Is the meme culture causing an increase in widespread stereotypes?

Written by Jessica van der Schalk, september 9 2020

Some think it’s funny, others deem it yet another example of the stigmatization of women. In any case, the internet meme “Karen” has become world-famous. It’s the stereotype of an entitled white woman who feels aggrieved and expresses this in a slightly hysterical way by invoking her rights. The deployment of a proper name to signify a stereotype is not new: consider the widespread use of “Scrooge” to refer to an avaricious person. But the possibilities of the digital meme culture might lead to a rapid surge in the forming of such stereotypes.

Our observations

  • The term internet meme generally refers to an image, short video or audio recording in which an idea (e.g. that denying climate change is idiotic), certain type of behavior (e.g. when a “boomer” expresses views considered outdated) or style trend (e.g. that of the hipster) is humorously depicted and subsequently shared so often that the message quickly spreads among a large group of people.
  • It’s become difficult to imagine our daily digital communication without the use of internet memes. This can partly be explained by the visual culture in which we communicate less with language and more with images, and by the fact that our attention span has shortened. A meme is a way to bring across ideas that befitting our time: they’re easy to “consume”, require little to no effort to read and can easily be opened on any smartphone.
  • Because memes provide an effective way to spread ideas, they’re increasingly used in political debate. They allow for a political message to be quickly communicated and spread. President Donald Trump, for example, is known for using memes to send a specific message.
  • As we wrote before, the “Karen” meme is currently one of the most widespread and widely discussed internet memes. The American literary-cultural magazine The Atlantic, for instance, wrote a critical piece about this meme, because in a sexist way, it ascribes certain universal behaviors exclusively to middle-aged white women. The stereotype arising from this is more negative than funny, in contrast to many other memes which are more funny than negative.

Connecting the dots

The use of a proper name to invoke a certain stereotype is not new. “Scrooge” is one of the most well-known examples of this. Ebenezer Scrooge is a character from Charles Dickens’ famous A Christmas Carol, who is guilty of greed, selfishness and believes the poor get what they deserve. Likewise, “Don Juan” is known to signify a man only interested in seducing as many women as he can. There are also less widely known examples used more locally, such as the Dutch “Sjonnie and Anita”, referring to a vulgar boy and girl from lower social strata who often drive around on a moped or motor scooter. A stereotype is generally negative, if only because it reduces a person to a limited set of qualities. But in internet meme culture, the point is to also highlight a funny aspect.

Although most memes don’t cause any controversy because of their humorous approach, the general criticism is that they can contribute to the polarization of public debate both on and off social media. A stereotype generally effectively puts a stop to any conversation; when someone is dismissed as being a Scrooge, it becomes very difficult for that person to credibly explain why he is careful with his money other than out of sheer selfishness. One of the most recent and widespread memes is the Karen meme, which invokes a negative stereotype about middle-aged white women. This is one of the few memes that was subject to much reflection in renowned newspapers and magazines. Karen symbolizes a white middle-aged woman who unpleasantly attempts to exercise her rights, is racist, doesn’t believe in vaccinations and resists coronavirus measures. The reason this meme has come under such scrutiny is not merely its popularity, but also the sexist way it dismisses women.

And yet there are more memes like this, such as “Kyle”, an angry and aggressive white teenager who drinks Monster energy drinks and uses Axe body spray.

In the past, it was more difficult for a stereotype to become as widespread as they are now. First, one had to understand the content of the stereotype, which was only possible through clarification. Scrooge, for example, is well-known because A Christmas Carol is a worldwide childhood classic, but the Lolita stereotype isn’t as prominent, as this derives from the similarly titled novel by Russian-American writer Vladimir Nabokov, which isn’t nearly as widely read as A Christmas Carol. Contrary to the stereotypes with proper names that predate the digital era, internet memes are much more easily distributed across the world. Moreover, and importantly, internet memes are far easier to understand as they are comprised of images, creating a recognizable type within seconds, as opposed to an entire book or essay one has to read first. In addition, the humoristic aspect of memes makes them fun to look at, which also contributes to their popularity. And, in conclusion, more people have access to memes than to written text in a book or newspaper, as they are easy to open on any smartphone. The popularity of internet memes may therefore result in a rapid increase in such use of proper names worldwide.

