Category

Corona

Building national character based on trauma

Written by Alexander van Wijnen
April 22, 2021

Since the beginning of the coronacrisis, there has been a lively debate on the successful handling of the pandemic in East Asia. In March 2020, we argued that we have to look beyond the idea of “strong governments” to explain why East Asia has coped well. Commentators, however, still point to the political leadership, social trust and state capacity of these countries to explain their success. Yet Western countries that share those characteristics have performed much worse. The key factor that seems to determine success in handling the pandemic is the historical lesson learned by East Asia in 2002/3 with SARS, another coronavirus. Interestingly, one of the most important lessons China learned with SARS is to overcome “impediments to the flow of information through the governmental hierarchy”.

Two years later, China launched its mass surveillance system to boost the flow of information for governments. Fifteen years later, China has been much better prepared for COVID-19 as rapid tracking and testing prevented the virus from spreading like in the Western world. Overall, we can explain the success of East Asia in terms of national character. However, instead of traditions of leadership, trust and capacity, national character also seems to be shaped by far more recent historical experiences.

Burning questions:

  • How will COVID-19 change the national characters of Western countries?
  • To what extent is the outperformance of East Asian governments part of a bigger competitive edge of these countries – and what does that mean for the future?

The not-so-bright future after the pandemic

Written by Sjoerd Bakker
April 22, 2021

In the West, we may be able to end the coronavirus pandemic this year, but a combination of problems could come to haunt us in the years to come. First of all, the virus will probably never really go away and may even force us into new lockdowns periodically. Especially as long as the virus is able to mutate and spread from other, developing countries. Second, governments are building up huge amounts of debt. In Europe alone, this amounts to more than €5 trillion and if and when interest rates start to rise again, this could pose serious problems for several countries. Third, groups in society fiercely disagree on strategies and priorities in battling the pandemic; the polarization, mutual distrust and violence will leave societies divided and scarred.

So, while we are all hoping to regain our freedom and restore the economy, the future may look a bit less bright. That is, from a somewhat pessimistic perspective, we’re facing a future in which deeply divided societies will have to figure out whether and how to cut public budgets or invest in new opportunities. Somewhat similar to the 1980s, this situation could easily lead to a prolonged period of economic and societal impasse.

Burning questions:

  • Will lockdown savings, due to travel bans and other brakes on spending, be spent as soon as lockdowns ease? Can such spending prevent a long term economic impasse?
  • Will nations remain divided after the pandemic or are we able to reunite? What kind of grand narrative could help societies overcome current divisions?

The unique strength of Chinese business alliances

Written by Alexander van Wijnen
March 9, 2021

Geely, one of China’s biggest automakers, has announced strategic partnerships with Tencent, Baidu and Faraday Future. Li Shufu, founder of Geely, argues that these partnerships are inspired by the School of Vertical and Horizontal Alliances, a school of thought from ancient China’s Warring States period that urges weaker organizations to cooperate in order to compete with incumbent powers. It may be difficult to determine whether Li’s vision is markedly different from regular strategic cooperation between companies. However, there seems to be a unique quality to the cooperation of Chinese tech firms. Geely, Tencent, Baidu and Alibaba create collective business models to an extent that U.S. tech firms such as Amazon, Google, Facebook and Apple do not. Besides the School of Vertical and Horizontal Alliances, the idea of guanxi capitalism, which assigns high importance to interpersonal relationships, further adds to the importance of such cooperation within the Chinese economy. Furthermore, the developmental state tradition of China places the Chinese state at the center of facilitating such cooperation. In the coming years, Chinese business alliances will likely gain importance and could increasingly come to create a global competitive advantage for Chinese tech firms.

Burning questions:

  • To what extent do Chinese business alliances create a competitive advantage over the U.S. and Europe?
  • Does Li’s reference to the School of Vertical and Horizontal Alliances reflect the growing tensions between the Chinese state and Chinese tech firms?

Will a post-corona era arrive in the coming years?

