Sleepless in Seattle, and Pandemic Time Travel Mailbag
|Eugene Wei||Dec 31, 2020||16||3|
Near the end of October, I migrated to Seattle to stay at a friend’s empty house. After months of oscillating between my bedroom and the kitchen table where I’d set up my laptop in my condo in San Francisco, I had developed a severe bout of cabin fever. Having traveled so much the past few years, this sense of stasis was a shock to the system. To pad through a new space—to even have space at all!—was a balm for the mind. I needed a sense of movement through space, even if it were to trade one shelter in place for another.
There’s much localized hand-wringing (anything that occurs primarily on one subculture of Twitter is local in the scheme of things) about the flight from San Francisco to New Zealand, Singapore, Taiwan, Austin, Miami, and other parts of the world. And some of that is indeed because of some of the governance issues of San Francisco.
But there’s also, I suspect, a broader epidemic of cabin fever that is the result of people being forced to stay in place for months on end. I’ve spoken to friends and family all over the world who yearn to travel again, even those who live in cities lauded as idyllic.
Much of the charm of urban life is a result of the numerous Brownian collisions of people packed densely in space and the effluence of culture from that congregation of humans. A pandemic reverses the urban-rural arbitrage. The cost per square foot of urban life includes the value of the wealth of opportunities outside your dwelling. When those opportunities close, when you are confined to the space inside your home, the cost per square foot of urban life soars, in every sense.
I ended up staying in Seattle for nearly a month, most of that by choice. Toward the end of my stay, with the prevalence of Covid soaring, the doctors in my family told me they no longer recommended flying as safe. So I canceled my return flight and spent an extra week or two finding an alternative path home. I ended up renting a car and driving back down over two days.
It was, for the most part, cold, rainy, and gray in Seattle. It suited me. If I was going to be inside all the time, the weather might as well not taunt me with real opportunity cost. One day I met two different friends for two consecutive socially-distanced walks outside (2019 me doesn’t even know what that sentence means). At the end of the second stroll, my friend and I looked at each other and burst out laughing through our masks because we were both shivering violently. Neither of us had wanted to be the first to call it on account of the cold.
The pandemic forces us to trade off intimacy and health, and I hate it. Despite being an introvert, I loved my years living in Manhattan because I always felt the ambient masses of people just outside my apartment window. I never felt alone.
My family is a family of huggers, the influence of my brothers, both of whom will wrap you up like a bear. Even now, when I see friends, I’m always stopped short by the momentary loading of my pre-pandemic protocols—do we hug, shake hands?—then caught in a moment of awkward indecision as it errors out and I try to decide how best to signal my continued affection for the other party—are my eyes conveying enough tenderness? how does one show solidarity without touch while not looking foolish?
Locking down for months on end smacks is a sort of forced solipsism which has deadened my emotional nerve endings. A few weekends back I watched Dua Lipa’s Studio 2054 virtual concert, in which she wandered from room to room in a giant studio/soundstage, surrounded by dancers, roller skaters, and famous guest stars, and it brought back a memory of a trip in 2003, when I went to Carnival in Rio de Janeiro with a former work buddy and his friend who had just come off a divorce.
My memory of that week is of warmth, from the sun, from an overwhelming crush of bodies around me, all week. How long has it been since you could feel the warmth of a stranger radiating off their skin? Everywhere we went, we couldn’t walk ten feet without having to weave around a person. Not on the beaches, where there wasn’t enough empty space to lay down with your arms outstretched. Not in the streets, where the three of us would just join the first street parade that passed the front of our hotel after we’d regained consciousness from the previous late night of carousing. Not in the stands of the Sambadrome, the massive stadium where we watched the spectacle of the Carnival parade, the type that is so gaudy it stuns even those who dislike parades fans like myself, and where we were pressed shoulder to shoulder with strangers for hours on end, until 5 in the morning, after which my friend’s friend realized he’d been pickpocketed during the night. And not in our rather cozy hotel room, which we’d split among the three of us to save money, where my buddy and I ended up passing out each night on a cot and a sofa. And definitely not at the clubs, where we would dance pressed between tall and beautiful Brazilian men and women until the sun started to rise.
