Viral thoughts on a pandemic

It has been a few weeks since the COVID-19 or coronavirus threat became a global pandemic. As I write this, the country I live in (Canada) is in a state of lockdown. Borders are closed, businesses are closed, schools are closed. The public imagination is our remaining commons–a feverishly contested social territory.

Like many others, I have been dutifully consuming from the global stream of news, updates, rumors, entertainment and self-reflections in feverish hopes of finding an inoculation, or perhaps emollient against the viral intrusions of pathogen and existential uncertainty/pathos. Perhaps these compulsions, like an immunological response, are riding upon the kaleidoscopic crests of the contagion within me–viral thoughts.

I like to analyse and hypothesize about systemic changes. I suppose the first point to emphasize is that this is not just a biological event. In the Age of the Anthropocene, as some have called it, we should expect that geographical, social, economic, technological, psychological systems will all have complex interactive effects upon one another. As others have noted–and perhaps best popularized in the 2011 movie Contagion, these interactions may happen through unpredictable, rapid and frightening vectors of transmission. It should also be noted that systems co-evolve. As explained here, our social, economic and governmental institutions co-evolve alongside material, technological advances. Global trade networks are enabled by advances in communication and transportation technology but also by governmental and economic evolutions (e.g., capitalism, neoliberalism). Technologies both drive and are driven by these so-called ‘social’ technologies in turn. Very interestingly for me, these changes also impact (and are impacted by) adaptations on the individual, organismic scale. Said in another way, the human body is also a medium which cultures these systemic changes. For example, there already exists decades of interesting narrative work on the historicalized, institutionalized evolution of the human psyche. It is therefore apparent to me that we must take antiviral or containment precautions not only towards the physical pathogen but also towards the co-evolving fear, prejudice, misinformation and authoritarianism that is virally distributed along behavioral, psychosocial and technological vectors. In these sections that follow, I offer ‘field’ (infield) notes and musings on the co-evolutionary processes of our social, technological and corporeal systems that I believe are likely to become our reality (if not already). I will include reference links where possible and when they occur to me.

One cautionary observation about speculative endeavors: even in the midst of unprecedented change, one always seems to find evidence to confirm one’s pre-existing worldviews. Terra nulius can only be staked over the promise of terra firma. I am probably not different in my thinking.

Social Systems: Government & Economy

  • In times of peace, the government is heavily scrutinized by its citizenry. The spirit of this critique may be revolutionary or reactionary, however, in prosperity most criticism is leisurely. Political hobbyism. In times of war or uncertainty, we need to be galvanized to act with purpose, coordination, urgency and commitment towards our common threat. Indeed, many experts are calling for a massive upscaling in governmental authority (ostensibly to restore much needed trust and security), which will of course require increased surveillance. This virus has been described as a war; if it is, governments will seem to require:
    • Scientists, not generals, directing the battle lines
    • Global suppression of the economy; at least until the viral threat is contained. However, if economic production is still largely a human endeavor–does the now perennial threat of viral contagion command increasing mechanization over manual labor processes? The majority of physical labor still appears to be done by human bodies. Machines do have a long way to catch up and that is also assuming they can be more cheaply and reliably serviced than outsourced manual labor.
    • If work is to become mechanized then government must logically commit to another massive regulatory function–assuring its populace a basic, guaranteed income. With this increase in regulatory capacity, it’s reach will most assuredly extend further into public and private surveillance (think social credit systems, such as established already in China) and education/information production. What implications will this have on the social contract between the government and its populace?
    • In this sense, this ‘war’ is not waged on an abstract or foreign entity (despite rhetorical attempts to localize an enemy) but a civil war where the enemy agent must be neutralized from within.
  • If a virally-resilient economy depends on continued production then we must ask:
    • How will consumption match production during times of viral containment? We are already seeing the invigoration of markets in home fitness products, entertainment, remote networking platforms etc.
    • How will ‘critical’ workers be revalued here? I am talking about healthcare, service, maintenance, public safety workers.
    • How will ‘non-critical’ workers be revalued here?
    • In this massive naturalistic experiment, will we find out how much in-office work is actually essential and how much hours are actually needed to be ‘productive’?
    • It should be noted here that it is impossible to predict long-term changes based on short-term adjustments. Perhaps some are already seeing benefits to working from home but its long-term compromises are less apparent. However, it is already evident that with the collapse of geographical space enabled by communications technologies, we are experiencing the collapse of time (i.e., the death of the schedule, answering emails/texts 24.7). Will this become a metaphorical ‘third shift‘ in labor?
    • It may already be apparent that social equity, not fiscal indicators of prosperity, is the best indicator of a virally-resilient economy.
  • As the threats are so pervasive, we have to navigate our nonvirtual worlds with increasing caution and clarity. To this end, people have responded not just with despair and anxiety but also with a massive impetus to be helpful to one another–neighbours in need. As such, we will need not just local and governmental institutions to support such activities but also intensely regional (i.e., community-based) programs. These may be run out of schools, churches and the like during times of contagion. Of course, such venues also breed micro-local politics and the longevity of such programs may also be difficult to maintain in hypermobile communities.
  • How will the threat of recurring contagion alter migratory and mobility patterns? Our economy is to a large extent dependent on the emigration of not just ideas but bodies and customs…