Written by Jessica van der Schalk
March 9, 2021

The phases a society experiences in a crisis are predictable, according to disaster psychology. First, we enter the honeymoon phase: people don’t quite feel the scope of the crisis, nor of its implications and are willing to work together. Then, a period of distrust and depression dawns, in which the gap between community needs and available resources widens. It can get grim: the disillusionment phase follows. In the final phase of reintegration, we adapt to a new reality. We are presently in the phase of disillusionment. According to experts, the pandemic will eventually become endemic, circulating the global population for years to come. However, there are strong indicators (e.g. new variants outsmarting vaccines, the coronavirus being zoonotic) that several more years of social distancing measures will be required before we reach that stage. The call for politicians to stop referring to the current situation as temporary and instead consider it permanent is therefore growing louder. This would allow the phase of reintegration to begin, in which new light can be shed on the costs and benefits of mitigating the impact of the coronavirus.

Burning questions:

  • Will societies reach consensus on ethical issues such as the price each generation must pay for mitigating the impact of the virus or the consequences of refusing to be vaccinated?
  • Will financial aid for certain businesses like airlines, physical stores, etc. continue even if it takes years for their services to be enjoyed again as they could in the pre-coronavirus world?
  • Will people be able to adapt to the reduction of freedom and physical contact that comes with mitigation, or will this result in endless unrest?

How do we distil a good narrative from 2020?

Written by Pim Korsten
January 14, 2021

2020 was the year of the coronavirus crisis and in 2021, we’ll hopefully be able to leave this crisis behind. How we do that depends on the story we create about it, and the language, metaphors, narratives we want to use. From the perspective of philosophical hermeneutics, we can consider the structure of this story, and how we can actively build a post-corona future.

Our observations

  • In his book Epidemics and Society: From the Black Death to the Present (2020), historian Frank Snowden writes that epidemics have led to large public investments. The plague, for instance, led to the beginnings of public healthcare, as the temporary agencies and emergency ordnances gradually changed into permanent institutions. In his book Epidemics and the Modern World (2020), Mitchell Hammond writes that such initiatives and the first iterations of public administration were therefore of great importance to the modern state.
  • According to French philosopher Michel Foucault, the Enlightenment and modernity were both a curse and a blessing. On the one hand, modernity has brought us much prosperity, in the form of disposable income, better healthcare, better social and physical infrastructure, and new innovations that make our daily lives better and more enjoyable. At the same time, Foucault contends modernity and the Enlightenment have also brought us a new form of power and discipline, “biopower”, and he viewed the new forms and institutions of public healthcare as laboratories for experimenting with new forms of social control.
  • In their book Metaphors We Live By (2003), George Lakoff and Mark Johnson pose that the metaphors we use in our language also influence our direct physical and social experiences. According to them, the conceptual framework from which we interpret and approach reality is metaphorical by nature, and thus subconsciously influences our thinking and actions. Metaphors aren’t fully rational but integrate feelings, thought structures and our imagination into a figurative “image of thought”.
  • Many contemporary thinkers emphasize that humans are a “story-telling being”, and that narratives are a fundamental determinant of how we relate to reality and are able to shape the future. Think of Yuval Harari in Sapiens, Alex Rosenberg in How History Gets Things Wrong, Jordan Peterson in Maps of Meaning, Jeremy Lent in The Patterning Instinct. The base unit of a narrative is a “narreme”, comparable to the “phoneme” (a unit of sound) in phonology (the linguistic study of sound). A narreme relates to the state of affairs in the world and the positioning of story development and events within a certain wider narrative framework.
  • In his magnus opus Truth and Method (1960), Hans Georg Gadamer poses that different domains of life and various sciences have a different understanding of truth and method from a merely scientific one. The humanities have their method of hermeneutics – the art of interpretation – in which meaning is sought. In his final chapter “Language as horizon of a hermeneutic ontology”, Gadamer contends that meaning is always linguistic in nature as man has always interpreted reality and himself from the perspective of a historical and cultural tradition.

