Going Viral

The vicious cycle of social media and pandemics

“The mind is its own place and in itself can make a heaven out of hell and a hell out of heaven”

John Milton

Prescient until the end, Marshall McLuhan coined how photography, but more succinctly technology, has a “virulent” nature – it can go viral much like an idea or meme. Its forcing function is merely its scale and how many people it can reach. Undoubtedly, history has proved him right and ironically the term virality went viral as a way to describe the breakneck speed of idea dispersion; still, it turns out that viruses and technology have much more in common than first meets the eye.

When new inventions are created, society oftens overreacts while adjusting to the creation’s unforeseen consequences – arguably, the same is true of specific maladies. Certainly, there are two parts to every disease: the illness and how we react to it. For most of history, medicine was a reactive instrument wielded to belie the paranoia of kings and to assuage the fears of dying, wretched peasants; though, medicine only encouraged death. When confronted with disease, people usually react in one of two ways: either they are too paralyzed to react and abandon all hope or they hoard all the resources for themselves – artificially creating scarcity – which we’re already witnessing due to the coronavirus.

Before delving deeper, let’s uncover why people are worried about the coronavirus in the first place. Those pessimistically petrified of the disease liken it to a modern plague because it has the potential to wreak havoc on the world in similar ways. Yersinia Pestis is the bacterium which has caused three plagues and biblical levels of destruction. There was first the Plague of Justinian in 541 AD, spreading from Siberia to Europe and even all the way into Africa – reflecting the entire surface area of the Roman Empire. A few centuries later, as globalism spurred trade, we saw the Black Death, so catastrophic that it wiped out 5/8s of Europe’s population and bestowing upon it the title of the Great Mortality. The last outbreak of the plague was in Asia in the 1850s where more than 20 million lives were lost in India alone. Again, the plague is nothing like the coronavirus in terms of death tolls, but it’s highly likely we might witness similar destabilizing effects to the global economy. Regardless of outcome, expectations determine financial destiny.

Like the naive opening of Pandora’s box, these diseases were the first glimpse of the monstrous terrors that globalism can unleash upon the world. The chaotic nature of the plague outbreaks were clear to many that humanity was unprepared to deal with these shocks. Connecting the world has always been fraught with risk and it was guaranteed that an antifragile virus would come around sooner or later. Only time will tell if our systems are strong enough for such a chaos monkey or if the global economy will dismantle piece by piece.

Infodemics

There is a reason mania is used to describe both bank runs and fears of disease; nothing else quite incites as much panic as the loss of capital or health. Before social media, people could witness the destruction from their limited viewpoints – curtailed by the speed of communication in their time. This has entirely changed in the modern age; fear is contagious through Facebook and Twitter. “The only thing we have to fear,” as JFK waxed eloquently, “is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

Antibiotics keep the number of outbreaks to a low. Without such drugs, the externalities wouldn’t be contained and we would likely see many more world-ending diseases. When in Gujrat in 1994, journalist Laurie Garret describes that the mere mention of plague caused such a hysteria that it kickstarted a stampede for the already-dwindling supply of antibiotics. Instantly, racist criticism was flung against Americans, Russians, and Asians: anyone believed to have played a part in the plague’s fruition was used as a scapegoat and lynched.

In a perilous flywheel, as more people get scared, supplies become scare, causing even more worry among the populace. Reflexively, our reactions mold together into a MMO signalling game where certain individuals want to show others that they care more about their safety, leading to an arms race. Clearly, one need only see all the pictures of shopping runs on Twitter – the best jokes without fail always contain a kernel of truth.

Decentralizing the world

We’ve seen the above analogy play out word for word with the cornonavirus. Patients in Melbourne’s Royal Children hospital have explicitly shunned the help of Asian doctors out of supposed fear and disgust; I haven’t yet mentioned the unspeakably violent actions toward those who look Chinese across the West. Because it’s effortless to use, social media shows people pretty lies some yearn to believe, but which are, again, lies. Absurdities currently spreading on WeChat include that the virus began as a result of some Chinese citizens eating bat soup and other commentators have suggested that a known cure was to ingest heaps of garlic in one sitting. This is why the WHO has called the fake news surrounding this disease an ‘infodemic.’