It was the least amount of personal space I’ve had in any week of my life, but because it was amidst an atmosphere of uninhibited celebration, it’s a memory I’ve summoned often this year, just for the vibe.
That trip was part of a three-month sabbatical I took from Amazon and the kickoff to the South American leg of my trip. After Carnival I backpacked on my own through Chile, Argentina, and Ecuador, and I joined a boat trip through the Galapagos Islands.
While it was an ideal season to visit Rio, especially to experience Carnival, it wasn’t high season in Patagonia. Just the opposite.
I did a four-day trek through Torres del Paine in the midst of winter, and I’ve never been so alone in my life. For four days, I went without any human interaction. Not only did I not talk to anyone, but I also didn’t even see another human or even another sign of human life for those four days. No telephone poles, no streets, no houses, not even a piece of litter. At night, it was so dark I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face. I had no cell phone, no internet connection, just a map and the camping gear in my backpack.
It’s the closest I’ve come to understanding what prolonged isolation does to profoundly social creatures like humans. By day two I had started talking to myself, like Tom Hanks making small-talk with Wilson the volleyball in Cast Away, except I was talking to myself.
“Okay,” I’d say out loud each morning, laying out the map to plot out the day’s path, “Which way are we heading today?” Even four days without hearing another person’s thoughts, or unloading my own, was enough to unsettle me. I muttered out loud, like some crazed wilderness man from a film, just to break that silence.
I understood what it meant to “get out of one’s own head.” When we have no other minds to bounce our ideas against, when we spend hours and days wandering only the terrain of our own minds, when we pull on threads that end up circling back on themselves like Mobius strips, we lose ourselves in circular references. This must be one appeal of therapy.
Today we have social networks, our ever-connected smartphones, and apps like Zoom to mitigate some of the sense of isolation from this pandemic. But, at least for me, having stress-tested this stick-drawing version of the metaverse for nearly this entire year, it has been a poor substitute for the face-to-face interaction of my prior life.
I read this tweet from Delia Cai a short while ago...
...and yeah, same (also, what a poetic use of rawdogging). After I get a vaccine in me I’m going to hug the first person that wouldn’t call the police on me.
I don’t miss commuting or office politics, the general social and spatial friction of pre-pandemic life. But I also believe most of the more salient impacts of remote work are the positive ones, and that the drawbacks of working across long distances by default will manifest in time. Perhaps in tech they will take longer to surface because of the sheer volume of Silicon Valley companies that benefit from near-monopolistic network effects or unusually leveraged business models. Many have seen huge bumps in their share prices and business volume during this pandemic. It’s easy to overlook the downsides of remote work when they’re buried under a snowfall of profit.
We have reasonable ways to measure individual productivity, and it would not surprise me that many companies find they do not see any decline in such figures in the shift to remote work. Maybe even gains. Fewer hours spent commuting, less distraction from open floor plans, more time for output.
But it’s hard to measure some of the counterfactuals. What’s the loss in group productivity when everyone is in a different place? It’s hard to measure the effect of interaction on group productivity in general. But just because you can’t measure something doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.
Especially for collaborative work, the type that can’t be turned into a virtual assembly line, remote work is going to be a downgrade. How much is hard to say. From a cultural perspective, moving from in-person to remote communication over Zoom, email, and Slack is a literal reduction in communications bandwidth and increase in communications latency whose effects are not well understood.
I don’t doubt that some personality types prefer this change to a default mode of this more remote communication. Technologically-mediated socially-distanced interaction is a boon to the lone wolf. But in the long run, and to pull off a great many things, for example, a rags-to-riches startup, I think there are great advantages to being together in that canonical garage day after day. To sense, through body language and that expressive miracle that is the human face, the emotional subtext of your coworkers. To the feeling of camaraderie and solidarity that comes from making that costly commute to be together in some office day after day. To the synchronicity of ambition that comes from being shoulder-to-shoulder in the arena.