Implications

  • With the accumulation of internet memes like “Karen”, “OK Boomer” and “Kyle”, negative stereotypes about specific groups will become more common. The humorous nature of internet memes and their potential ubiquity on social media make it difficult to shed a certain stereotype once it’s been expressed.

  • As a communication tool, the use of a meme like “Karen” or “Kyle” is very similar to a fallacy. In general, a fallacy refers to an argument that is incorrect, but seems plausible. There are different types of fallacies, of which “ad hominem” (attacking the person making an argument, rather than the argument itself) and “slippery slope” (the argument that a small step will or must lead to a certain chain of events, with each link in the chain erroneously accepted as a given) are arguably the most well-known types. Deploying the stereotype of “Karen”, for example, is similar to the use of ad hominem: the argument made by the woman in question is immediately disqualified because she is a Karen, regardless of whether her argument is sound. If the internet meme culture does lead to an increase of this type of communication tool, this could hamper and stall public debate, as there will be more tolerance for unsound but seemingly plausible reasoning.

Blurring boundaries with mixed reality toys

Written by Arief Hühn, september 9 2020

What happened?

In the past few months we have seen the launch of a range of toys that aim to introduce digital elements in the physical realm and vice versa. After the introduction of Nintendo Labo, which allowed gamers to build their own card box interfaces with which they can play digital minigames, the company has launched Mario Kart Live, which combines virtual racing with a remote-controlled physical toy car. Additionally, the car records video, which is blended into the virtual gaming world on the console screen. Nintendo and Lego have also launched Lego Mario, which integrates screens, sensors and connectivity to physical Mario-themed Lego pieces, allowing the player to reenact the platform game physically. Previously, Lego also introduced its Hidden Side series, in which its Lego sets are enriched with AR content through a mobile app. Soon, the company will also launch the next generation of programmable Lego Mindstorms with improved sensors and actuators. It is noteworthy that Nintendo and Lego, who have a track-record in innovating gameplay, once again seem to be the main drivers in this mixed reality toy market.

What does this mean?

Although the combination of physical toys and digital elements is not necessarily new, it seems that toymakers and game developers are exploring the possibilities of this new generation of mixed reality toys in a more creative way. Whether it be by revaluing physical properties (e.g. tactility, scarcity, friction) within a virtual context (i.e. augmented virtuality) or by further experimenting with how the virtual can augment the physical (e.g. augmenting storytelling, expressions, social sharing, programmability, etc.). On the other hand, mixed reality toys also open the door to hacks, surveillance and data misuse.

What’s next?

Toy makers will increasingly experiment with the boundaries between the digital and the physical. Currently, the playful interaction between the virtual and physical seems to be limited to small-scale objects. However, as mentioned earlier, these interactions, with the right enabling technology in place, could also involve everyday objects in our homes and cities. On a more fundamental level, these playful experiments could implicitly nurture a different understanding and experience of the digital world among younger generations, in which the distinction between the digital and the physical might be replaced by a more integrated hybrid worldview.  

The resistance to the hegemony of the App Store

Written by Sebastiaan Crul, august 26 2020

The gloves are off between tech companies Epic and Apple. Epic recently tried to avoid paying the App Store’s commission in the game Fortnite and Apple responded by, among other things, banning Fortnite from the App Store. This battle of the tech titans is exemplary of the growing resistance to the platform hegemony of app stores. Epic is among an illustrious list of powerful tech companies (Netflix, Spotify, Matchgroup, etc.) that increasingly oppose the tech superpowers. These aren’t innovative start-ups challenging the incumbents, but powerful tech companies acting as a strong counterforce to Big Tech. This trend points to a possible turnabout in the economic relations between large tech companies and the alternative digital platforms that are emerging in the gaming world.