Connecting the dots

In our Retroscope, in which we looked back on 2020, we wrote about the term “crisis”: a moment of truth when we must make decisive judgments on what is actually important and what isn’t. A crisis also always forces us to make a political and ethical choice to transform the current situation into a brighter, more positive future. This makes the coronavirus crisis a real crisis, which has set in motion important choices and developments in the domains of geopolitics, technology and culture. The question now is: how do we interpret the events of 2020, and how will we develop a narrative? This is a matter of how the coronavirus crisis can lead to a new consciousness and how we should understand ourselves. Firstly, we could characterize the coronavirus crisis as a “formative experience”, as a consequence of which a new generation will adopt a new set of values, norms and ideas. This is apparent in our scenarios from the Resilient World in the domains of technology, culture and geopolitics. The coronavirus crisis could also leave an imprint on our political, technical and social systems (just as the Second World War left an imprint on our socio-technical systems). “Imprint” is a term from biology and psychology, which refers to changing behavioral processes of humans (and animals) as a consequence of being exposed to external stimuli (e.g. imprinting in genetics and developmental psychology). The coronavirus crisis will also leave such an imprint on our subjective and objective consciousness.

It’s important how we formulate and understand this in language and concepts, express it in metaphors, media and stories. For example, think of the long-term consequences of pandemics on the development of modern institutions and public government services such as healthcare, and how we should understand and assess these new forms of “biopower”. What’s crucial in this is the narreme we develop; the wider framework from which we consider and position the coronavirus crisis and its consequences within a narrative axis. Northrop Frye (1912-1991) was an important thinker in the comparative narratology in literature. In his masterpiece Anatomy of Criticism (1957), Frye analyzes the narrative categories and patterns in different literary traditions, and devises an “anatomy” of historical modes, ethical symbols and archetypical myths and rhetorical genres.  How does this relate to the coronavirus crisis? And what can we expect from the so-called “post-corona narratives”?

The coronavirus crisis is best perceived from the tragic mode. The Ancient tragedy is about how people relate to their fate and ill-fortune, which serves to inspire pity and fear in the audience in order to achieve “catharsis”: emotional purification. The comedy, by contrast, is marked by protagonists making blunders and mistakes, while still ending happily, thus achieving catharsis in the audience through laughter, humor and enjoyment. The coronavirus crisis caught many people off guard, and is often seen as a manifestation of Fate (e.g. as a religious reprimand or nature’s pushback against the hubris of modern man). In this tragedy, we may apply the framework from Frye’s first essay to distinguish various tropes, such as the highly mimetic coronavirus tragedy (marked by the sacrifices people such as nurses make to fight the coronavirus) or the ironic tragedy (man’s weakness in the face of nature or other lifeforms). When we consider different types of “coronavirus symbols”, the first one we notice is the descriptive symbol of the virus that’s bringing humankind, and even entire “superorganisms” such as economic systems (e.g. healthcare or the economy) to their knees.

The visual symbol ties in closely with the use of metaphors, such as the prison as a metaphor for working from home, or the desert for the empty cities during lockdown. The mythical symbol displays the relationship to other symbols of our time that, as we’ve argued before, are metamodern in nature. The anagogic symbol represents the spiritual value of the coronavirus crisis, and whether it will lead to a better, more enlightened future or not. The mental side of the experience of the coronavirus crisis is also considered, such as the moods inspired by the coronavirus or our ideals in this post-corona world.

This brings us to the archetypical myths: which original images, figures and ideas emerge in our visualization of the coronavirus crisis? Describing these moods, ideals, experiences, in short: the mental side of the coronavirus, isn’t about explaining or categorizing various psychological phenomena – the cognitive and neurosciences are much better equipped to do this – but helps reveal the meaning of our world and existence in society. This means we can expect new media that – implicitly or explicitly – are a result of the moods of the coronavirus crisis and quarantine, in the same vein as the “post-9/11 media” or the “atomic culture” that arose after the bombings in Japan and the critical philosophy (e.g. the Frankfurter Schule) that came into being in response to the Second World War.

This shows that our visualization of the coronavirus crisis and the narrative we create about it is ultimately the product of how we interpret the historicity of the coronavirus crisis: is it the end of the world as we know it, thus an epoch of decay, or in fact the beginning of a better world and thus of spiritual reassessment? It’s interesting to see that “cyclical theories” such as the generational dynamics of Strauss and Howe, the theory concerning technological revolutions and hegemonic cycles and economic paradigm shifts point to such a turning point. They highlight that a post-corona world might look radically different, and that such a narrative might be constitutive or even performative in creating a better future.