Social Systems: Media, Epistemology and Ethics

  • Media, on a most abstract level, refers to the environment or umwelt that enables economies/ecosystems of thought and information to develop, evolve and disseminate. Said differently, it is the preconditions that enable and restrict how (and what) thoughts develop and circulate.
  • A concrete example of this is as follows: If we are to increasingly rely on surveillance data to predict and control viral outbreaks then we will have to increasingly surrender private data to census and surveillance systems. Surveillance technologies will therefore necessitate not only a rethink of digital rights/ethics but also biological rights/ethics.
  • Under these pandemic conditions of fear and mistrust, the knowledge production systems that may thrive here are epistemes of the future (i.e., of predictability and control). However in selecting and adopting these systems of knowledge production and meaning-making, we will need to seriously revisit the social contract as it is currently structured. For example, what physical, social and economic rights should be apportioned to those classified by surveillance and actuarial data to be ‘high-risk’ (to commit a crime, violate a quarantine order, become a vector of transmission)? Actuarial data creates these questions but it cannot answer them. We will need to think outside these tyrannical metrics
    • A small aside, predictability is epistemologically limited to the possibilities/outcomes/concepts/categories that are known. It cannot determine the unpredictable. Furthermore, these existing categories may become reified as if they were reality. Now this is understandable enough when the categories are defined in terms of biological markers of pathogen present in the body–but is it justifiable when the categories are as culturally, historically and situationally mutable as mental health?
  • In times of crisis, critical thinking can often be seen as iconclastic, profane or even heretical. But fidelity to science demands interpretations tempered by humility, empiricism and experimentation rather than irreverent devotion.
    • How are we making sense of the data? As the epidemiologist Dr. Jay Bhattacharya points out here, at this current time, we may be overestimating the lethality of COVID-19 by 1 order of magnitude. His point is not to downplay the lethality of the virus–he is a physician and knows better; but he suggests that we do not and cannot yet know exactly how lethal it is given our lack of reliable testing and sampling. In other words, we have not yet implemented reliable tests of a mass scale to make such determinations. Dr. Bhattacharya also makes the point that economic fallout and social isolation may also have very real health impacts; it is not simply a calculation of “lives against dollars but lives against lives”. How confident can we be with the data that our social and economic policies are resting on?
  • However, assuming we are able to get reliable data–we will also need a science of implementation. As the economist John List points out here, there are a set of pertinent questions to consider here:
    • What is the quality of evidence used to justify a large-scale intervention (e.g., near-total economic shutdown, severe social distancing?). Is the sample random and representative, is it generalizable?
    • Will people, populations and places respond uniformly to an intervention proposed from research based in a particular context? Given that the viral threat is not uniformly distributed, might different levels of intervention by justified by geography, community and environment?
    • Do the results obtained at one level of scale (e.g., several dozen individuals) generalize to other levels of scale? How will the emergent properties of larger groups and systems be evaluated and taken into account here?
  • Assuming we have measures in place to minimize the threat; what metrics will be used to justify an acceptable number of deaths and illnesses? Suffering must also be economized in an episteme of predictability/control. Just as we have legitimized and accepted the documented influenza deaths of upwards of 60,000 people annually in the US will we budget and legitimize a number for pandemic deaths ?
  • What interests will govern these predictive/controlling disciplines?
  • We are already seeing innovative and compassionate forms of connectivity develop (e.g., online streaming of concerts, museums, classes; health apps made free; social networking apps). The premise of this connectivity is the promise that we act as one, we abstain as one, we consume as one, we care for each other and ourselves as one. Like other moral systems, this one too is mythically founded: on the one hand, it presupposes that ‘while apart, we are all in this together’ and must take common precautions. Yet this does not square with the exigencies of many. If you have a certain economic and social capital, then social distancing is going to look different for you than for someone who lacks a reliable and safe home environment or is an essential, service or maintenance worker. Or a small business owner.

