In 2019 B.C. (before corona), people continued to enjoy many personal preferences. Some even felt free. Homes gradually became never-off workplaces. We lived inside the surveillance incarceration of picturesque gated communities resembling Carrera painted in off-white on a postcard from Port of Spain. In the future that is now under hasty construction, we have gone back to the future we were once building. Now every dreaded trend is poised for quickening across new frontiers from biotechnology to banking. Today, against a harrowing backdrop of mass death, the prospect is rebranded on the dubious promise that contact-less control is the only way to pandemic-proof our lives. Humans are biohazards — machines are not. Welcome to the darkness.

We have arrived at the Black Mirror version of a no-touch society. It was never an obscure dystopian prospect. SARS-CoV-2 simply delivered the drivers to build it faster. This is the world we made. Say your prayers because we might not make it to church tonight. A new coherent pandemic shock doctrine swirls in the smoke above a world that is disappearing. Our secrets follow us like hounds in the dark. We can’t outrun them. Everything is twisted — there is no resisting. Before SARS-CoV-2, a novel model of human-less contact-less technology was already berthing a new beginning.

But an aria of anxiety delayed our app-fuelled future. We were troubled about cash-free commerce eroding privacy. About embedding ethnic and gender discrimination. About unprincipled social media poisoning our information ecology. About the ceaseless controversy surrounding Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs smart city prototype in Toronto. About autonomous vehicles. About cities sprinkled with a confetti of sensors reducing local government to a relic. About students receiving exam results based on algorithms that have inbuilt preconceptions about the poor who attend underperforming schools. About the inequity of online classrooms. About delivery drone collisions.

We have no choice now. We must now swallow the pill that pretends to save lives. This future must now be rushed into being. But the bodies that pile up gaze backwards at the months of social distancing and see only the throbbing price they paid to be part of a living laboratory for a permanent — no-touch future. No one can stand in the way — it’s a nightmare even in the day. Today, most things are not impossible, and more strange things will materialize. The West may despise the orient but it is sure to copycat China’s orientation to citizen surveillance and privacy deprivation. China’s relatively lax regulatory infrastructure and its bottomless yearning for surveillance have caused it to bolt ahead in its use of artificial intelligence (AI) for facial recognition and contactless cashless commerce.

The ins and outs of China’s convolutions are numberless, stretching from the sheer volume of online shoppers to the lack of legacy banking systems which has allowed it to leapfrog over cash and credit cards and unleash a huge e-commerce and digital services market. Technology corporations in China nimbly scale regulatory barriers while Western firms are mired in bureaucracy. In the midst of the coronavirus carnage, and the fear about the future it has brought forward, western technology behemoths embrace the virus as the chance to sweep out every inconvenient democratic public engagement. Now they can match their oriental challengers, who have the luxury of functioning without intrusions. China suffers from no fake democratic delusion.

Ultimately, ‘Next’ will be ‘Made in China.’ By 2030, the US will be up against a China that has a bigger economy, more research and development investments, richer research, wider deployment of technologies and stronger computing infrastructure. All of this, as empires of dirt drained of resources and derailed by an inglorious imperialism experience a bundle of hurdles to recovery.

For the opulent, next is a future where everything is delivered on screen via streaming and cloud technology, or drone delivered and then screen shared on a mediated platform. It’s a future that hires teachers trained to enact a nonlinear curriculum-matrix, not transmit the linear logic of chapters from a text or the sequence of the syllabus catalogue. It is a future that operates on a skeletal mass transit system. It’s a future that is held together by workers in data centres, content moderation mills, warehouses, electronic sweatshops and lithium mines in Bolivia. It’s a future in which to better serve you, Alexa listens quietly to your preferences.

The future economy and education system need a fully connected population and an ultrafast internet infrastructure. It requires massive investment—perhaps as part of a stimulus package—to convert to cloud-based platforms linked to a 5G network. The ad-hoc home schooling cobbled together in NY during this public health emergency as a massive experiment in remote learning was revelatory. But how do we serve learners with disabilities? There is no technological solution to the problem of learning in a home environment that is overcrowded and/or abusive. The issue is not whether schools must change during a viral contagion for which we have neither cure nor inoculation. In the end, the dilemma is between investing in people or infrastructure. As it stands, we can’t do both. But the darkness is at the door.