Category

Corona

Our collective brain

What happened?

The corona crisis is showing us how alike we are in our thoughts. In early March, on the same day, virtually all of us came to the conclusion that there actually was a crisis and that we should hoard toilet paper and hand sanitizer. A few weeks ago, we also apparently all concluded that it was OK to go out in droves, without any announcement from authorities. Meanwhile, during the lockdown, we all spontaneously decided to work out, ride our bikes and go rollerblading outside. None of these phenomena, trends, hypes or crazes are unique or new, but this crisis does confront us with these new forms of collective thinking.

What does this mean?

There are new rules of play and we have to learn to deal with them. We’re exploring the boundaries between what’s allowed and what isn’t and are keeping a close eye on each other in the process. It’s no wonder then, that we’re learning from each other, mimicking each other or that we just happen to arrive at more or less the same idea. Furthermore, many of these ideas are of course put into our heads by companies and their marketing channels. At the same time, this is also a morally charged period, making us extra aware of our own behavior and others’; who is breaking the rules and who is slightly exaggerating? On the beach, therefore, it’s not just crowded, it’s dangerously crowded.

What’s next?

This heightened awareness of our collective behavior can evoke different responses. We can accept the situation and possibly even derive a feeling of solidarity from it. After all, we’re all in the same boat, going through the same struggle. On the other hand, it’s conceivable that we’ll look for activities and products that still do make us feel original and authentic. This could lead to increased demand for more personalized products and services and, as soon as it’s allowed again, even more exotic holiday destinations.

A liberating vaccine

Insofar as there can ever be a definitive end to the corona pandemic, a vaccine will probably play the most substantial role in this. This is not just a matter of whether there will ever be a vaccine and if so, when, but also of who will be the first to develop it and subsequently who will get access to it. It’s highly likely that this will be a lengthy process, with countries partaking in an extreme form of vaccine diplomacy, and the choices they make will reverberate for years, if not decades, to come in international politics.

Our observations

  • Many dozens of candidate vaccines are currently being developed. Testing and approval procedures are being accelerated and carried out simultaneously as much as possible (e.g. operation Warp Speed in the U.S.). A number of vaccines is now being tested on humans and companies are already investing in production capacity in case their vaccine is approved.
  • An eventual vaccine will not immediately be available to the entire world population. Not even now that major pharmaceutical companies and NGOs are investing tens of millions of dollars to prepare for the large-scale production of vaccines that have yet to be tested. Depending on the type of vaccine that is developed, several factors will determine the production speed. This could pertain to specific equipment, the availability of well-trained personnel and, of course, the availability of high-grade raw materials. Even something as seemingly banal as the availability of medical glass in which to package the vaccine, could be crucial to the speed at which production can be increased.
  • Most vaccines will be developed by large pharmaceutical corporations, possibly in cooperation with universities. These corporations are currently promising that they’ll do their part to achieve a fair, global distribution of their vaccines. This is important to their reputation, and revenue, and they want to avoid becoming a pawn on the geopolitical stage (e.g. by becoming nationalized).
  • Meanwhile, governments will involve themselves specifically in the distribution of scarce doses and they will initially take national societal, economic and geopolitical interests into account when doing so. During the swine flu outbreak in 2009, it became clear that a number of rich countries were only concerned with protecting their own populations and were impervious to appeals for international solidarity. The fact that the Chinese Academy of Military Medical Sciences is involved in the development of a highly advanced vaccine highlights once again the geopolitical importance of a corona vaccine.
  • It’s not surprising that countries believe themselves to be co-owners on the vaccines. Be it directly or indirectly, the state is always involved in processes of innovation: as financier, educator, custodian of infrastructures, etc (i.e. “the entrepreneurial state”). This legitimizes the role of the state as divider on a national scale, but also enables it to primarily utilize the technology for its own population (although every vaccine will have partly been facilitated by knowledge from the scientific community). From a moral perspective, one could, however, also argue that any vaccine is always the result of previous efforts from, and data shared by, the international scientific community and no country could ever be the sole owner of the final vaccine.
  • Uit moreel oogpunt zou je echter ook kunnen beargumenteren dat elk vaccine dat ontwikkeld wordt direct of indirect ook gebaseerd is op eerder werk van de internationale wetenschappelijke gemeenschap en dus nooit het exclusieve eigendom van een enkel land kan zijn.
  • At the initiative of the European Commission, an international consortium of mainly European countries – the U.S. did not participate at all – and NGOs, has raised $8 billion dollars for, among other things, global collaboration in the development of a corona vaccine. The WHO is also developing guidelines for an effective and fair distribution of an eventual vaccine.
  • Not everyone is enthusiastic about the advent of a corona vaccine. The anti-vax movement has campaigned against vaccines in general for years and is also up in arms already over a possible corona vaccine. On the other end of the spectrum, there are those advocating to make these vaccines compulsory.

