Chapter 4. Scenario I: The borderless world
In this scenario, we consider what it would look like if world leaders were able to make massive progress in science and technology, fully implement globalization, as well as solidarity and implementation strategies to fix the weakest links (e.g., health systems in Africa). But the trade-offs are not trivial, and something gets lost. From now on, and throughout this chapter, you are entering the realm of fiction.
Enrico is building his worldview
Milan, Italy, December 5, 2021: “Come help me, grandpa,” said Enrico. Enrico had just celebrated his 11th birthday in his home in Milan, Italy. He shouted at his grandfather, who had turned away. Enrico tried to get his kite up in the air. It was a gift from his grandfather, along with an expensive watch. Even his father had been surprised by this extravagant gift: a Patek Phillipe watch.
Enrico was precocious, smart. He shared his grandpa’s silvery grey hair. Only then did Enrico see it: Grandpa was leaned toward the street corner. Enrico had just rushed by with his kite too quickly to notice Grandpa Eligio was no longer alive. He had taken his last breath, just then and there, on Piazza della Scala. Like many COVID-19 victims, his grandfather’s death was sudden, with no warning, and few visible signs of illness.
As he looked back on this event many years later, Enrico wished he would have had the man behind the monument there with him; the center of the square was marked by a statue of Leonardo da Vinci by sculptor Pietro Magni (1872). If the world didn’t identify such talent and do everything they could to save “young Leonardos,” he thought to himself, there would be no future now. He teared up for a moment, thinking back to the month after Grandpa had died, when Enrico himself had been admitted to the hospital with COVID-19 infection.
It had been a dreadful experience for an 11-year-old. So much death. But that wasn’t what jarred his mind a decade later. No, it was knowing that the 10 other people in the room he was in were sacrificed so that he could be saved. They only had one respirator. He was the youngest; the others were 15, 29, 55, and 82 (and he couldn’t remember the rest) and had been lower on the priority list. Except the grey-haired guy on his right side—he must have been wealthy, and without morals, ultimately, because he also got a respirator. Enrico had seen with his own eyes how a young child like himself, perhaps only a few years older, had been yanked off the breathing machine and had been left to gasp for air until he died. Why, Enrico had wondered, had he been saved and not this child? The answer would not make sense until later in life.
The dreadful consequences of the virus’ mutations
So sudden was the onslaught of Coronavirus, more precisely “SARS-CoV-2ff”, the 11th mutation that had killed so many in Italy, Venezuela, and just an awful number in China and India—where 10% of the population had died in the third wave of the disease, which had coincided with a particularly severe flu season, making it a double whammy. Enrico had actually been lucky to be playing with his grandpa that morning. There were so few grandparents left in Italy now, in the second half of 2021. Had he not been on that square that day, Enrico might not have known how to survive.
Grandpa had said, “If anything happens to me, take my watch and carry it with you always. It will get you out of trouble one day.” For the first time, Enrico looked at the brand. It said PATEK PHILIPPE – GENEVE. “Just like mine,” Enrico thinks. Okay, he thought, I don’t know what this means, but quickly took it off his grandpa’s wrists before he ran away, crying for his loss and not knowing yet what he had gained.
The year 2030—peace in our time—again
We are in the year 2030. After a decade of widespread agreement on the goals for planet Earth, world leaders and civil society have just concluded a Global Summit for a World Without Borders. A new world government has been approved. This follows 5 years in which experts from around the world have been hard at work drafting a new world constitution, setting up rules for the election of a representative world government to be situated in Geneva and regional headquarters in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania and in Dhaka, Bangladesh. World leaders opted against New York, London, Shanghai, or Rio di Janeiro on the grounds that this is the time for the small nations to rule.
A decade of science and technology progress—and hygiene
There had been an enormous progress in science and technology throughout the decade; for example, 3D printing was now commonplace; you could print any product right out of your home, if you could afford it. Bigger projects could be done in the local 3D factory based on your specification, if you could afford it. Working remotely was the norm, mostly because of the augmented reality platforms that were launched already in 2025. Truly amazing, really—some people said it was better than being present in the office. The most loved feature was the virtual backgrounds that now had evolved so you could look like you were wearing a suit even though you were in your pajamas. There had to be some benefit to this COVID-19 situation that had created so much misery. After all, it wasn’t like they had a choice. Nobody was allowed to commute anymore. After all those intermittent periods where the lockdowns were lifted only to be brought back there became no point.
Besides, how do you make public transit (subways, buses, and commuter trains) free of infectious disease risk? Even our greatest minds couldn’t figure that one out. We tried limiting the number of passengers, but our transit owners went broke. We tried risking it with no change, but too many got sick. We tried to sanitize each compartment with a new superfast infrared disinfection machine (the UV BeamoLight Sterilizer XL) after every ride, but people got sick anyway. We tried everything. The problem was density. Everything about density is now our enemy. Now, there is a standing prize for any idea that could resurrect public transport. I’m jotting down ideas every day and so are all my friends. Nobody has found the answer.