Implications

  • The coronavirus crisis could become a new “grand narrative” with which rifts could be closed. This will probably be utopian in content, as a response to postmodern skepticism and modern naiveté. For this narrative to be told, it’s crucial that creative artists can get to work on this. Especially now that many of us are in social isolation, stuck at home without the possibility of seeing friends and family, it’s conceivable that the coronavirus crisis may lead to a period of enormous creativity and invention. Film makers, for example, now have the time to consider new formats and pieces. We’ve written before that the Zeitgeist and a “structure of feeling” are manifesting in art, media and popular culture.

  • Another important aspect of this visualization is speculative design. Precisely because the coronavirus crisis is a real crisis that’s changing the course of the world and humankind, we can’t extrapolate the past and have to experiment with new images and forms of visualization. What scenario thinking is to theoretical thinking, speculative design is to visualization.

Vaccine diplomacy

Written by Sjoerd Bakker
January 14, 2021

The global distribution of coronavirus vaccines can remind us of D-Day and the subsequent liberation of Europe. The companies and governments that deliver the vaccines will be hailed as liberators and will likely wield significant political power over the countries they ‘liberate’. China and Russia are clearly aware of this effect as they appear to be quite generous when it comes to distributing their vaccines to needy nations.

Despite concerns over the safety and efficacy of the Chinese and Russian vaccines, many nations are eager to use them. As a consequence, countries such as South Korea and India will be drawn closer to Russia, while Brazil, Malaysia, Indonesia and others will tilt towards China.

Europe and the U.S., by contrast, seem determined to get “their” vaccines to their own people first. While this may be a logical strategy from a domestic societal and economic perspective, the West runs the risk of alienating international allies. As such, sharing vaccines with the rest of the world is not only a matter of humanity, as it is mostly portrayed, but also of geopolitical power play.

Food security will have its moment on the world stage

Written by Julia Rijssenbeek
January 14, 2021

In the year when the World Food Program unexpectedly received the Nobel prize, the fight against hunger faced major setbacks. The COVID-19 crisis laid bare the vulnerabilities in the global food supply chains, causing food insecurity to triple in almost every part of the world, along with the number of people suffering from hunger. The pandemic further made clear that the way we grow food increases the risk of zoonotic outbreaks. Agriculture makes ecosystems more vulnerable and destroys habitats, thus creating the perfect conditions for viruses to emerge.

A third direct link between COVID-19 and our global food system is the undeniable fact that being overweight – a problem for more than a third of all adults globally – makes people more prone to suffering from the virus. To confront global food security issues, international cooperation is needed to set global goals and standards that integrally address the health of people and of our planet. In 2021, the global Food Systems Summit will take place, an event that might induce the establishment of an intergovernmental panel like the one on climate change (IPCC) or a treaty like the Paris Agreement.

The coronavirus is creating momentum for fiscal diet policy

Written by Pim Korsten
December 4, 2020

Of course, it wasn’t the coronavirus that put obesity on the agenda, but the pandemic could influence policy to reduce it. In most Western countries, the current approach is mainly geared towards education, creating awareness with campaigns or labels meant to stimulate self-regulation in the supermarket. According to the World Bank, this has been moderately effective, but it’s doubtful whether that is enough in a world where both wealth and inequality are on the rise. The WHO therefore pleads for a more fiscal policy, since ultimately, our wallets remain a crucial factor: unhealthy food is (too) cheap, healthy food is (too) expensive.

That’s why more than forty countries have introduced a sugar tax and the coronavirus appears to have resulted in an increased sense of urgency and support for this measure. However, in a world afflicted by COVID-19, where inequality is rapidly growing, the most effective fiscal policy is (wage) subsidy, aimed at making healthy food more affordable, especially for poorer families. Because of the costs, subsidies are not as widely supported as tax measures like the sugar tax, which at least create revenue. Seattle has found a happy medium between the two: “circular” fiscal policy, meaning the revenue generated by the sugar tax is used to cover the costs of the health subsidies.

Towards institutionalized anti-racism

The global protests ensuing George Floyd’s death have not only condemned racism in general, but specifically its deeply rooted systemic variant. Systemic or institutionalized racism, despite by some being framed as academic jargon, has real consequences and is responsible for structurally mistreating and marginalizing black people for centuries. Its ubiquity, tenacity and invisibility have even made us warry about if we will ever solve it. It seems that the only way to effectively combat racism is by fostering anti-racist socio-cultural, economic and technological structures that are as encompassing, resilient and normalized. A form of institutionalized anti-racism so to say. In this note, we allow ourselves to speculate to what extent we see a form of institutionalized anti-racism being materialized.