Our observations

  • To use their Platforms and operating software, Apple and Google require that apps pay 30% fee for app downloads and most virtual in-app purchases. They claim that the 30% commission is necessary to keep the app store up and running and ensure users’ safety. Furthermore, Apple refuses to offer flexible rates for valuable customers. In their opinion this leads to unfair competition. But this argument lost a lot of credibility when it became known during the Congress hearing that other companies such as Amazon pay vastly lower rates (15%).
  • Apple is facing the most pressure. Spotify was one of the first companies to openly defy Apple. The streaming service filed a complaint and launched a campaign to inform users of Apple’s unfair policy. Spotify’s complaint mainly pertains to unfair competition; not only does the streaming service depend on the platform to reach users, it also has to compete with Apple’s own music service.
  • In the past, Netflix has also attempted to lure customers directly to its website to avoid paying commission. Direct payment through the Netflix website could save hundreds of millions of dollars per year.
  • The App Store is also criticized for the arbitrary difference between physical and virtual goods sold through apps. When, for example, a hamburger is purchased from a delivery service, no commission is paid, whereas Apple does demand its share with every virtual item sold. Because of corona, many physical services were forced to enter the virtual domain, and much to their dismay, companies such as Airbnb and ClassPass suddenly had to pay 30% commission for their virtual services.

Connecting the dots

The dispute between app stores and app suppliers has been underway for ten years already, but now seems to be undergoing reconfiguration. There’s growing resistance among tech companies that, although they are largely dependent on the mobile platform of Apple or Google, have a strong market position, a gargantuan customer base and are worth billions moreover (e.g. Netflix, Spotify, Epic and Matchgroup). These days, an Iphone without access to Netflix, Spotiy or Tinder would be hard to imagine. Consequently, it’s a battle of powers against superpowers. Epic is currently leading the latest attack from this front but belongs to a larger group of companies that became strong through the services and media platform they operate on top off the operating software of Apple and Google and now have the courage to undertake steps. These are companies that have grown considerably in the past decade, partly by virtue of big tech, and are now looking for ways to reshape power relations.

Epic’s timing seems a cunning strategy: the desire of governments and overseers to break up big tech appears to be reaching a new high, fully in line with American tradition. But the challengers are also turning to the customer directly with a bona fide charm offensive, a logical choice for parties that excel at customer relations and together reach billions of users each day. The campaign consists of clear websites with explainers, satirical videos and hashtags on social media. Especially Apple is under fire, once itself champion of ideals such as freedom and creativity, now portrayed as a totalitarian monopolist.

What’s remarkable is Epic’s frontal attack on Apple, while Google is mainly spared criticism, and gaming computer platforms are getting off scot-free. The latter (i.e. Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo), for instance, charge the same rate for microtransactions as Apple does, but have not faced the same disapproval. A simple explanation for this could be that Epic deems the console makers’ commission legitimate, as this hardware is sold below cost and pushing it requires expensive marketing campaigns. But matters are probably a bit more complicated; for a player base for its cash cow Fortnite, Epic is still mainly dependent on game consoles (71%) rather than mobile devices (12%), besides which it needs partners in its battle against the hegemony of the mobile platform. It’s been at odds with Microsoft, but they seem to have buried the hatchet and intensified their cooperation on Hololens 2. Epic has managed to get Sony to support cross-play and the latter recently became an investor in Epic. The novel cooperation with Sony’s music branch is one of the pillars of this renewed alliance. Finally, Epic has made clear that its game engine Unreal, one of the company’s most important assets, will mainly be geared towards next-generation game consoles.