Besides, most businesses couldn’t afford commercial real estate anymore. The big five consulting firms shared one office building in downtown New York, for example. Given social distancing, they could only fit 25% of pre-COVID-19 capacity. The new building codes were very strict: only five people per room, no matter the size of the room; thermal sensors at every door, registering even small temperature anomalies; separate entry and exit so you don’t run into people; touchless doors, elevators, screens, computers, everything was done to minimize contact. The HVAC systems were running on a hypercycle, exchanging all the building’s air every 10 minutes.
The new disinfection culture was quite astonishing. We all did our part to create it. Kids, too. The world has never seen such clean kids. Dirt is abolished, basically. There is a mandatory disinfection and health routine we all have to follow every morning at 8:00 a.m., noon, 4:00 p.m., and 8:00 p.m. Wash your hands for 20 seconds. Mandatory mouthwash. Take your temperature, send it to the global system for comparison. Mandatory change of clothes every morning. If you go out in public, you need to wear the self-disinfecting uniform based on a lab coat design created by MIT’s smart fabrics team. Every working individual who wanted to commute had to have one. They cost a month’s salary. Most people took out a loan to afford one. On the bright side, the uniform came in 100 colors and all sizes. There’s an upside to everything.
We also abolished extreme obesity, since a BMI 40 or more obesity is risk factor for COVID-19. How did we do it? We simply limited rations. If you eat more than 2500 calories a day, 2000 for women or 1500 for kids, it gets reported. Repeated offences are fined. Highly efficient. I cannot think of why we wouldn’t have done that a decade ago.
Handshakes got abolished by global decree 25.C already back in 2022, after some discussion by the Germans who really have turned handshakes into an art form. The Italians had abolished kissing as a greeting already toward the end of 2020. Let’s not even get into our love life. It has gotten ridiculous, given the no-contact regime. The sensors are installed in people’s home. The slightest rise in body temperature and you’re caught. Try having sex without raising your pulse. It’s near impossible.
But without contact, all you had was your eyes. It was simply not enough to get excited about meeting your colleagues. It was worth it for highly important meetings, right before a project presentation, for instance. The application process was cumbersome. After getting a special permit, you could go straight to the office, conduct your business, and go back to your house.
No more nation-states
Truly, it has been an amazing decade, marked by enormous progress in understanding between peoples, cultures, and territories. What was there to think about? The world had come together.
The world has finally decided to abolish nation-states. Throughout the decade, that unit of governance simply became too impractical and hampered by isolationist concerns, lack of resources, and lack of empathy for others outside its borders. In fact, the whole notion of borders is abolished. Gone are border controls, passports, national anthems, even the Olympics had to concede that we can still compete for medals, but the whole idea that a large country would take more medals just seems irrational now. After all, we are all in this together.
A lot has changed. We have also nearly gotten rid of cities. The distancing just became impractical. It took time, of course. We had cities for 5 years. We tried distancing. We tried outlawing mass events above 1,000 people, then we tried 500, then 100, then 50, but the superspreader events returned again and again. Instead, scientists have divided the globe into squares of 100 x 100 feet where families ideally should spend most of their time. Needless to say, all of these changes have brought the end of simple pleasures such as going to the movies. The end of the theater-chain system happened relatively rapidly throughout 2021. Then followed the collapse of the Hollywood studio system and the stars who lived in Los Angeles dispersed. Instead, we now have distributed production and online distribution.
A lot of civil liberties have been permanently curtailed. That seems to be one of the more significant trade-offs we are experiencing, that of safety versus freedom. The alternative, no safety, doesn’t seem so appealing having lived through COVID-19’s devastation.
One of the more radical strategies that became deployed, although I’m glad to say only to a limited degree, has been the practice of killing off certain categories of infected patients before the treatment starts in order to save hospital resources. After an ethical review it only happens in cases where doctors feel the patient will not benefit from the care, and we try to get patient consent. The potential to save enormous hospital resources is definitely there. An influential analysis claims that if a hypothetical even more deadly pathogen reaches us, this will be the default strategy if we are to avoid an extinction event. Seems to make sense, although the study is highly complex. The justification is written in 10,000 pages of legalese. I doubt anybody has read the whole thing.
Mending the environment by synthetic mandates
The environment is mending, too. The climate crisis got very serious in the first few years of the decade. It was a close call, but nation-states finally got together in 2022 and realized that if they did not act now, we might not have clean air anymore and, perhaps more visibly, the food shortages would become unbearable only 10 years ahead, as arable land would dry out and concede to pollution and urbanization. The synthetic mandates had been the salvation. Synthetic biology is commonplace now. We can recreate nature by engineering. The circuitry of plain old nature is so inefficient. With synthetics, if it breaks, you just recreate it. There are formulas for everything—if you can afford it.