Our observations

  • In an earlier note we discussed possible precursors for the general increase in moral outrage. (e.g. #Metoo, climate change). Possible explanatory variables that were being considered were increase of discretionary income, secularization, social media and globalization.
  • The APM Research Lab presented a study which showed that three times as many black Americans died of the corona virus than white Americans, painfully emphasizing the structural marginalization of Afro-Americans in American society.
  • A study in Nature Human Behavior published this year shows that black drivers are more likely to be stopped by the police. Interestingly, the statistics also showed that black drivers were less likely to be stopped at night, as the driver’s skin color is harder to recognize by law enforcers.
  • The support for Black Lives Matter has gone up from a net support of -5% in 2017 to +28% this year, seeing the biggest increase after the death of George Floyd.
  • The Monmouth poll showed that 57% of the Americans believe that the police is more likely to use excessive force on black people than on white, as opposed to 33% who believed that the police is as likely to use excessive force on black and white culprits. Also 3 in 4 believe that racial discrimination is a big problem in the United States.
  • Greg Glassman, Crossfit CEO has resigned due to enormous social media backlash after releasing controversial statements regarding the Black Lives Matter movement.
  • A few big tech companies have announced that they upend their facial recognition technology. Amazon instituted a one-year moratorium on police use of Rekognition, while Microsoft will only provide access and Microsoft announced that they will refuse to share facial recognition technology with the police.

Connecting the dots

The recent global protests, signs of criminal justice reforms and the enactment of anti-racism policies in public life, flirt with the promise of real change for the anti-black racism movement. However, given the long history of broken promises one cannot fully escape the skepticism that these gestures will turn out to be short-lived and result in empty promises as soon as the public eye has moved to the next public concern. Hence, Maureen Johnson deems institutionalized anti-racism, i.e. deeper societal structures that oppose racism, as the only way to combat its counterpart. Hence, instead of focusing on the proposed reforms, we will speculate, in the spirit of neo utopian thinking, to what extent the current surge of anti-racism could be attributed to a deep transition towards institutional structures.

Some indications can already be found in the way these protests have evolved over the past decades. From the ‘60s to the protests following Floyd’s death, protests have become more global and diverse. This could indicate that the movement is gaining broader support in civil society and becoming more decentralized, making it harder for the entire movement to become marginalized or taken hostage by violent fractions. The decentralization is further reflected by the absence of a central charismatic leader of the magnitude of a Martin Luther King or Malcolm X. The documentary ‘I am not your negro’ shows the importance of their moral leadership (and their assassination) in the visibility and representation of the movement. On the other hand, the current absence of a central leader has the advantage of being less vulnerable and also creates the opportunity for a more amorph movement through which the heterogeneity of black identities and corresponding agendas can be represented.

When it comes to representation of black identities in mainstream media, we also see examples that oppose racism in a more nuanced way. Critically acclaimed movies like Moonlight and Dope or popular music artists like Frank Ocean or Childish Gambino have addressed the problems surrounding black hyper-masculinity and the issue of intersectionality, i.e. how the black identity combined with other identities (i.e. gender, sexuality, ethnicity) can result in special forms of discrimination. Black Panther, a $1.4 billion grossing Marvel movie, paints an optimistic afrofuturistic picture while also showing the nuanced positions within the civil rights movement.

In addition to traditional media, the rise of social media has probably even had a bigger impact on giving anti-racism a voice. Under the virtual umbrella of #blacklivesmatter, a vast coalition of activist groups and individuals is able to communicate, organize and create awareness on a global level. Civic journalism allowed the black community to expand on the aforementioned complexity and breadth of black identities and racist experiences. Furthermore, as the video of George Floyd’s death exemplified, smartphones and social media created grass roots surveillance. However, the civic scrutiny does not only apply to law enforcement, but also to other organizations in which employees call out tokenism and superficial PC behavior. Furthermore, the presence of social media has also created a real time social forum in which organizations cannot withdraw from the conversation and have to take a stance on the matter. Digitization also supports anti-racism through the broad collection and publication of socio-demographic and socio-economic data. Statistics like disproportionate incarceration numbers, unemployment rates or corona deaths among the black community, have helped in uncovering the painful truth of social inequality along racial lines. As written before, data has a will of its own, as the mere availability of data can help create awareness on latent social injustices and, as the protests have shown, help incite action. With the availability of AI we could even go a step further and directly influence biased decision making. Even though AI systems have shown to be racially biased, AI actually has the potential to make the decision making process surrounding racial related issues more transparent and controllable. This also explains why some tech companies are hesitant to share their facial recognition technologies with law enforcers as long as the required regulation is not in place.

