond that of mortal men? What would it be like if a pandemic suddenly forced everyone to isolate or possibly die?

But that last one isn't just a premise for a TV show, novel, or a movie. It's the situation we all find ourselves in now. Below is a story that explores that question assuming that life never does go back to what it was, and it attempts to answer what a new normal might be like.

It's been freaky thinking about these possibilities, and I'm sure that whatever I present here will miss the mark by quite a distance. But for whatever good it does, here's a look into our possible future. My thoughts are with all of us. Be safe, hang in.


"Hi, Jayla. Are you getting ready for bed?"

"Yes, Grandpa. Can you tell me a story?"

"Sure, honey. That's why I'm here. Do you have a particular story in mind?"

"Grandpa, can you tell me about the Great Distancing again. Were you really around BC?"

"I was, Jayla. I was about as old as your mom and dad. It all changed in about a month. There were previous outbreaks of something like the distancing virus a couple of decades earlier, but they didn't affect our part of the world very much. But COVID-19? That changed the world."

"Mommy and Daddy let me watch a lot of the old videos. Is it really true that you went to those restar... resty? What did they call them?"

"They were called restaurants. We did. Today, of course, we have service kitchens within homes, factories, and warehouse complexes. So we can still have yummy food delivered to us if we don't want to cook. But we don't go there anymore. Instead, robots, automated cars, and our brave delivery folks bring the food to those of us who are permanently sheltered in place.

"Restaurants, though, were among our greatest pleasures. There were millions of people working in the restaurant industry. Some of those moved into delivery and others started the service kitchens, but many were left without work. And, of course, the millions of us who loved not only the special foods but the camaraderie of sharing a meal with friends lost that privilege forever."

"Eeew! That sounds so gross! How could you stand being near anyone but grandma? How could you concentrate on eating when anyone at the table could be carrying the Reaper?"

"Well, we didn't have the Reaper back then. Sure, everyone died. But it was often after seventy or eighty years of living. Back then we called death the Grim Reaper, and that's where the Reaper you know got its name. But enough of that scary talk. Do you want me to continue the story?"

"Sure. Can you tell me about what your days were like back then? In the videos, it looks like people worked right next to each other without wearing comfort suits. Wasn't that a hassle, figuring out all those different outfits? Besides, weren't you scared someone would breathe on you?"

"We wore all kinds of clothing back then. I was a writer, so I worked from home before that became the way we did things. And yes, people went to offices and factories and other job sites every day, working side-by-side with other people."

"Grandpa, I understand why you had people in factories and construction sites, but why would anyone go to an office?"

"Well, that was before working in an office was made illegal. Governments decided that everything that could be done in an office could just as easily be done at home using conferencing and collaboration software and sharing everything in the cloud. We were fortunate that when the Great Distancing happened, we already had really excellent cloud-based computing, so it was relatively easy for office-bound commuters to switch to working from home."

"What's a com... a commoo...?"

"A commuter. Those were people who drove to work every day. They'd take cars, trains, buses, bikes, or even walked. Think of it as if everyone had a Critical Travel Pass and didn't need to file a transit plan before leaving home. I never liked commuting, which is why I worked from home BC."

"Were people naked in factories and hospitals, too?"

"Naked? No, no one went to work without clothes. But you're really talking about people not wearing comfort suits. Almost nobody outside a special room called a 'clean room' wore comfort suits back then. Today, of course, everyone who has to be anywhere near anyone other than immediate family has to wear disposable outer clothing that covers every part of your body. That's why they're called comfort suits. They keep you warm and cozy, and people are comfortable when they know they're probably safe around each other.

"You asked about the early days. It took a couple of years to ramp up the manufacturing of comfort suits. It also took a few years for all places where people have to come in contact to develop entrance and exit scrubbers to make sure the comfort suits are clean when entering or leaving something like a factory or data center."

"Mommy said people went crazy."

"Well, Jayla, right after it hit, it was tough all around. You have to understand. The world then wasn't anything like the world today. We humans had been social creatures for 10,000 years or more. It was, quite literally, human nature. To have that ability to connect in person taken away from us in a matter of weeks caused huge psychological pain."

"Did you also live through the Battle of the Badges? Mommy said that was really bad."

"It was a great idea that failed miserably. The idea was that everyone would wear a badge indicating their testing status, so folks who were verifiably Reaper-free could congregate together. If anyone verified as virus-free moved near anyone who wasn't tested or was infected, an alarm would sound. They also tried ankle bracelets and smartphone tracking, but it all failed.

"There were a couple of problems. First, you could only be verified as Reaper-free for a limited time. If you walked near someone whose badge wasn't reporting Reaper-free, you'd suddenly lose your Reaper-free status. It was worse, though, because a lot of people refused to wear the badges, which meant the Reaper-free status of those wearing the badges wasn't reliable.

"And then, of course, there were the hackers. They posted instructions and code online that unlocked the badges and allowed their owners to set any status. As you might imagine, millions who had the Reaper but wanted to go to work or just go out hacked their status. So did folks who didn't want to take the tests."