Was some of our previously mandated face time excessive? Almost certainly. Letting workers work from home some days, especially a day like Friday when traffic is horrendous, or at different times, depending on their childcare or other personal responsibilities, is a sensible adaptation to the modern knowledge economy.
This massive overnight shift to remote work is a great natural experiment, one of many that the pandemic has forced upon us. I don’t trust companies that previously switched to massive open floor plans without understanding their effects on productivity are any better equipped to understand how best to pull off long-term remote work, but they’re certainly putting on a brave and positive face for now, learning on the job.
I remain skeptical.
Earlier this year I wrote an issue of this newsletter titled Deus ex Vaccina because it seemed the US response to Covid was to do the bare minimum until a vaccine would save us. In hindsight, that’s just how it played out.
The encouraging results of early trials of vaccines from companies like Moderna and Pfizer are stunning. mRNA vaccines, which can teach our cells to make a protein that triggers our body to make antibodies against something it has never seen, in this case SARS-CoV-2, are something out of a science fiction novel. That foundation may make it possible to roll out vaccines even more quickly for future viruses. I’m not sure anything will astound me more this year.
Yet this should not distract from what an utter disaster this has been for American governance.
I am a big believer in separating process from results. In this case, both were atrocious. You can claim that America did better than some other nations in the world, but by most measures, and against the self-declared standard of American exceptionalism, this was an unequivocal failure.
Back in May, in that same issue of my newsletter, I asked people to suggest what they would do if they could hop in a time machine and bring all the knowledge they have about Covid in their minds at this moment back to Jan 1 of this year. How many lives could they save, and how would they do it?
Assessing a system from the outside is always fraught. What can you say about a black box that isn’t mostly conjecture? Much of technology analysis, attempting to explain why a company did or didn’t do something, is guesswork beset by massive error bars.
But I do subscribe to the idea that if something emerges from a black box, at least it’s proof that the system within it was capable, at some point, of shipping that thing. Demonstrate an organizational capability once, and it’s easier for me to believe you can pull it off again.
Conversely, if something doesn’t emerge from that black box, it’s worth asking why it didn’t, or couldn’t.
Successful companies in Silicon Valley can employ hundreds if not thousands of developers. Because of that, it’s easy to imagine that most of those companies could pull off anything that any of their peers had shipped. It’s all just code, right?
But the fact is that most companies actually can’t pull off certain things (even though yes, at a literal level, they are theoretically capable of generating that code, like so many monkeys could bang out the collected works of Shakespeare given an infinite time horizon and durable typewriters). That’s because of other factors beyond the literal writing of software: culture, organizational structure, strategic vision, C-suite interest, ambition, design skills, and a litany of other factors.
When a competitor pulls off something that you wish you’d done as a company, often the right question to ask is not whether you could have done it, but to ask why you didn’t. If you are honest enough about your organizational capabilities, you’ll start to understand the real drawbacks of your company design and culture, the way it thinks and operates. In the age of knowledge work, we still have only the most limited frameworks for understanding why some companies are more successful and productive than others.
The question about what one person could do to prevent what has been a disastrous spread of Covid in the U.S. is really a question about what our country’s information processing and operational response capabilities are at this moment in time, in 2020. That’s why I didn’t ask what you’d do if you could travel back in time to 2019; I didn’t want to ask how people would stop the virus from even crossing over to humans.
Instead, I was curious what you could do, armed with today’s knowledge of Covid—how it spreads, who is most susceptible, what the right treatments are—to change people’s minds once Covid had already jumped from animal to humans but before it had spread to millions of people around the world.
You’ll recall that in May, we didn’t know yet what vaccines would work, and we still had debates over how Covid spread, whether temperature would affect transmission, etc. So you’ll need to read the responses below with that in mind, that they were sent to me in May.
With that caveat, here are a handful of responses that caught my eye.
