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Devolutionary internet memes

What happened?

Karen” is a pejorative term for a person claiming the right to ask for and demand more than would be considered appropriate or necessary in the situation according to societal standards. It’s the stereotype of a white middle-aged woman who displays aggressive behavior whenever she doesn’t get her way and adopts a very exacting attitude in these situations (e.g. “I want to speak to your manager!”). During the corona crisis, the term is mostly applied to women who refuse to abide by social distancing rules (with the signature demand of getting a haircut). Then there are “Kyles”: angry teenagers riled up from drinking large quantities of energy drink and gaming a lot, but not really getting anywhere in the real world.

What does this mean?

Karen was born on social networks such as Twitter, Facebook and particularly Reddit, making her an internet meme and part of online culture. An internet meme is an information pattern that rapidly spreads among a large group of users through the internet, often as a normative witticism. By replicating and building on other memes through creative reproduction (“liking”, reposting and sharing a meme online), using the “power of repetition” and intertextuality (i.e. a generic meme can be applied as a pattern, to different situations, persons, objects, etc.), internet memes are used to quickly spread the underlying message to large groups of people. As the gene is the unit of evolution in biology, the internet meme is the unit of the digital cultural evolution. And memes have long stopped being a niche of online culture, they’re now even an integral part of campaign strategies.

What’s next?

In his research, Joseph Burgo shows that shame is an important socio-psychological determinant of individual and collective human behavior and thinking. However, this works best when concrete behaviors and acts are concerned. The risk of internet memes representing an archetype, such as Karen, is that they are probably not productive in the normative sanctioning of positive behavior. On the contrary, memes can lead to polarization when they generalize or even stigmatize. And considering their viral nature, the most popular memes are likely to be the most extremely stereotypical, leading to further polarization. This means that memes can also contribute to a regressive cultural development on the internet and social media, which is risky, given the fragility of the current cultural balance in our post-corona societies.

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.

The resilience paradox

All over the world, citizens, policy-makers, entrepreneurs and governments are asking themselves how they can become resilient. The corona crisis seems to be leading to an apotheosis of this popular ideal that has become prevalent in our society in the past decades. The notion of resilience therefore teaches us something about the spirit of the times and the way we relate to the world and ourselves. There are valuable aspects to the ideal, but dangers lie in the unilateral fixation on resilience.

Our observations

  • There is no clear definition of the term resilience. As is elaborately discussed in this article by correspondent Lynn Berger, it’s become a key concept in all sorts of domains and used to refer to several different things. A very generic description would be that resilience is the ability to continue to function as usual during times of adversity. When further specification is required – and this is where disagreement generally arises – the state of equilibrium (homeostasis) of a system is emphasized. Resilience is about optimal temporary adjustment to an external stressor (allostasis) with the subsequent rapid recovery of the original homeostasis or the establishment of a new homeostasis.
  • The term resilience has long been popular in psychology and mental healthcare. In psychological resilience, the emphasis is on mental defensibility: the ability to successfully respond to significant setbacks, traumatic events or other stressors. Mentally resilient people are able to adapt well and quickly become their old selves again.
  • In ecology, resilience originally referred to an ecosystem’s ability to adapt to severe disruptions in climate, such as enduring drought or heavy rainfall, without losing its equilibrium in the long run. Nowadays, the possibility that ecosystems can eventually become stronger or reach new states of equilibrium is more frequently highlighted as well.
  • Resilience also plays an increasingly large role for entrepreneurs, investors, economists and overseers. They regard resilience mostly as the ability to respond adequately to downward cycles, loss of demand or recession. Since the financial crisis, banks are regularly subjected to stress tests to establish their resilience. And organizations are focusing on the redundancy and buffers of their balance, diversification of the value chain and strength of cash flows, under the guise of resilience.
  • Authorities around cities and countries are not impervious to the ideal. All around the world, chief resilience officers are appointed, tasked with ascertaining whether their city is in fact resilient. Rotterdam, for example, recently launched its strategy for becoming a resilient city.