Connecting the dots

An effective vaccine could definitively end the corona crisis. Worldwide, many dozens of vaccines are being developed and some are hopeful that the first vaccines will be approved this year. This would, however, be unprecedentedly fast and chances of this happening are slim, if only because vaccines can also have serious side-effects (e.g. dengue fever and SARS). Moreover, there are doubts about the actual degree and duration of the protection a vaccine can offer, and mutations of the coronavirus could lead to an existing vaccine becoming less effective. Nonetheless, even if a vaccine doesn’t get approved until next year, or even later, this would be an enormous victory for modern (multidisciplinary) science and would liberate us from the pandemic that’s disrupting our society.
It’s worthwhile to speculate on the question how this process of liberation will take place. In our collective imaginations, there seems to be a notion of a vaccine being hailed as a liberating army that will abruptly end a drawn-out war. This image ties in with the war rhetoric that has been applied to this crisis with abandon (e.g. we’re at war with an invisible enemy and healthcare professionals are on the frontlines). In reality, the approval of a vaccine will be much more like D-Day; the beginning of the end of the battle, but hardly an immediate cease-fire.
This D-Day will probably only take place in the country of origin of the vaccine and, because of its scarcity, it will initially only reach part of the population there, presumably groups such as healthcare workers and the elderly. From that moment, it will still be months, if not years, before both the entire population has been vaccinated and there is herd immunity. This period will be characterized by debates on who is most in need of the vaccine (e.g. nursing staff), who deserves it the most (e.g. based on lifestyle) and, depending on the local care system, who is willing to pay the most. As in the current phase of containment of the pandemic, the debate will oscillate between the importance of public health (i.e. vulnerable groups first) and that of the economy (e.g. hospitality workers first).

On a global level, the question will then be which other countries will get access to the vaccine. Initially, it’s highly likely that the country that developed it will keep production entirely to itself, something Trump seems to be aiming for, but at a certain point, part of the production will also become available to other, friendly or high-paying, countries. By means of licenses, other countries will also be enabled to start their own production. India and China are currently the biggest producers of medicine, mostly developed in the U.S. or Europe, and will be particularly well-poised to start their own production lines. Furthermore, international hackers also seem to be engaged in attempts to ascertain the required recipe.
Depending on which country will be the first to develop an effective vaccine – China and the U.S. seem to be the frontrunners – there will be an extreme form of vaccine diplomacy. Especially China is likely to deploy a possible vaccine to strengthen ties (i.e. soft power) with other countries around the world and possibly also to gain more direct advantages (e.g. better terms in trade agreements). Building on the comparison with World War II, the distribution of the vaccine could even determine the sphere of influence of global power blocs. After the war, Europe was divided up among the allied powers. This could also happen to countries or regions that, for example, become dependent on an American or Chinese vaccine, which would place these countries under more direct influence from their vaccine donors.
It’s no wonder then, that the WHO and European Union are placing such emphasis on global cooperation in the development of the potential vaccines and are attempting to come to agreements about fair distribution in this early stage.