Byrne Hobart, who writes the newsletter The Diff that I’ve promoted here in the past, went back beyond Jan 1, 2020, but his response still covers a lot of the issues I was curious about:
The time travel problem is to get enough influence, in a short period of time, to actually affect the world. And then you have to affect it.
My five-step time-travel plan:
1. Memorize a bunch of surprising events that happened over the course of 2019. To hedge my bets, I’d make these mostly geopolitical events that affect asset prices. This allows me to accumulate reputational capital and capital-capital throughout the year.
2. In the early weeks/months of becoming a famous prognosticator, it’s fine to both tweet predictions (plaintext) and trade on them. But getting more famous raises the odds of affecting these events. If you know what OPEC is going to do, your predictions are widely known, and you say what OPEC is going to do—they’re no longer necessarily going to do what you said. So at some point the model has to switch to posting hashed predictions, and trading less aggressively, then revealing the hashed text once the prediction comes true.
3. Use the newly acquired wealth to order tons and tons of PPE starting in the summer/fall—the goal is not just to accumulate masks, but to influence the supply chain so the supply of necessary inputs goes up.
4. Begin talking up pandemic risk in the fall.
5. It gets a lot harder when the pandemic starts, because accurate predictions significantly change history. For example, if you accurately point out that Northern Italy has a large number of immigrants from Hubei and direct flights from Wuhan, it might lead to flights getting shut down, at which point all foreknowledge about Italy becomes worthless. Same for SF, NYC, and Spain. So this might be the time to not make comprehensively accurate predictions; you need to make enough to save lives, but also fail to make enough predictions such that the risk remains salient. Probably, Diamond Princess is the chess piece you sacrifice in that scenario. It’s a fixed number of people, it gives everyone data on how contagious and fatal the disease is, but the actual fatality count is low. You probably can’t stop the epidemic, because there’s no way I can think of to shut down the Wuhan wet market, the city of Wuhan, or all international travel from China before the virus gets out. So the thing to optimize for is making people aware of the threat and reducing the material constraints on slowing the spread.
Unfortunately, this is also when the quality of predictions tanks, because every interesting thing that happened starting in March was related to the virus. (I guess I could predict a few Bitcoin hashes—but will the hash rate be the same if China’s shutdown goes differently? No! Winning lotto numbers will also probably be different; you’d need to predict a random phenomenon where the random seed is determined before the virus is loose but the result is not revealed until after.)
I was having fun until step 5...
My conclusion is that a random person could have an impact, but even with perfect knowledge of this version of the present, their ability to predict the future would not be quite good enough to prevent it.
I guess the other way to cheat is to do just the financial steps and get enough capital organize a (zero-fatality but very scary) terrorist attack on the wet market. But that seems hard to pull off. In that scenario, pandemic risk is unaffected, but to stop Covid-19 all you really need to do is prevent the first case of animal-to-human transmission.
It would be a fun SF short story to have two time travelers pursuing each of these strategies at the same time. The showdown where the finance-only strategy will lose all its capital if there’s a narrowly-averted dirty bomb attack in China is not to be missed!
Working title: The Future’s Traders
The use of hashed predictions seems like it should be a common trope of science fiction moving forward (maybe it is already, I’m sure the more well-read sci-fi fans among my readers would know). A useful method for validating your predictive powers in front of someone (you’d want to do it on the spot so as not to trick them by posting a whole bunch of hashed predictions and only showing them the one that proved correct) while, as Byrne notes, minimizing any butterfly effect disruptions from pronouncing your prediction out loud ahead of time.
I like Byrne’s multi-step logic of accumulating financial capital which then gets turned into social capital for maximum leverage. If it were me, I’d try to achieve massive leverage on my social capital by converting someone with much more social capital into a believer.
Maybe Bill Gates? He’s already proven a huge contributor to multi-threading vaccine research and supply chain development, and he’s already pre-disposed to believing in the harm of pandemics (not to mention that a hashed prediction might prove catnip to a former technologist). If you could get him to shift his contribution to the PPE pipeline up by even a few months, it could bolster the medical supply chain at a time when regions like New York were being crushed.