Connecting the dots

A crisis is making the call for resilience more urgent, but resilience was on the rise in our society long before the corona crisis.
First, this rise and popularity of resilience can be understood as an inevitable side effect of a different way of looking at the world. Resilience goes hand in hand with a world view characterized by complexity and uncertainties. This world view is the result of a scientific transformation but is also linked to the processes of globalization and the real or subjective threats of natural disasters, economic crisis and terrorism. Resilience is part of perception of life in which we feel as if we’re in a permanent state of crisis. In our hyperconnected, complex and uncertain world, unexpected dangers and disrupting events always loom, making the call for resilience all the more urgent.
But we haven’t just changed our perception of the world, we’ve also come to view ourselves in a different light. After WW II, the ideal of resilience mainly gained popularity due to psychology and ecology, but it also has roots in the biological thinking of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. For Darwin, adjustment to living conditions was of course already one of the most important drivers of evolution. And in the early twentieth century, there was renewed interest in the self-regulating ability of organisms in relation to their environment. To survive, systems may temporarily become unbalanced due to external influences, but they also have a natural inclination to restore equilibrium. Scientific insight into this mechanism has allowed us to help “nature’s” self-regulating system to bounce back. This applies to our own bodies, but this point of view has also proved valuable in understanding, for example, a political or economic “body”.
This new understanding of ourselves and the world has made it possible for us to remain healthy during uncertain times, because we increasingly understand how to deal with stressors without having to predict or control the future. With a resilient system, it doesn’t matter what happens, it can stand a bit of turbulence. We can learn mental skills that increase resilience, apply the right liquidity buffers to companies’ balance sheets or increase the biodiversity of an ecosystem, to enable these systems to better absorb shocks and restore themselves to a state of equilibrium (homeostasis) or even emerge stronger from the battle.
The ideal of resilience therefore undeniably have valuable aspects. But in the past years, there has been increasing criticism of the term, because it’s become a buzzword, used with abandon, often making it unclear what exactly the term refers to and how to measure it. Besides this debate about its definition and its overly loose application, there are a number of more substantial points of criticism.
The resilience of individuals, for instance, is not always beneficial to the community or the world. This became clear in a study into the emotional consequences of extreme weather Lynn Berger refers to. This study shows that persons that are resilient are less inclined to do something about the causes of extreme weather.

Scientists have dubbed this the resilience paradox: individual resilience may be at odds with the resilience of a group or community and can even thwart it. Resilience and indifference are therefore dangerously close on the same continuum. Another objection to resilience comes from, among others, psychologist Paul Verhaeghe. He has pointed out that the ideal of resilience is frequently employed by policymakers, organizations and psychologists to increase individuals’ resilience, without due consideration of individuals’ societal context. If a work environment leads to chronic stress, it’s convenient for organizations to increase the resilience of individuals. However, if they succeed in containing the burn-out epidemic, they will be less inclined to investigate the potentially unhealthy nature of the working culture. Health becomes largely one’s own responsibility. This also results in a resilience paradox: resilience goes hand in hand with systems thinking, but at the same time, it can also be counterproductive to finding systemic solutions.
Finally, there is the more cultural-philosophical criticism that resilience may also contribute to a hostile or tense, distant stance towards the world. By constantly focusing on our own resilience, we come to regard the world and the other more often and more consistently as a hostile source of danger, uncertainties and potential stressors. We find ourselves in a permanent and rather stressful state of alert. Healthy protection against the world could then descend into unhealthy isolation from the world, causing us to detach from others and the communities we belong to.
Oddly enough, this excessive protection actually makes us vulnerable and our mental health may suffer from this, as shown in a study into the effects of overprotective parents on children. It results in another resilience paradox: protection from one thing makes us vulnerable to other things. We endow ourselves and our children with a protective shield, but this makes it difficult for us to achieve intimacy, build trusting relationships and it makes us vulnerable to depression and other mental illnesses.
Resilience is a valuable and interesting concept – especially during the current corona crisis. But it’s important to practice moderation in working on our resilience and not to lose sight of the pitfalls of unilateral fixation on this popular ideal. A one-sided focus on resilience during the corona crisis can also lead to indifference, further individualization of care and a hostile and distrusting relationship to each other in our everyday lives.

Implications

  • We arrive in a difficult period of the corona crisis where the resilience paradox is clearly visible. The first phase of urgency and common spirit is behind us, but we are far from normal. In the “new normal”, social distancing is making us as society resilient in the short term, but we risk a lot for the long-term in terms of mental health. For instance, loneliness is bad for the immune system and an isolated life reduces life expectancy drastically.