Implications

  • The availability of a vaccine could mean that the economy can go full steam ahead. If several countries are able to “open” much sooner than others, this will lead to large disparities in wealth, which will also impact power relations between these countries. This could result in vaccine nationalism, but at the same time, countries also have an economic and medical interest in a global or regional “liberation” from the pandemic (e.g. in terms of international value chains).

  • The development and distribution of a corona vaccine will have considerable consequences for both national as well as international societal cohesion and cooperation. The eventual vaccine will probably be used as a vector of soft power and possibly also as a more direct means of power.

  • The distribution of a vaccine will also be a stress test for European unity and solidarity. There are several explicitly European development projects, but it remains to be seen whether a possible vaccine resulting from them would in fact be regarded as such or as a national product, with producing countries vaccinating their own populations first after all.

Metamodernism and corona

The corona crisis is multidimensional: it’s a crisis from a political, economic, social, geopolitical and humanitarian point of view. Such crises are turning points, at which enduring, deeper trends that were slowly meandering in the background, are accelerated. One of the deeper developments in our society and culture, is that of a metamodern discourse and the corona crisis particularly is a phenomenon that ties in with metamodernism.

Our observations

  • History can be understood as the sum total of coherent and meaningful narratives about the rise, development and possible future of mankind and the world around us. This means that history in this sense began with the first information and communications technologies (ICT), such as myths, clay tablets, and writing, which enabled such narratives to live on through time. Different “information regimes” co-existed for a long time, because the information costs were too high to spread knowledge and information across the world uniformly. The current Digital Information Age and its specific ICTs (e.g. the internet, smartphones, bits saved in datacenters) have led to an enormous reduction in information costs and with that, to a “hyperhistory”: a convergence of different histories and mutual connectedness of formerly separate information regimes.
  • That makes the coronavirus one of the first hyperhistoric phenomena, as (approximately) the whole world is focused on the virus and its consequences (exemplified by livestreams of corona hospitals being built, real-time corona maps with updates on the number of victims and infections. And because the coronavirus is a “viral phenomenon” that is really a part of this networked and complex superorganism (e.g. facilitated by intercontinental flights, international value chains), being a “superbrain”, this network is looking for solutions (e.g. the international medical scientific community is attempting to find a vaccine, nation states have closed borders to prevent the spread of the virus).
  • The work of Hanzi Freinacht, which is the pseudonym of Daniel Görtz and Emil Friis, is a “guide” to metamodern political philosophy. In his work, Freinacht criticizes current politics as lacking an exciting vision of the future and an ideal for politicians and society to work towards. In the book The Listening Society, Freinacht describes a “development stage approach” of societies and political systems by looking at four variables: i) the cognitive complexity of persons (the ability to analyze information and then respond to it), ii) the symbolic code of a society (the stage of cultural development and the accompanying “value memes”), iii) the palette of subjective conditions of people (how we experience life and reality), and iv) depth (the “embodied” experience and mineralization of these experiences).
  • In his second book Nordic Ideology, Freinacht describes how, based on these principles, metamodern politics and society could be created. They should be founded on personal development and the spiritual growth of society, and complexity thinking should be embraced to dissect and connect the current problems in their constituent ideas (e.g. climate change, polarization, economic inequality).
  • Two weeks ago, we wrote about the different moods that characterize the corona crisis and the accompanying period of (relative) isolation and quarantine. Moods are not subjective experiences or flighty emotions but intersubjective atmospheres in which reality appears to us in a certain way because of our own moody interpretation of it (e.g. when we’re bored, the attic where we spend our time seems like a dull space, when we’re stressed, we relate to our roommates and loved ones in a tense way). When describing these “corona moods”, it’s striking that they are often opposing ends of a continuum (fear and hope, stress and boredom), which shows there is a high degree of ambiguity in how we experience the corona crisis.