But more than Gates, the person whose social capital and mouthpiece might be the highest leverage in the U.S. would be Donald Trump. Given his very transparent appetites and weaknesses, if you could convince him you could see the future, any number of enticements would seem to be easy ways to sway him. A promise of re-election, of being adored for being a heroic leader in a time of crisis, of personal profit. A cheeseburger.
And, as distasteful as it might be, my next stop would be to someone like Rupert Murdoch, to try to convince him to push the right recommendations to the tens of millions of viewers from whom Fox is basically state media. I might convince Murdoch that I could guarantee his network a few astonishing scoops.
Lastly, in parallel, I believe by May some doctors had already started to realize that the early treatment approach to patients was killing them. Aggressive venting, the usual regimen for patients with such low pulse ox readings, seemed to be doing more harm than good. I remember the doctors in my family telling me the first time they started to suspect that treatment was counter-productive, when doctors started flipping patients regularly, placing them on their stomach. Getting a simple tip like that into the medical network could have saved many patients at a time when Covid was still mostly an unsolved mystery.
Sonya Mann wrote:
Excerpting from her piece (which you should read in full):
By now it’s cliché to point out that several Asian countries were decisively cautious, making good calls quickly, probably due to recent experience with a rapacious respiratory infection. Huh... thank you, SARS? When faced with exponential growth, time is cheaper the sooner you start buying it!
State capacity and willingness to use it were key, but so was the populace being aware that viruses like COVID-19 are 1) a thing, 2) bad enough to be worth averting or avoiding at high cost.
What if it is indeed that simple? What if:
The more time has passed since a given type of tail risk last afflicted a given society, the more vulnerable the society will be to that tail risk. And the more materially devastated it’ll be, relative to peers with situation-adapted civilizational immune systems, when that risk actually happens.
This nth-order phenomenon is a tradeoff of status quo bias and normalcy bias, which I posit are rational.
Sonya’s is the Terminator time travel answer. You’ll recall (and if you haven’t seen Terminator, I’m going to SPOIL it hard here, so skip ahead to the next reader response) that Terminator is one of those time travel movies in which no matter what you do with your time machine, all you do by traveling into the past is recreate the same outcome, just in a different way. Send back John Connor to stop the Terminator from being created, and instead the spare parts from the Terminator sent back to stop you end up becoming the technological origin of Skynet.
I’m sympathetic to her argument around government and societal capabilities for dealing with specific crises, how these abilities erode with the passage of time given the infrequency of tail risk events. When events occur outside the span of a human lifetime, much of the knowledge of what it was like to live through the event and how best to deal with such an event is lost with the memories of the people who pass away. Then we’re dependent on our other means of recording such events, most of which will be buried with all the countless entries of recorded history.
Perhaps an approach like that of the locals in the Mid Prefecture, Japan is needed. There, they tear down the Ise Jingu shrine and rebuild it every 20 years.
The renewal of the buildings and of the treasures has been conducted in the same traditional way ever since the first Shikinen Sengu had been performed 1300 years ago. Scientific developments make manual technology obsolete in some fields. However, by performing the Shikinen Sengu, traditional technologies are preserved.
It is a ritual to preserve the “process knowledge” needed to build the shrine the way it first built some 2,000 years ago.
Now that the U.S. has had this bout with Covid, my hope is that at least some of the coping mechanisms stick. For example, wearing a mask during flu season, or even year-round, when out in public, as is done in many East Asian countries.
We’ve long tolerated tens of thousands of deaths per year from the flu each year, but was that an acceptable cost when we could have saved many of those people by washing our hands and wearing masks more regularly?
How many years until you regard someone coughing next to you in public with the same nonchalance you did pre-Covid?
Here is my entry for your proposed thought exercise.
The “tired”, analytical “taking the question literally” version: if the goal is to prevent the maximum number of COVID-19 deaths, the logic of exponential growth would dictate intervention at the source of the outbreak. Given what I know on May 14, this is probably (?) the wet market in Wuhan.