One of the clearest consequences of this traumatic experience might be the death-knell of top-down information gatekeepers. A few weeks ago, it was laughable that a16z placed a ‘No handshaking please!’ sign on their front door: this week, we’ve seen the cancellation of the world’s biggest conferences including Facebook’s F8, the APS, Google’s I/O and SXSW. We couldn’t trust the media on who to vote for, now we can’t hope to listen to them about how to protect ourselves and our loved ones from this incurable foe.

What message does it send when the CDC removes testing guidelines from their website? The authorities would rather blame people for wanting to quarantine themselves than provide help and admit wrongdoing. The Straussian message is that one should always think for oneself: play Pascal’s wager. Work from home, avoid shaking hands, and read that book you always wanted to read instead of yet-again going out to that same bar on a Friday night. The best case is that you endure a few weeks of quiet bliss, but the worst case is you contract a deadly, incurable illness. Don’t play the odds.

However, I think the distrust for authorities will have rampant consequences. It could accelerate the remote-work trend as companies will be forced to build out the infrastructure given that many – Amazon, Twitter, Stripe – have stopped business flights. Remote-first used to be available only in tech companies, but it’s slowly becoming pertinent everywhere. Once the fear of disease dies down, we’ll be left with all the infrastructure for remote work built out and many people will realize that their job is bullshit as I wrote about in 'The Spiritual Warfare of Bullshit Jobs.’ How many people are actually working an entire 8 hours a day in the knowledge economy?

The other byproduct will be heightened suspicion around China’s role in the new world order. Scientists in the Wuhan Lab where the coronavirus was originally studied claimed weeks ago that it was ‘possible’ a specimen with the disease might have been sold to a nearby market where it likely transmitted among the local populace. The scientists obviously dispute that, but the Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology published a report suggesting that all labs immediately step up security and management.

If the lab was faultless, what are we to make of that? Conjoin this news with the fact that most will never believe the number of cases coming out of China make the rumors on social media palatable. If nothing is true, then everything has a shred of possibility.

The one issue that has united Democrats and Republicans from the last few years is the question of China’s power and how America should venture into this world order.

U.S. officials, lawmakers and outside voices increasingly see the Chinese Communist Party as a negative global force bent on spreading its influence on every front, including militarily, without democratizing and through oppression of its citizens. The Trump administration has whacked China on issues ranging from its control of telecom firms to its debt-powered diplomacy in Africa to its theft of intellectual property to its imprisonment of more than a million Uighur Muslims.

Then there’s the unraveling trade ties, driven in part by Trump’s willingness to impose tariffs on Chinese goods. The trade war, recently ameliorated by a first-step trade deal, has support from some Democrats who feel China has been cheating the U.S. on the economic front.

I love Chinese culture, and have been avidly learning Mandarin; however, it’s made apparent that the current system of lies and backstabbing enforced de riguer by the CCP must evolve. I’m convinced many American leaders are personally influenced by the coronavirus outbreak and what they consume from social media; will they believe the rumors previously discussed and base crucial decisions off that?

Marx’s sardonic remark that “history first begins as tragedy and ends as farce” could never hold more true; nobody in a thousand years would have guessed that a Chinese-born disease would have been the gunshot heard around the world – the pinprick to a decades-long bubble of globalism.

Honestly, I think we’ll see the better angels of our nature come forth from this horrifying ordeal; nonetheless, we must place our emotions aside and deal with the facts impassionately. This is a terrifying situation, but countries need moments where they can test their mettle against the unpredictable – how else do we know the capability of our populace? Make no mistake, what rises from these ashes will be a different world, but based off how we act, it could make our societies more antifragile than ever before.


If you missed it, check out my other post: Reviving Utopia.