There are ideological motives at play as well. These alliances not only strengthen the economic front against the mobile platforms of Google and Apple, they also allow for an alternative digital ecosystem that doesn’t run on iOS or Android and embodies different values. With standards such as cross-play, lower commissions for creators and developers, sustainable revenue models and interoperable platforms and hardware, Epic and its partners are anticipating an alternative future for the digital world. This is the infrastructure on which Epic CEO Tim Sweeney would gladly realize his ideal of the Metaverse: connected virtual worlds where we play games with a virtual replica of ourselves, but also attend concerts, hang out with friends and purchase items of virtual clothing. In his blueprint of the future, the infrastructure is facilitated by different platforms, but our avatar won’t notice this when he “walks” frictionlessly from world to world and from service to service. This alternative ecosystem has its roots in the gaming world and in the coming years, monetization of games will be the focal point for providers on the platform, but other industries are gradually becoming interested. The music industry, clothing industry, film industry and advertising industry are all watching the rise of these alternative digital platforms with great interest. In this regard, Epic’s successful game Fortnite can be situated as a facet of a much broader movement of alternative digital ecosystems becoming fierce competitors to tech giants of the likes of Apple, Google and Facebook.

The resistance seems to form a powerful front, but some nuance is appropriate here concerning the first American company to reach the $2 trillion market cap last week. What Apple is under attack for – a closed ecosystem with unfair conditions for providers and developers – also encompasses the roots of its core competence and the winning formula to its growth of the past two decades. The vertical integration of hardware and control software, the foundation of the App Store, facilitated an unprecedented degree of security and trust in the digital world. Moreover, it brought order and simplicity to the digital economy and Apple reached new levels of customer friendliness and ease of use. Then there’s also large economic potential in the bundling and integration of digital services and Apple’s current strategy is to double down on this bundling to generate constant revenue, since competition on the smartphone market has become fierce.

That’s why Apple won’t simply give way to the resistance and has plenty of reasons to continue to believe in its own competencies and philosophy. But the time of tacit acceptance and some grumbling from the sidelines appears to have come to a definite end, now that anti-monopoly sentiment is becoming more widespread and users are presented with viable alternatives.

Implications

  • With its cooperation with Microsoft on the Hololens 2, Epic might have set sights on the next dominant platform after mobile. The combination of game engines and controllers from the gaming world with Microsoft’s AR technology is a powerful combination of assets. It’s a hybrid medium that appears to be able to unbundle the smartphone and its touchscreen while retaining the visual lavishness and user-friendly tactile aspect of the touchscreen.

The automobile is on its way out

Written by Sjoerd Bakker, august 26 2020

The car was one of the most important drivers of growth in the twentieth century. Yet we’re now coming to the realization that we’ve given the car too much space, both literally and figuratively, in our lives and living world. That’s why there’s growing momentum for reducing car ownership and use worldwide. This is a technological, institutional as well as cultural battle which will slowly unfold during the twenty-first century.

Our observations

  • The rise of the combustion engine and motorized transport was initially widely embraced and many saw it as a solution to societal problems. This was no wonder, as the car was universally introduced by manufacturers and newly established interest groups (e.g. ANWB in the Netherlands and the Automobile Club of America and the American Automobile Association in the U.S.) as the standard-bearer for progress and modernity.
  • The car was given all the necessary space and more and investments were made in highways. This was done out of political considerations regarding the stimulation of economic growth (partly as a component of the New Deal) and (as in Europe) to enhance political unity. Streets and entire cities were taken over by the car at the expense of other road users, but also of other infrastructures (e.g. bicycle highways in Los Angeles and public transportation such as trams). Especially in the suburbs (made possible by cars), the car was (and is) the only practical form of transportation.
  • The ousting of other road users and the growing number of (fatal) car accidents led to large-scale protests in the 1920s and ‘30s, both in the U.S. and in Europe. Car drivers were seen as an elite group that made life miserable for a much more diverse and larger group of non-car users with their “devil wagons” and “toys of the rich”. In some cases, tensions even led to violence against car drivers.
  • The American car lobby succeeded nonetheless, through education and other means, in convincing the population that the streets and roads were mainly meant for cars. Children were taught to be careful when crossing the street, as opposed to the driver exercising caution, and learned that they basically didn’t belong on the streets. While rules for car drivers were developed as well (such as maximum speeds, driver’s licenses and stoplights), the emphasis was on rules and bans for other road users.
  • In the Soviet Union, political ideology led the state to expressly prefer the development of public transportation (i.e. subway, trams and buses) and the (individualistic) car was given much less space. Many European countries also elected a more modest role for cars than they had in the U.S.