The neatest, most precise intervention that would also play well on a silver screen would have the protagonist stopping the exact coronavirus-infected pangolin/bat/whatever from coming into contact with its first human. Fully decked out in PPE, the protagonist would toss said pangolin/bat/whatever into a furnace, a la Mount Doom in LOTR, only to find out there was a small dent in his mask. Realizing he might become Patient 0, he goes off into Wudangshan, learns ancient martial arts from the ghost of Zhang Sanfeng, and, because of unforeseen complications, becomes the first and last person to die from COVID-19. His martyrdom goes unrecognized and the rest of the world goes back to being preoccupied by whether billionaire Laurels or Yannys should have their own bathrooms.
But you specified Jan 1, by which time there is already human-to-human transmission. In this case, the most realistic intervention would probably involve establishing convincing social proof with the local Wuhan government that the protagonist has come from the future and lobbying them to shut down the wet market and generally handle the early outbreaks of the virus more aggressively (contact tracing, central quarantine etc.).
On establishing social proof of one’s future origin, one good way would be to precisely predict highly volatile/random events. Winning lottery numbers? Price of Bitcoin? Trump’s Tweets? I would bet on finding a local official who is also cryptocurrency aficionado, and incorporating a Patrick McKenzie-style hash-function-based cryptographic verification mechanism. One bad way would be to present oneself as a mystic who can peer into the future. Between the Boxer Rebellion and Communism’s self-professed atheism, Chinese elite tolerance for mysticism is probably pretty low.
The centralized structure of the Chinese political system and the fact that the virus probably (?) originated from a particular place in Wuhan bolsters the chance of success. In contrast, if you specified that the intervention has to take place in the US, I would probably just give up and buy put options on airline stocks or something. During peacetime, I tend to think my American friends generally underrate the extent to which the US political system being decentralized and ineffectual is a feature and not a bug. But combating COVID-19 is like the opposite of product-market fit (crisis-government misfit?) for such a political system.
Moving beyond comparative politics, it is not clear that narrowly preventing COVID-19 deaths is the best use of time-traveling capabilities or even the best way of ensuring readiness against future pandemics. The gains from getting any particular policy/decision right are far outweighed by the gains from improving policy-making/decision-making capabilities more generally.
The “wired”, complexity-aware, “taking the question seriously” version: to prevent the most number of deaths in the long-run, an alternate strategy would be to translate the advantage of seeing 4.5 months in the future into re-allocating money, status and other resources to further these second-order capabilities. Devoting “free money” to one’s favorite coalition/cause/institution is uninteresting. The real narrative payoff here lies in how “seeing 4.5 months in the future” might enable more interesting possibilities. Prescience-assisted Twitter burns? Acquiring authentic, gritty footage of humanity’s fight against COVID-19 to create the zeitgeist-defining documentary that will move the public and inform policymakers? I invite a more generative mind than my own to come up with better ideas.
However, we must face up to the law of unintended consequences that is typical of time-traveling plots. Your Twitter following stops growing as the timeline catches up with the present, eliminating your supply of prescience-assisted burns. (You never figured out how to use your Twitter following to save civilization anyway.) It is found out that the narrator for your documentary sent an email to John Podesta and what was meant to be the ultimate, non-partisan morality play gets lost in the cacophony of the culture wars.
But there is an upside to considering second-order effects: perhaps, we’re not in the worst possible timeline after all. COVID-19 is arguably in the Goldilocks territory of challenges to humanity: it is contagious and severe enough expose deficiencies in our institutions and leave a mark in our collective consciousness, but not so serious as to significantly impair humanity’s long-term future (or so it seems at present anyway, according to the stock market). Maybe humanity will emerge stronger, with better social technologies for not just dealing with pandemics, but reasoning about complex issues generally.
Or maybe US and China goes to war because Huawei’s 5G causes COVID-19 and we all die in nuclear hellfire.