"And that's how we got inside people and outside people?"

"Don't ever call them that, Jayla. We're all people. Some of us do our duty in the war against the Reaper by staying home. For folks who remember the times before COVID-19, what you kids call BC, staying home, staying sane, and getting by was as much of a challenge as going out in the world.

"Companies and governments have done their best to make the lives of those who work outside the home as safe as possible. They built dorms and barracks for workers, so they didn't ever take a chance on getting their families back home sick.

"Eventually, the dorms and barracks, the service kitchens, and all the converted big box stores were combined. That way, folks working away from home got great food and excellent rent-free living conditions, making the inconvenience of wearing comfort suits all day a bit more worthwhile.

"To keep those workers safe, companies started to group them into squads, kind of like small departments. Squads were anywhere from about four to twenty people and they worked and lived together, usually isolated from members of other squads so if one person in a squad got sick, it didn't spread to the other squads.

"For young folks and those without families, the squads became substitute family units and, with a few highly publicized exceptions, worked out very well for everyone -- especially because of the great food. But for older folks and those with families, the squad system was a burden."

"Grandpa, what's a big box store?"

"Back BC, before the Great Distancing, we had warehouse-sized stores that people went to and shopped. Places like Home Depot, Lowes, Walmart, and more. If you wanted to do home repairs, you could go to, say, Home Depot and fill your car or truck with tools and supplies, come home, and do the work.

"When the Internet started to take off, Amazon made it hard for smaller stores to stay open, but because of the convenience of the big box stores, they still thrived. Of course, after the Great Distancing, folks couldn't go out and shop, so we all started ordering everything online.

"Here's something you probably won't believe. I know your mom and dad are Amazon Prime members and love the videos they offer. But did you know that back in the day, being a Prime member got you free shipping? Can you imagine? Free shipping?"

"But shipping is our lifeblood. It's the foundation of modern capitalism. We learned that in virtual school. Why would they give away shipping? Was Amazon socialist back then?"

"Hah! No Jayla. Amazon was never, ever socialist. In the early days, their analytics showed that those people who had free shipping through Prime bought twice as much as those who didn't. Of course, back then, those who didn't pay the annual fee for free shipping could shop at local stores.

"But once public stores were banned, Amazon didn't see the need to give away shipping anymore. That's what helped cause the great boom of 2021 when the value of shipping and delivery companies shot up like a rocket.

"Okay, it's getting late. How about one more question before bed?"

"When you were a boy, did you kiss a lot of girls?"

"That's a pretty personal question, but I see where you're going here. I wouldn't say it was a lot, but I did date a bit. Dating was both stressful and fun. Like today, the idea for most folks was to find someone to share their life with.

"But rather than dating online until you're ready to make the 'Til Death Do You Meet decision, we were face-to-face and side-by-side most of the time. If we were both attracted to each other, we kissed. There were certain diseases you could get from being close to people, but there was nothing like the Reaper.

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"When you are ready to start dating, you'll meet boys or girls online and date them mostly in VR. Only once you're ready to move in and feel you're ready to shelter in place 24x7 together will you do 'Til Death Do You Meet. You'll both get tested immediately before you'll sign your lease and then lockdown, hopefully happily ever after."

"You look sad, honey. What's up?"

"Grandpa, when you were a little boy, did your grandma and grandpa give you hugs? Were they nice?"

"They did."

"But I can't ever get a hug from you can I?"

"No sweetie, you can't. We're not locked down together. But you can still get hugs from your mom and dad. I know they love that. Someday though, you'll meet a boy or a girl who you fall in love with and are willing to risk your life to touch them for the first time.

"When that happens, you'll leave your mom and dad's home and start your own. Of course, once that happens you'll be grown, so you won't mind never getting hugs from your mom and dad again. But like with me, you'll still have them in VR.

"I see that yawn. It looks like you're about to fall asleep. Take off your visor and tuck yourself in. You know I love you."


So, yeah, that could happen. It would have been a sweet little sci-fi story if it also didn't represent our possible future. It deeply saddens me that the Great Distancing is one of our possible futures. Hopefully, though, we'll all help flatten the curve, stay sheltered in place as much as possible, wash hands, and keep physical distance enough that in a few months, or -- worst case -- a few years, we'll all be able to hug each other again.

You know how much I care about all of you. Best wishes. Hang in. Try not to get too crazy. Think about the parts of your day that are nice, and don't dwell on all the possible scary outcomes because we just don't have any way of knowing what will happen.

How are you holding up? Tell us anything you need to. Share in the comments below. Personally, I've been finding the comments sections of articles I read and write much more important to me. It's a way of connecting in a world that's suddenly become disconnected. So please post below. Connect, if only a little bit and for a short moment. We all could use the shared connection.


You can follow my day-to-day project updates on social media. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz, on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz, on Instagram at Instagram.com/DavidGewirtz, and on YouTube at YouTube.com/DavidGewirtzTV.