  • The corona crisis reveals the resilience paradox is prevalent in the economy as well. Since the financial crisis, the attention for the stability of the financial system has grown. Banks which become to big make the system vulnerable, i.e. the too big to fail mechanism. Nevertheless, the economy as a whole is currently struggling with the same problem. Big companies have – to guarantee the preservation of existing jobs – an implicit bailout in their operations. The focus on stability of these companies in normal times is making us vulnerable during economic turmoil.

The notion of European sovereignty

What happened?

During the corona crisis, France and Germany have joined forces in setting up a European recovery fund of €700 billion. There is much debate about the design of the fund (e.g. size, grants vs. loans), as well as the discord between member states and the possibility of further European integration. But on closer inspection of the proposal, there’s something else that catches the eye as well. The idea of “European sovereignty”, here imagined as support for industrial champions and protectionism against strategic investments from China, is gaining momentum. How should this be interpreted?

What does this mean?

In the twentieth century, the EU saw itself mostly as a “post-sovereign power” and imagined a world in which international governance (in the form of multilateral institutions) would create a new type of order – a world no longer subject to the power politics of superpowers. However, the idea of European sovereignty, which champions “strategic autonomy” against the U.S. and China, in fact points to a Europe poised to engage more in power politics and partly take leave of its “multilateral dream”. Is the notion of European sovereignty a productive idea for the future of Europe?

What’s next?

It is likely that France and Germany, to provide a lifeline to the EU in light of a deep crisis and hegemonic conflict between the U.S. and China, will launch more initiatives to create European sovereignty (e.g. supporting industrial champions, protectionist policy). However, although this would strengthen the strategic position of Europe, it is highly likely that internal tensions will rise. Smaller EU members will always be vigilant about French-German projects to reform the EU. The resistance of the “frugal four” in the coronacrisis is the writing on the wall. If France and Germany take too little account of the interests of smaller EU members, Euroscepticism will grow in the coming years.

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.

What could a Post Corona society look like?

The Corona pandemic has resulted in an enormous setback and disillusion all over the world. Families find themselves in quarantine, health systems are under enormous pressure, and the level of global economic damage may be without precedent. Regardless of how long the pandemic will last, it is bound to leave a deep impression on societies around the world. Since we can only speculate its impact because there are a lot of uncertainties, scenario thinking seems to be the best tool to imagine how current developments will shape a post-corona society.

Our observations

  • Scenario reasoning is not based on a linear extrapolation of events today, rather it distinguishes factors that are most uncertain (and relevant) on a given time-scale and questions how those factors can shape the world, depending on how they develop in the future.
  • In our scenario exercises, and throughout all of our research, we focus on developments in geopolitics, technology and culture, which form the axes of our scenario models. In this case, the pandemic will impact geopolitics, the technology we develop (and put to use) and socio-cultural trends. By combining these three axes of uncertainty, we produce eight distinct scenarios in each of which a specific combination of (conceivable) outcomes of the pandemic takes effect.
  • While these outcomes are yet unpredictable, current developments inform us about the likeliness of specific scenarios actually becoming reality. As we noted in our previous edition for example, China’s apparent success in fighting the outbreak is likely to contribute to a wider acceptance of Chinese institutions and its use of technology. This, in combination with President Trump’s (supposed) attempt to buy a German vaccine developer, could very well sway geopolitical momentum for China.
  • As millions of people are living in some form of quarantine or lockdown, people are developing and embracing new (or already existing) practices such as teleworking and online education. Some of these are only temporary and can be discarded once the crisis is over, others may last longer and become part of our everyday routines.
  • The crisis lays bare existing problems and (some of) these can become a “target” for society to address in a post-Corona society. These problems can become visible either because they add to the spread of the virus itself (e.g. poor accessibility of healthcare in some countries) or because current measures against further spreading of the virus show us what the world could look like (e.g. clean air in Chinese cities and crystal-clear water in Venetian canals).