 The shocking thing is, maybe 2 months ago, I had near certainty that the virus originated from the Wuhan wet market, but our information environment/epistemic norms have deteriorated so much that I now place altogether rule out possibilities like “escape from a lab (but not engineered)”, “originated in Europe” etc. That there is no longer a selection effect against on promoting false beliefs by not just “credible people on Twitter” but also high-ranking government members in the US/Chinese government is a development that would have confounded pre-COVID-19 me.
 The converse to this is the relatively effective Chinese response to COVID-19 will probably lead to a similar overrating of the strengths of China’s relatively centralized political/economic system.
Another vote for hashed predictions to establish one’s predictive prowess, and to try to leverage that towards the type of influence that could be exerted to accelerate humanity’s Covid OODA loop.
Before boarding the time machine, you’d want to have queued up a series of what are essentially miracles. In essence, you’d be trying to become a sort of living prophet in the shortest time possible. I might post a series of hashed predictions on the internet somewhere, maybe Reddit, maybe via the person I know with the largest public following (I don’t know who that would be, but it’s 2020, we all seem to be two hops from the most famous people in the world).
Tan also suggests some gritty video footage. Those of you who know me know I’m partial to film as a medium. Convincing some hospitals and patients to allow PPE-protected film crews in to show people the devastating effects of Covid and releasing such footage as viral documentary footage might sway people in a visceral way that no amount of talking heads and op-eds could.
Any such time traveler would need to overcome any hesitation towards what would feel like exploitative behavior. In times of crisis, the rhetorical toolbox of the time traveler converges with that of the propagandist, of the mad oracle. Maybe the boy who cried wolf simply lacked charisma.
The crazy thing about Covid is that as bad as it’s been, it could have been much worse. Having seen how the U.S. bungled the response to Covid, imagine the death toll if SARS-CoV-2 came with the profile of a more deadly disease, like that of any number of horrifying pandemics that have ravaged the world throughout history. We could have had a death toll in the millions in the U.S. alone, an even more devastating shock to the global economy, and the type of widespread panic which is the stuff of apocalyptic films.
Given the regularity of pandemics in human history, it’s worth asking what the right level of institutional and societal preparedness is appropriate. Any number of economists have already done the math showing that, given the devastation to the global economy, there’s almost no cost too high to spend to accelerate vaccines. The same could be said, then, of spreading some level of investment across time to forestall future such disasters.
Of course, as Sonya notes in her piece, institutional and societal procrastination is very real. Even in the midst of a pandemic, we still see people claiming Covid is a hoax as they draw their last breath on a vent, alone.
In a networked information age, how do we upgrade people’s pattern-matching software? One of the reasons anti-vaxx propaganda takes hold so easily is that children are vaccinated around the time that syndromes like autism first manifest. That mere coincidence is enough to send parents’ minds racing.
What happens when you give people access to the internet, on which you can find any number of such correlations, most of which are statistically improbably in isolation but highly likely when the sample size is the global population?
The poor and inconsistent communications about Covid are one instance of the challenge of communications in general in this era of information abundance carried via densely connected networks. In some ways, a pandemic is one of the ultimate tests of a nation’s governance apparatus. It forces a country to make a series of complex decisions under extreme time pressure, and then it has to put its plan into action, much of which must derive from the consent of the governed. It is a test of decision-making, execution, and communication (some might say propaganda) skills.
On a much smaller scale, many of you are likely familiar with the challenge of even the simplest communications problems inside any institution you’ve worked at. Right at this moment, what percentage of people you work with do you think know what the top 2021 priority is for the company or institution they work for? The answer, if you just ask survey people in general, is shockingly low. Sometimes it’s because the group has no top priority that anyone can agree on, but often it’s just a failure of communication.
In software, when your code isn’t executing what you intended, you debug it. But when a company has communications breakdowns, it rarely goes through an analogous assessment.
The pandemic response in the U.S. has been a communications fiasco both in form and dissemination. The message has been incoherent, the distribution chaotic.