The dissemination and reinforcement of anti-racist values, is not only driven by people but also by corporate structures. On the one hand, we can interpret anti-racist statements (and action) from large commercial companies like Microsoft, Disney and Nike as capitalist cash grabs of a social cause. At the same time, these companies provide a serious platform, cash grab or not, for people who intrinsically and authentically seek social change and who are suddenly able to reach a mass audience.

The emergence of institutionalized anti-racism does not mean that we should become complacent with regards to racism. After all, the existence of anti-racist structures does not automatically mean that racist structures are on the decline. Also, one could even argue, that the structural repulsion of racism could even lead to more subtle and invisible forms of racism such as benevolent prejudice, aversive racism and tokenism that are harder to call out and to deal with. Nevertheless, these potential pitfalls are no reason to abolish this utopia, but as a starting point to realize this speculative future.

Implications

  • As part of a larger trend towards moral outrage, we can see similarities with other protest movements. However, this does not necessarily mean that it will resonate as deeply as the black lives matter movement has, as it will depend on how broad (e.g. socio-economic, cultural, political) and deep the marginalization goes, and to what extent the specific movement itself is carried by economic, socio-cultural and technological structures.
  • Companies will not be able to hide behind a façade of PC-marketing. Instead, companies will be judged on their track record and past actions.

Corona and the end of the tech fix illusion

In the West, the corona crisis is providing us with a rather unique experience. Rarely have we been confronted with a problem of this scale without having a technological solution at hand. In the coming months, if not years, our battle with this virus will continue, and our technology will only be of scant help. On the one hand, this will lead to declining trust in technological solutions in general. On the other hand, this crisis may also inspire us with regard to human solutions to problems, in the form of regulation and behavioral change.

Our observations

  • From the onset of the pandemic, hopeful messages emerged about possible treatments, based on existing medicine (e.g. malaria drug hydroxychloroquine). As yet, none of these treatments have had significant results. Even the only drug approved for use, Remdesivir, only leads to moderate improvement and its availability is limited.
  • The whole world is eagerly awaiting a vaccine. The development of an effective vaccine appears to be going smoothly and we could see results within a year. This would be a true triumph for techno-science. At the same time, the distribution of the vaccine will be subject to an international political and economic joust and the technology, the vaccine, in itself will only be part of the solution.
  • In a number of countries, various corona apps are already being employed to help trace possible contaminations. However, it’s abundantly clear that an app alone can never be the solution. At the very least, it should be supported by policy to motivate or force people to quarantine themselves when the app says they may be infected.
  • The ongoing debate about the use(lessness) of face masks is indicative of our longing for a ready-made solution to the crisis that doesn’t require us to make any significant sacrifices. Critics continue to emphasize that a face mask can be part of a solution at best and that, even when they’re used properly, they can lead to a dangerous sense of false security.
  • The growing threat of viruses is linked to processes of deforestation and the loss of biodiversity. These processes are the result of our technological ability to intervene in nature on a large scale.
  • Evgeny Morozov previously made the argument that Silicon Valley in particular is guilty of technological solutionism; diminishing and distorting real problems until it seems as though they can easily be fixed by technological means. They then often present false solutions that in reality might lead to new or even bigger problems. Uber’s solution to the mobility problem, for instance, has many side effects (especially for drivers) while it doesn’t necessarily contribute to a more efficient or cleaner mobility system.
  • In the debate on climate change, eco-modernists argue that sustainable technology will enable us to reduce greenhouse gas emissions without having to change our lifestyles. Critics maintain that technology in itself will never provide a solution, as it can decrease emission percentages at best (i.e. making the economy less carbon-intensive but not carbon-neutral), inevitable rebound effects would partly offset these gains (e.g. a water-saving shower entices to take longer showers) and each technological solution in turn leads to new problems (e.g. environmental damage due to wind turbines).