Synthetic is so pure, so free of nature, even more perfect than nature, in fact. Beautiful. Perfecting nature by technology. A new era has begun.
Geneva, December 1, 2030: “Enrico Salerno, the stage is yours,” says the voice through the loudspeaker. This is the day. Enrico is going to represent his slice of the world, not a territory, for territorial rights and responsibilities are no more. No, Enrico is going to represent the young scientist-innovators who are 21 years old today and who now are the critical cadre of young talent that inhabit most of the world’s research labs. They all have PhDs; they all have 140-and-above IQs; and, what truly bonds them together, they all have lived through Coronavirus.
If the virus reappeared today, what would guarantee Enrico a respirator is not his wealth, but his intelligence. It is a great responsibility he shares with one scientist from each of the 1,000 labs the world has created to enable the progress of humankind, at all costs. Enrico briefly shutters before he starts his speech: “I’m here today,” he says, “not as the proud son of my father, but as a son of humanity itself.” He continues, with elegant hand gestures, “We live in a new decade, a new beginning, marked by scientific progress and technological marvels, and we will prevail, because we will prioritize life, in its purest forms.” As he says this, Enrico tries to envision his grandfather in the auditorium clapping for him. But his memory is a haze, a blur of facial features now lost to him.
With these final words, Enrico retakes his seat. The loudspeaker crackles again. This seemed to be one of those things that simply would crackle until the end of time. “Will Elena Wozniewskaya please tell us about the environmental efforts she is leading?” Elena, a 44-year-old synthetic biologist and serial entrepreneur with two degrees from MIT and a law degree from Yale, smiles and clears her voice. “Of course, I will,” she says. She approaches the microphone. “I’ll be quick. We have managed to create synthetic crops for all known types of grains, we have picked 21 that will be synthesized, and we are working on sequencing the genome of all known vegetables so they can be 3D printed instead of grown. From now on, gardens will be strictly ornamental. It will be nice to know you’ll only see lovely flowers in gardens, right? This will continue for 2 years, after which we must all, for the good of mankind, refrain from any biological activity. We must avoid contamination of any sort. Natural DNA is so polluted. As you will remember, when outside, we need to wear masks and gloves, at all times, to protect the environment. There can be no exceptions.”
Elena had thought for a long time about the speech. She was conflicted. She thought of the roses she had gotten from her boyfriend just the year before. Their pungent fruity aroma had charmed her. It reminded her of spiced wine. One of them had broken off when he had rushed to the elevator. It was kind of cute. Eleven red roses and one broken one. He had been so embarrassed. Now, all they would do is print some roses on the newest Epsilon-Xylon 33 X-ray 3D printer. The roses came out perfect every time and smelled wonderful. How could they not? She had syntheticized the smell of a red rose herself. The trick was to get that musty after smell once the sweetness subsides after 2 seconds. She got it just right. But the imperfections were impossible to simulate. She had to admit, she would miss that uncertainty, the snapped stem that had enamored her.
A society of experts to achieve certainty
After a massive effort which is obviously still ongoing, the world was able to curb its emissions to a 1950 level, which is enough to return to normalcy within the next decade. Especially because Elok Dusk in the US together with Jim Drayson in the UK, brought together the world’s leading innovators, and created a set of self-flying, autonomous vacuum cleaners that purify the air on a constant basis and rely on distributed sensors across the globe to handle poor air quality before it threatens humans, animals, or plants.
What comes out the other end of the vacuum is actually recycled into space fuel, based on a new hydro-oxygen space propulsion engine that Elok Dusk has designed. We are also on our way to becoming a true interplanetary species by now. SpaceWonder’s first few missions to Mars are complete and the mission there will become permanent from next year. Traveling there is still expensive, but not more than a first-class ticket between New York and Tokyo. There is a lot of demand. People are so curious these days.
The only thing is, both Elok Dusk and Jim Drayson seem to be bored. They are waiting for the next crisis. Nothing seems to be impossible anymore, now that research budgets are virtually unlimited for the top 0.001% of scientists who are competing for the Nobel Prizes they have qualified for. Are experts always bored when they succeed? I don’t know. We have a lot of boredom now. Not so easy to deal with that. The only remedy, experts say, is ignorance. And ignorance is costly, and real. But reality often means death. We don’t want that. Most people want to live forever. Right now, that means they live until they are 120. Not bad. We think with a little bit of effort we can push that another decade with a few more iterations of immunologic, personalized medicine. The trouble is the treatment is still costly, so only the experts can have it.