Connecting the dots

Our word “crisis” is etymologically derived from the Greek word krinein, which can be translated as “to separate” or “to judge”. This also means that a “critical situation” is one that could culminate in different ways, giving it a high degree of uncertainty. A crisis is therefore always a moment of truth, in the sense that certain problems and contradictions escalate and require “judgment”: a decision that clarifies what is right and wrong, valuable and worthless, relevant and irrelevant, making this moment of decision deeply ethical and political. A crisis situation is thus not subject to the quantitative sequence of moments of “clock time” (chronos), but to qualitative time, or the moment when something becomes clear and visible that wasn’t previously there (kairos). That means that a crisis is always an opportune moment that we can seize to thoroughly change and reform the existing order and system. The corona crisis is such a kairotic moment for metamodernism. But what exactly is metamodernism
Metamodernism is the cultural development phase that follows modernity and postmodernity. It criticizes both the naïveté and reductionism of modernity (with its emphasis on progress, rationality, humanism) as well as the ironic, nihilistic and restless criticism of postmodernity. By contrast, medamodernism seeks to rediscover the truth and narratives, as modernity attempted to do, but with the edge of the critical perspective of postmodernity, because humans need direction and a story to add structure and organization to their own lives, society and the world around them.
In contrast to the postmodern parataxis (putting words together without any meaningful correlation: deconstruction) and the modern syntaxis (the reduction and connection of words to their elementary principles: construction), metamodernism focuses on metaxis: the ongoing discussion of different ideas and positions to discover a broader pattern of development; a reconstruction of collective truths and our embrace of them.
Metamodernism could really take flight during the current corona crisis, because it’s a highly metamodern phenomenon in itself: it was facilitated by the possibilities of the global, digital, hyperhistoric and complex world. But our current ICTs also make it possible for the whole world to adjust to such a phenomenon: rather than a local problem (such as Ebola, which remained mainly limited to West Africa), for the first time in history, there is a phenomenon that captures the attention and interest of almost all people on Earth.
This makes the corona crisis constituent to the superorganism “Earth” or “man”, meaning that solutions to, questions and ideas about corona are in fact global “grand narratives” that transcend physical and cultural boundaries. This is not yet very visible, but it is the seed of a new form of metacognition in which different thinkers, countries, cultures present their solutions and the dialogue that results from that gives rise to new solutions. That’s why the models of open-source, open science, open data and open innovation match metamodernism and the corona crisis so well; because metamodernism is an institutional or political model which allows for the best ideas to surface through collective trial-and-error and a non-linear learning ability among radically different actors who nonetheless deal with the problems and questions.
Furthermore, the corona crisis also confronts us with a “harsh” reality, in which neither deconstruction and criticism, nor a naive or simple answer conceived from existing frameworks will suffice. Rather, we’re in need of an action-based perspective and systemic change to fight, if not prevent, the next pandemic. In countries that have previously had a formative experience with such a pandemic, for instance, citizens show more willingness to accept strict limitations of social freedom.