Connecting the dots

In hindsight, we can say that most countries gave the car too much space and that, in organizing our lifeworld, we’ve inordinately accommodated the motorist. As a result, the car, aside from all the good it has brought us economically and societally, has also led to large structural problems; unlivable cities, unsafety in traffic, unhealthy lifestyles, segregation, air pollution and climate change. Looking back, we can thus now say that laws and regulation for cars and other motorized traffic have remained too limited to solving or preventing (relatively) small problems and that we, society as a whole, have been insufficiently attentive to the structural problems increasing car use would cause. It is questionable, however, to what extent societies had any choice in the matter (in light of the economic and societal promise of this technology) and what measures they should have taken. Furthermore, a problem such as climate change (and to a lesser extent, local air pollution) could not conceivably have been foreseen.

Now, we’re experiencing the problems mentioned on a daily basis and momentum is growing to correct these historical “mistakes” and, with a certain sense of drama, one could even say that we’re waging a war against the car. Partly, the solution may take the form of technological fixes, such as the electrification of mobility (which would at least reduce direct pollution) or robotization (which could make the deployment of vehicles much more efficient), but we’ve also come to the understanding that technological fixes are nearly always limited and lead to other issues in turn.

There are also many initiatives to strongly discourage car use by means of charging motorists fees and car-free zones. Years ago, Barcelona introduced the model of “superblocks”, whereby four or nine residential blocks are made car-free and car traffic can only use the adjacent streets. In Utrecht, they’re developing a neighborhood of 10,000 houses (virtually) without parking spaces. In response to the corona crisis, London has chosen to make many of the city’s streets car-free in order to create space for the pedestrians and cyclists that, for fear of corona, want to avoid public transportation. To further discourage the car as an alternative to public transportation, the rush hour rate has been raised for cars in the inner city. Paris too, has invested in separate bicycle lanes at the expense of space for cars, which has led to a 54% increase in bicycle traffic in one year and a (much smaller) decrease in car use. Naturally, these kinds of measures lead to much resistance among car drivers (on practical and cultural grounds), but young people seem to be more open to new, cleaner, shared and more flexible forms of transportation with more room for bikes, mopeds and motor scooters, as well as traditional modes of public transportation.

In the longer term however, the total demand for mobility will also have to drop for the desire for cars to dwindle. A society with fewer cars will probably only be possible if we can manage to organize our daily lives on much smaller surfaces. This could be done by bringing physical destinations closer together in more compact cities instead of vast suburbs. In an extreme variation on this principle, China is currently working on so-called “15-minute life circles”,  in which nearly every imaginable destination (such as work, stores, education and healthcare) is within fifteen minutes’ walking distance for residents. This principle is applied, among other places, in the Tianfu New Area of Chengdu, a city of millions meant to serve as an example of a green megacity with high quality of life for residents. Possibly, virtualization can contribute to a structural decrease in our demand for mobility (hypomobility), as it enables us to engage in more practices from home.

Implications

  • Slowly but surely, space will arise for new mobility models that until now have failed to achieve a breakthrough (such as car-sharing), but the solution will mainly lie in renewed appreciation for old modalities such as bicycles and trains (which will increasingly become an alternative to short-haul flights).

  • It’s not nearly everywhere that the car has taken up such a dominant position (yet) as in the West. The (developing) countries where it hasn’t, may be able to leapfrog to cleaner and smarter forms of mobility without ever being encumbered by a car-dominated culture and infrastructure.

  • The history of the car may also teach us to more critically reflect on technology today. For example, in the debate on digital technology (and artificial intelligence in particular), there is strong emphasis on regulating excesses, but we don’t often enough ask what impact this technology will have in the long-term and to what extent we can put a stop to that if necessary. For this technology as well, a (more cautious) European approach could benefit our quality of life in the long-term, even if it is at the expense of economic growth in the short-term.