Material Systems: Being in the Virtual

  • As the virus is spread through respiratory droplets and direct routes of contact, knowledge systems have rapidly mobilized to render such avoidable contact as illegal, irresponsible, dangerous and undesirable.
  • The desires we have for one another–to socialize, work, intimate, recreate, procreate–these are all positioned now as excesses of what is socially tolerable. The revenge of the superego indeed! Using this psychodynamic paradigm, media and virtual technologies can be thought of as mechanisms by which these desires are suppressed and sublimated.
  • But throwing the body into the virtual in this way must have social, psychological and physical impacts (complexes) that are perhaps too speculative to entertain here. I will not go as far as others in making categorical distinctions between the real and virtual however I think it is wise to acknowledge McLuhan’s four-fold movement of media–if only as one simple heuristic to engage one in critically thinking about how virtual media (and the bodies we take within those media) make certain, often implicit, demands upon our corporeal selves.
  • One note about desire and consumption. In our internet age, it seems as if consumption for the sake of pleasure, escape, immersion, self-improvement is constantly available. However, it almost feels like work. As Foucault had noticed decades ago, we are always engaged in operations of power–it is as it were the principle of natural selection at work in our social and technological systems. Increasingly, these systems govern our bodies through coercion or seduction (and we willingly adopt this governance as discipline). There is so much to do, it is not enough to work, rest, rise, socialize, but we must also reckon with our personal and collective anxieties all while being exhorted to improve! have fun! learn! become happier! There are mental health counsellors also urging us to not do too much as if there were a correct way of doing things at all. What operations of power are at work when we normalize having to be reminded by a perfect stranger to shut off and cool down? Note that mental health providers are often the main audience for such interventions.
  • There is also a desire for vicarious consumption. Watching vlogs, gaming streams, reality TV, travel shows, celebrity culture etc. Is this perhaps a voyeuristic delight, a mirror neuron party or perhaps a collective FOMO? Anecdotal observations suggest that our vicarious consumption is more of a drugery–spinach rather than steak. It is as if we are responding to the impossible disciplinary demands to be both productive and adventurous, responsible and titillating, zealous and balanced. Under this double-bind we may procrastinate through outsourcing our own experiential selves to the entertainers; our reflective, tranquil selves to the gurus.
  • How will our corporeal desires be redeemed–will we forget or repress our memories of abstinence like a collective trauma? Will we proceed with hypervigilance? To reestablish trust in physical proximity, what new purity mores will be observed? How will we draw upon existing (if mostly covert) prejudices that index the ‘clean/trustworthy’ from the ‘unclean’?

Material Systems: Places and Placemaking

  • Outside of the lived body and the virtual, what of the non-virtual world including natural and built environments? Should individuals still have a right to nature? Should nature have rights that we are compelled to observe?
  • Capitalism and globalism has massively extended the wealth, quality of life and length of life for billions of people while at the same time ushering in new problems such as unparalleled ecological devastation, climate change, resource depletion and as a result, possibly recurring pathogenic outbreaks. How can these materially productive systems be challenged, supported, improved while minimizing their damage? As citizens, if we do not reckon unflinchingly with these brutal calculations we relinquish government from these responsibilities.
  • How can design encourage anti-viral behaviors? The city is regarded by some as an unparalleled innovation. It certainly has enabled the proliferation of common spaces, both virtual and physical. Clearly we depend on common spaces during times of prosperity and crisis. What common spaces will prove resilient and how will others adapt?
  • Will the privatization of property and space be proposed as antiviral measures or will there be other ways of securing individual, material privileges during times of quarantine/isolation?
  • Will the cultivation of spaces and bodies become ‘tighter‘ as we host the spectre of an invisible, revenant scourge?
    • As some have written, the celebrities and social influencers have already pivoted from liberal art/expression towards conventionality and solidarity in thinking, action and morality.

One thought on “Viral thoughts on a pandemic

  1. Thanks! It’s an excellent read. I can really relate with the precaution that one always seems to find evidence to confirm his pre-existing worldviews.


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