Connecting the dots

Once the Corona-crisis is over, the resulting deep social and economic wounds will take time to heal and, afterwards, the world probably looks a lot different from today’s. This does not necessarily mean that a full-blown paradigm shift will take place, but the personal suffering, months of societal disruption and a global economic crisis are likely to shake up geopolitical dynamics, change the way we use technology, challenge our worldview(s) and force us to redefine priorities in order to prevent or prepare for new crisis. In order to get a glimpse of such changes, we can start to think about the factors that are likely to have a major impact on the world as we knew it before the pandemic. We recognize three factors: cause, reaction and solution. First, how we will perceive the cause of the pandemic. For example, will China get the blame as a source of viruses came from there, or will we blame the global economy? The causes of the pandemic will be scrutinized, and possibly acted upon (e.g. specific health and safety regulations or a more critical stance on global flows of people and goods). Second, what happens during the crisis. Think for example about how individuals behave (e.g. widespread altruism or hoarding consumers) or how nations behave towards their citizens and towards each other (e.g. sharing resources or not). Also, we are already witnessing how new, and not-so-new, practices are gaining popularity and we may continue to behave like that in a post-corona world as well (e.g. teleworking and online education). Third, the way the crisis ends and how it ends.  For instance, specific nations, businesses or technologies (e.g. if China is the first to develop an effective vaccine) can save us. The axes in our scenario model express extremes of how the pandemic could change geopolitics, (our use of) technology and sociopolitical aspects. The greatest uncertainties, from our perspective, are whether this crisis will lead to further globalization or rather to (small steps towards) deglobalization, whether technology will be used (primarily) to prevent a new crisis or to be better prepared for the next one and whether people will aspire to an attitude of more individualism or collectivism. From a geopolitical perspective, the spread of the coronavirus is deeply intertwined with globalization. Ongoing globalization is justly portrayed as one of the major causes of the rapid global spread of the virus, as international economic and political interests made it near impossible to isolate it. The pandemic can directly influence global relations, depending on whether countries work together to control the outbreak and develop a solution or whether they choose to go about it alone and,

for instance, refuse to share scarce resources (or medicines) with each other. As a result, a post-corona world may be one in which globalization prevails (or even accelerates) or we may see (different forms of) de-globalization as multilateral institutions fall apart.
From a technological perspective, the question is how this crisis affects the kinds of technology we will develop and how we will put them to use. One outcome could be that we decide to put all of our technological weight behind preventing a new health (or another natural or man-made) crisis. Solutions may include a sensor-based economy for early detection of problems or technology that supports alternative consumer practices (e.g. facilitating meaningful interaction online). Another outcome of the crisis could be that we will focus on the preparation for future crises instead; e.g. the deployment of more scalable infrastructure to facilitate peak-demand or technology that supports autarkic lifestyles and local value chains. This reasoning, of more radical attempt to prevent or prepare for crises could very well apply to other looming crises as well (e.g. climate change or mass migration).
From a socio-cultural perspective, the crisis can lead to changes in world view(s). This can apply to the way we view each other, but also to our relationship with nature or the Earth. Failure to achieve effective social distancing or egotistic consumer behavior, for instance, could lead to further individualization as distrust and moral disapproval of others increases. The perceived human-nature dichotomy, to give another example, is likely to deepen if societies fail to address the pandemic. By contrast, the current crisis may also lead to more altruistic behavior when healthcare professionals and other (underpaid) critical workers are recognized and rewarded, which can also translate into broader attempts to reduce inequality. The result could be a society in which the collective prevails over individuals. As scenario thinking is not a predictive tool but rather a tool to navigate the future, it forces us to broaden our perspective and keep an open mind on future developments instead of, as happened during the Financial Crisis, fantasizing about a utopian world in which all the problems of the past are fixed. At the same time, we can speculate, and thus anticipate, which of the eight scenarios are more or less likely as the crisis unfolds. From a decision-making perspective, we can consider which actions fit best with one or (preferably) multiple scenarios. The above contours are the first sketches of the research model we will explore in depth in the coming period.

Implications

  • When exploring several scenarios about a post-corona society, the challenge is to do so as neutral and unbiased as possible. That is, thinking in terms of desirable and undesirable scenario’s prevents an in-depth exploration of the pros and cons in all scenarios. That is, when a crisis unfolds in a direction that was first perceived as undesirable, one is less capable to spot opportunities. Nevertheless, this is easier said than done as some scenarios seem dystopian at first glance and the most obvious opportunities seem rather cynical.

  • Because this crisis affects the whole world and all layers of society, it will probably be a formative experience for many. The concept of ‘formative experiences’, however, is mostly used in the discourse of generations, in which a worldview is formed by huge events or developments in someone’s youth. However, we have previously explored a different approach, allowing formative experiences throughout a lifetime. This might be a more interesting angle for this particular situation because this event has a deep impact on everyone around the globe, not just the young.