It was a long time ago that (Western) societies and younger generations were last confronted with such a crisis, which leads to a new sensation of urgency and willingness to critically reconsider and reassess concepts such as development, progress, the purpose of the economy and growth and the importance of nature and ecology (similarly, 9/11 led to new ideas on the importance of national safety, the geopolitical role of the U.S. and Islam). After the first phase of abating the crisis by containing the virus, there will be a period of necessary reorientation and making choices to shape our society and economy sincerely and from a grand narrative, in a way that fits the metamodern ethos as now manifests itself in, for example, new sincerity literature, post-irony media or the return of horror in films and series with new esthetic tropes (such as “the weird and the eerie”). Metamodernism has also emerged as sentiment or “structure of feeling” in art and popular culture, and it’s specifically such pre-theoretical modes of expression, e.g. of Zeitgeist or mood, that later translate into material and societal changes.
That brings us to the moods that go with the corona crisis and the new socio-cultural living world in which it’s taking place (e.g. the 1.5 meters society, the quarantine). A high degree of ambiguity is visible in this, that fits the complexity of both the virus as well as the world in which it’s manifesting itself. Precisely because we are unable to find middle ground, metaxis, we keep going back and forth between the different moods and often experience them simultaneously or in quick succession. This gives the palette of corona moods a high degree of ambiguity, from which new (variations on old) phenomena and practices arise, such as reconnecting with nature out of boredom (e.g. gardening) or stress, or a return of religion as well as new forms of spirituality out of the fear and hope of the corona crisis. The common factor in these examples is that they were all “ignited” by the corona crisis, in which people assume a hopeful, positive stance in light of the negative precarious situation of our living world.
In a wider sense, we see this type of sentiment in the return of utopian thinking, which was long considered naive and ignorant by the postmodern mind. In the same way that modernists thought everything could be reduced to a simple reality based on elementary particles, and postmodernists held that everything is a perspective and there is no universal truth, metamodernists believe that reality and perspective are one. And due to the continuous oscillation between perspectives and positions, we hope to catch a glimpse of a higher truth or the exterior reality that shines through from it. This kind of idea that subject and object ultimately cannot be seen as separate, can be found in quantum models, such as in the work of Karen Barad on intra-actors and agency.
The significance of such metamodern perspectives is in the fact that as soon as the metamodern method and the resulting insights are embedded in a metamodern reality, when ideality and reality coincide, a new socio-cultural transition becomes possible, which is also necessary as the idealistic foundation of the new metarules of societal, economic and political systems in a Second Deep Transition. Politically, we’re already seeing the first signs that this – rather abstract – description of metamodernism and its principles, is being politically, institutionally and economically realized. Examples of this are the works of Hanzi Freinacht, Brent Cooper’s Abs-Tract Organization, the growth of metamodern political parties in Denmark and Sweden, which in turn are part of the growing meta-ideology of green social liberalism in Northwest Europe.

Implications

  • At the moment, metamodernism is still mostly an artistic and cultural movement which lacks clout and solidity in reality. But when its principles and logic eventually spread in several forms (e.g. open-source, metamodern forms of politics and economy), it will eventually institutionalize in all layers of the socio-cultural reality. At FreedomLab, we’re therefore working on a multidimensional and layered model to understand socio-cultural transitions and phenomena, in which metamodernism plays a large role.

  • The corona crisis is also what American philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn calls a “paradigm shift”: the moment our view of the world and the way we regard phenomena changes to such an extent that it leads to a different perception of reality in our models, ideas and insights. A crisis, a critical situation, is thus also an anomaly: a deviation that we can’t understand and control with our usual models. This means that in times of crisis, our usual ideas, models, habits, are “parenthesized”, and that we are willing to push through great changes that were previously unthinkable, which could lead to enormous growth for metamodern thinking and institutions. Metamodernism itself is part of a system in which different utopian-critical paradigms are joined, such as post-humanism, quantum ontology, post-reductionist and hermeneutic philosophy, deep ecological and complexity thinking. What these paradigms have in common, is that they are critical of the simplistic modern paradigm for understanding phenomena (i.e. humanism, Newtonian metaphysics, reductionist scientism, a rejection of the social sciences and humanities), as well as of the poverty of the postmodern perspectivism with regard to the formulation of answers. Practically speaking, it proposes a transdisciplinary method, in which phenomena are viewed from different perspectives, and the different levels of problems are sought in continuous dialogue. This ongoing oscillation makes metamodernism suited as an explanatory model for socio-cultural and political-economical questions and phenomena.

Who controls the surveillance Stack?

What happened?