After work thoughts

Written by Pim Korsten, august 26 2020

What happened?

Thanks to digitization, a lot of things are happening in the workplace: a new form of on-demand labor (i.e. the “gig economy”) driven by platform economics, a new push of remote working (due to the corona crisis) that brings efficiency gains, while younger generations have different working preferences and their future jobs will require different skills than our current ones. Work is highly esteemed in our societies, in contrast to aristocratic societies that favor leisure over labor. We think that work and a job build a strong character (e.g. it is what gets you out of bed and brings order to your days), that jobs give you “skin in the game” and provide an opportunity to perform social roles (e.g. paying taxes, having social contact with colleagues), and – of course – that the job market is a mechanism for reallocating wealth and opportunities.

What does this mean?

However, many of these beliefs no longer hold. For example, labor markets no longer seem to be a way to reduce inequality (e.g. during the pre-corona-post-financial crisis cycle, labor markets were very tight although wage growth was lacking). Furthermore, many of the new jobs generated by digitization pay low wages, often insufficient to even make a basic living, and lack the human contact that ordinarily makes up the social part of a job. More fundamentally, automation and AI could lead to huge technological unemployment.

What’s next?

We already pondered the question whether we could live without a job once. Focusing on these problems requires a broader view than just the economic perspective. For example, most work is so abstract that it no longer builds our character, so we must look for other ways to build character and achieve cultural Bildung. Craftsmanship is a way we create significant value, learn how to operate in the world and conform to its reality principles. Furthermore, a strong focus on productivity and “full employment” is a disaster for the environment, as well as to our mental health (e.g. we might need lower growth and less consumption). In his book This Life, Martin Hägglund highlights that we need a new concept of value that stresses the spiritual and moral quality of our activities, and thus frees us from the idea that wages are the only measure of the value of our daily activity.

The evolutionary impact of the crisis

Many ascribe revolutionary qualities to the corona crisis and think, or hope, that it will lead to entirely new ideas, rules or structures. It is, however, more realistic and useful to understand the crisis from the point of view of a continuously evolving world. In this world, the crisis is the cause of mutation, thus of new variations, and induces (temporary) changes in the selection environment. But there will be no sudden radical changes either on the variation or the selection side. This implies that changes resulting from the crisis may be significant, but not revolutionary, and that they will be restricted to matters directly related to the crisis itself and the way we respond to it.

Our observations

  • From the first weeks of the corona crisis, we’ve been flooded with predictions and ideas about a different, and often “better” world, that would emerge from this period of misery. Of course, many thinkers mainly expounded their wishes or their own hobbyhorses, regarding themes such as sustainability, societal inequality, or our view on technology.
  • Historically, we see that a(n) (economic) crisis rarely leads to a completely different world or radically different outlooks. Inasmuch as a crisis can lead to any significant change in direction, this is a slow process which builds on a motion already initiated before the crisis. In that sense, we must understand a crisis mainly as an event that could potentially, and to a certain extent, contribute to a process already underway, because more actors are supporting it or have stopped resisting it.
  • Tensions between China and the U.S. are rising because of the crisis, but the crisis as such is unlikely to lead to entirely new conflicts. In Europe too, the crisis has resulted in increased tensions between North and South as well as East and West, but none of these tensions are new or solely caused by the crisis.
  • Digital means are taking flight (though that will prove partly temporary as well) and in healthcare, for instance, we’re seeing a considerable increase in the use of telehealth After the pandemic, the immediate need for these applications will be gone, but chances are that doctors and patients will become accustomed to them and come to see their value, leading to rapid improvements in these apps and regulators and insurers taking these solutions more seriously as well (e.g. as a way to keep care affordable in the long-term).
  • The corona crisis has boosted the (hoped-for) decrease in car use. Our car use, historically low at the moment, will almost certainly increase again after the crisis, and it is plausible that the effect of the crisis will ultimately amount to no more than a few percent. Even if this seems puny, such a shift would be enormous compared to the minimal reduction we’ve seen in the past decades. Moreover, a single percent decrease would reduce traffic congestion by three percent and the effect on traffic flows would thus be even bigger.