Lockdowns have been issued via seemingly arbitrary or ill-explained criteria. Some cities have issued curfews, like San Francisco. Set aside the fact that barely anything in San Francisco is open nor anyone out after 10 pm even in normal times; the last I checked, Covid doesn’t have a bedtime.
More than a few people have pointed out the security theater that is plastic dividers in restaurants or temperature checks at the doors of some venues. We were told by respected organizations that masks weren’t helpful, then that they were. Parks were closed even after it was discovered that outdoor transmission risk seemed low. Different states have issued different edicts. School closings and re-openings are pegged to randomly chosen prevalence levels that vary by geography. Some businesses are closed, others are allowed to stay open, and it’s unclear how some are designated as essential while others are not. Politicians have pushed the idea that Covid can be conquered through just mental fortitude.
In The Beginning of Infinity, David Deutsch writes:
In this book I argue that all progress, both theoretical and practical, has resulted from a single human activity: the quest for what I call good explanations. Though this quest is uniquely human, its effectiveness is also a fundamental fact about reality at the most impersonal, cosmic level – namely that it conforms to universal laws of nature that are indeed good explanations. This simple relationship between the cosmic and the human is a hint of a central role of people in the cosmic scheme of things. Must progress come to an end – either in catastrophe or in some sort of completion – or is it unbounded? The answer is the latter. That unboundedness is the ‘infinity’ referred to in the title of this book. Explaining it, and the conditions under which progress can and cannot happen, entails a journey through virtually every fundamental field of science and philosophy. From each such field we learn that, although progress has no necessary end, it does have a necessary beginning: a cause, or an event with which it starts, or a necessary condition for it to take off and to thrive. Each of these beginnings is ‘the beginning of infinity’ as viewed from the perspective of that field.
It’s one thing to tell people what to do, it’s another to explain why and how you came to that decision. The best leaders not only explain why the company priority for a year is X, they will walk you through their logic, let your mind make it your own.
As math tests in school instruct students: show your work.
Movie Picks of the Week
My movie picks this week both relate to themes in this newsletter and as a bonus for those of you with shorter attention spans are shorter than the usual feature film.
The first is about a time traveler trying to rescue a post-apocalyptic present. Chris Marker’s La Jetée, which later inspired the feature film adaptation Twelve Monkeys, clocks in at a tidy half-hour. It is one of my favorite films, so formally inventive that the first time I saw it I was both inspired and angry that I had never thought of it myself. It’s an entire film made from a series of still images strung together (okay, there is one video clip) as if someone had used iMovie, but instead of cobbling together a wedding slideshow, they produced one of the great science fiction films.
See it because perhaps one of you will be inspired and make an arthouse classic of a wedding slideshow someday, complete with a whispered French voiceover. See it for its metaphoric power, with time travel serving as its usual vehicle for exploring nostalgia, memory, but also a Promethean theft of knowledge from the future to improve the present. To say more would be to ruin its ending.
Whenever I’m creatively blocked, one of my paths out of the darkness is looking at the most formally inventive works I love. One of those is La Jetée.
[In a fiction writing course as an undergrad, the instructor passed along a creative writing program legend that if you transcribed James Joyce’s “The Dead,” his soul would inhabit you as a muse. Believe me when I say that doing so took a hell of a lot longer than watching La Jetée, to much less effect.]
The second film speaks to my deep desire to just be close to other people again. I saw Lover’s Rock via a virtual screening at this year’s remote NY Film Festival. It’s the second chapter of Steve McQueen’s Small Axe film anthology series. This one clocks in at just 70 minutes long, and it is as close as you’ll get this pandemic to attending a romantic reggae house party in 1980’s West London.
I wish I could’ve watched it on a big screen. Instead, I screened it in my mobile browser on my iPad, lying in bed with my headphones on, with the volume cranked on high, and for a moment I felt I was at that party, as if I could feel the beating hearts of the dancing bodies around me.
Lover’s Rock is streaming now on Amazon Prime Video.