Apple and Google have jointly proposed a system for Covid-19 contact tracing. However, in doing so they have provided an alternative to the initiatives of some countries in developing their own applications. As it turns out, most of these initiatives largely rely on centralized infrastructure, in which data is stored on central servers. In contrast, Apple and Google’s system relies on a decentralized approach where data is stored locally on the user’s phone. In response, privacy advocate groups have sided with the big tech companies’ system as being more privacy friendly, which swayed countries like Germany to abort their initiatives and switch. Other countries like France and Australia have stuck with their approach and, therefore face political backlash. On the other hand, even though Google and Apple’s approach is generally preferred, they have also been critiqued for forcing their solution by leveraging their power through their dominance of the mobile market, thereby sidestepping political deliberation.

What does this mean?

Governments, big tech companies and society are figuring out how our IT infrastructure should be governed. This confrontation is particularly interesting as it shows how different governance stacks (state-controlled, industry-controlled or open) behave and interact during times of crisis. Under these circumstances governments generally seem to prefer centralized solutions as it provides them most control and the possibility to act swiftly. However, this approach also increases the risk of hacks and potential misuse by state-actors. It is not the first time that we have witnessed this dynamic. In 2015 and 2016  Apple was pressured by the FBI to compromise users’ encryption for the purpose of preventing terrorist threats.

What’s next?

This pandemic has shown our willingness to address systemic crises through the deployment of digital surveillance tech.  Going forward, this crisis will lay the groundwork for how we are going to approach other systemic risks like social unrest, terrorism and climate change using data, algorithms and IT infrastructure. Having learned from the societal backlash surrounding fake news and privacy scandals, big tech will try to preemptively self-regulate to cement their central position in society. Governments on the other hand will force big tech companies to further open up their solutions to political scrutiny.

Foodnationalism

What happened?

The corona crisis has significantly increased the risk of a global food crisis. In the past months, trade restrictions have disrupted the logistics of the global food value chain of 8 trillion dollars and as seasonal workers were banned, parts of harvests have gone to waste. This means that a lot of food never reached the consumer. In wealthy countries, this has resulted in empty shelves and shortages at food banks, but for a large part of the global population, and especially in developing countries, it has caused extreme hikes in food prices and led to acute shortages. The food organization of the UN has warned that, as a consequence of the corona crisis, the number of people with acute hunger in the world will double this year, to over a quarter of a billion people.

What does this mean?

The global food system is an infinitely complex, international network of producers, distributors and consumers. The corona crisis has made painfully clear how fragile large parts of this network are. This has amplified the call to safeguard food at a national level. But similar to vaccine nationalism, food nationalism is not the right solution to the looming food crisis now. In fact, for many countries, it’s a pipe dream. The reality is that a lot of countries depend on each other for their supply of food. Singapore, for example, is 90% dependent on food imports and Iraq, formerly the granary of the Middle East, imports more than 80% of its food. The fact that grain-producing countries such as Russia, the Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Cambodia and Thailand are now pursuing food nationalist policies by restricting grain exports, is leading to alarming developments in countries that depend on their grain supply. But food nationalism isn’t just problematic for food-importing countries now. It also affects countries with revenue models based on exporting food, such as the Netherlands.

What’s next?

In the short term, it’s crucial that the international food market continues to function to prevent shortages. In the long term, however, it would certainly be worthwhile for individual countries to look into solutions in the form of shorter and less vulnerable chains and, wherever possible, more local production. Furthermore, the corona crisis could be a warning for countries not to depend on just-in-time delivery as much and to more seriously consider strategic supplies. The EU supplies are only enough for 43 days (12% of annual consumption, contrary to Russia (18%), India (23%), the U.S. (25%), and China (75%)). Europe could draw up a regional plan (instead of every European country fending for itself). Furthermore, the corona crisis could prompt countries such as the Netherlands, that depend on the supply of large volumes of resources and meat for their food exports, to think about a more sustainable revenue model, less geared towards volume and aimed more at knowledge and sustainable agricultural products.