Connecting the dots

The idea that technology will fix all our problems is deeply rooted in our thinking. It’s often suggested that we cannot imagine mankind without technology and that we’re therefore essentially technical beings. Technology has brought us much good and it’s thanks to technology that our life expectancy has risen so rapidly in the past centuries and our quality of life has increased so significantly. Nevertheless, our use of technology and the industrial modernity that it has birthed, have also unequivocally led to severe societal and ecological problems.
Partly because of these problems, technology critics have fought the illusion of the so-called technological “fix” for years. However, the illusion of the techno-fix has proved ineradicable. It’s based on a combination of trust in technology and limited trust in the ability, and the willingness, of humans to adapt their behavior. Moreover, it’s the most comfortable and uncompromising solution; technology will fix our problem and we neither have to think about it nor make any kind of sacrifice. A “quick fix” for the corona crisis, in the form of a vaccine, would quickly silence the debate on the structural causes of the pandemic and allow us to revert to our pre-corona practices in a heartbeat. Comparable to the way medication often takes away the necessity of aspiring to a healthier lifestyle. Because of this apparent lack of any human sacrifice, the idea of the techno-fix is inextricably bound up with a feeling of guilt, as if, like in the myth of Prometheus, we really don’t deserve to use technology.
In ordinary times, inasmuch as they’ve ever existed, there is more time to develop a technological solution to known problems. Until then, we’ll accept the lack of a solution as an ill-fated fact (when we’re sick) or simply put off dealing with the issue (as we do with the climate change problem). The corona crisis does not allow this type of acceptance or procrastination and immediately confronts us with our (technological) inability to procure a quick and “painless” fix. As such, the crisis is gnawing away at our illusion of the tech fix.
Technology was not able to prevent this crisis, by warning us ahead of time, for instance, or containing the virus in an early stage. Nor is there any ready-made medication or vaccine to vanquish the virus now. There may be many candidate medications and vaccines in development, but it will be at least several months before they’re approved and possibly years before they’re actually widely available.

Our initial hopes of a corona app quickly enabling us to ease the lockdown and contain the virus, have also largely evaporated by now. Developing and validating a decent app will take time and it remains unclear whether, and if so, how, we would actually employ this kind of app and what sacrifices we’d be prepared to make for it. As yet, the biggest victory over the virus has been achieved by human efforts and large-scale behavioral change. Though this is accompanied by severe economic and human suffering, it can also inspire us to put more faith in human solutions rather than technology hereafter. Most distinctly, this could translate to the climate change debate, which is marked by unilateral confidence in technological solutions. We trust that electric mobility will replace the combustion engine and that, with that, we’ll eventually be able to realize a fully climate-neutral mobility system. The same goes for green electricity, which we’ve embraced as a problem-free substitute for power from gas- or coal-fired plants. Apart from the practical issues such as scalability and security of supply, green electricity poses more fundamental problems, such as the use of scarce resources and the impact it has on surroundings.
The essence of these (false) solutions is the illusion they create that we can “save” the climate without having to change our lifestyle. The underlying conviction is that we’re not willing to make such a sacrifice as travelling less, for example, or reducing our total energy use. In fact, the prevailing notion seems to be that human beings are not or barely able to adjust their behavior at all without the clear prospect of a reward.
What’s interesting about the corona crisis, is precisely that a large part of the population does seem to be prepared to change their behavior and even have valuable experiences in the process. Of course, the corona crisis cannot be compared to the climate problem as is, if only because the latter is a long-term problem, but the argument that people are unable to change their behavior and that we should put our faith in technology, has considerably lost credence.

Implications

  • In the short term, the economic damage caused by the corona crisis will be the main focal point, and yet, (European) governments appear to be willing to make demands on companies receiving government aid to force them to take more societal responsibility. This will partly translate to technological solutions (e.g. the use of cleaner airplanes), but there also seems to be room for reflection on the value and necessity of irresponsible activities (e.g. flying to sunny destinations).

  • As we wrote before, our perspective on large digital corporations could further tilt as a result of this crisis and the more critical stance we’ll adopt towards (digital) technology. From this critical stance, our tolerance for intervention with these parties will likely increase.