Connecting the dots

Each crisis entices people to succumb to wishful thinking and parading around their hobbyhorses, but ultimately, changes caused by the crisis won’t be revolutionary and will be limited to matters directly related to the crisis and the challenge of tackling it. The consequences will thus be found mainly in the direct, and largely unavoidable, measures taken in response to the economic problems, changing geopolitical relations and the adoption of new technology during the lockdown. Other forms of change, purposely brought about after reflections on (the causes of) the crisis, are much more unlikely or will only gradually arise in the long-term. It’s therefore best to understand the crisis from an evolutionary perspective; as an event that influences continuous processes of cultural, economic, (geo)political and technological evolution, but that is at the same time rooted in these very processes, which is why it will fail to lead to radical, revolutionary change.

Evolutionary processes are characterized by a continuous dynamic of processes of mutation leading to new variations (e.g. technological innovations, new revenue models, political movements) that may or may not fit into a dynamic selection environment. This environment is made up by the conditions under which something can continue to exist, grow or die. In a societal (i.e. non-biological) context, the process of variation and selection is far from blind or random; actors expressly anticipate possible changes in the selection environment when they develop a new innovation or idea (i.e. quasi-evolution). And selection criteria only adapt when presented with the right variations (e.g. emission norms for cars follow the pace of technological innovation in the industry). This mutual adjustment between processes of mutation and selection limits the possibilities for radical change and leads to path dependence; choices made in the past reduce the number of possible choices for the future.

From this perspective, we may wonder how the corona crisis could be of influence. As stated, this influence will remain largely restricted to the direct effects of the crisis itself and the path-dependent way we’re responding to it. Partly, this will be visible in new (incremental) variations in terms of new technology or new practices. But what’s more important is the way it’s leading to other and new selection criteria that determine which of these new (and existing) variations will be permanent or at least have more momentum temporarily. This of course applies most clearly to working from home and, very specifically, remote doctor’s visits are now suddenly deemed adequate. And yet, these types of changes in the selection environment aren’t radical or stand-alone; they add momentum to existing trends. On the international stage, we see that the crisis is leading to a heightening of the Chinese-American conflict and that neither country really has any other choice, they can’t suddenly view the matter in a different light. After all, this conflict is part of a larger and longer-lasting hegemonic battle and the path dependence within that meta-conflict is much stronger than the corona crisis as such.

The kind of large and virtuous societal change that is widely discussed and written about but that holds no direct relation to the crisis itself, is more difficult to imagine from a (quasi-)evolutionary framework. Ideas about this have, after all, been around far longer and the crisis will not directly result in new, more promising variations on these ideas, because there is no immediate reason that it should. More importantly, the selection environment for these kinds of ideas will not immediately change as a result of this crisis. Like any other crisis, the corona crisis is open to several interpretations and its nature, size and cause will remain hotly debated (politically) for a while to come. Without any clear consensus about this, different groups in society will project their own ideas and interests onto the crisis and it will fail to lead to any radical shifts in (political) ideals or convictions.

Implications

  • Lasting change as a consequence of the corona crisis will derive from a changing selection environment in which new practices (from high-technology to diplomacy) are better able to thrive. First and foremost, this selection environment, and the applied criteria, will be shaped and reshaped by the crisis in all its manifestations. Only in the longer term will our reflections on the crisis (e.g. concerning its causes) actually affect the selection environment.

  • Even temporary changes in the selection environment (e.g. temporary lockdowns) can lead to lasting change. Various solutions (i.e. variations) are given the opportunity to be developed further, thanks to extra means, attention and goodwill, and will in time also be able to survive when temporary selection criteria don’t apply (as much) anymore. For instance, the direct restrictions on working at the office will probably cease, but the ongoing development of applications for working and having meetings from home will eventually lead to working from home being considered a full equivalent to working at the office.

Today’s class of uncontrollable technology

How can we understand the rising complexity and uncontrollability of technologies? Here, we explore and compare the cases of synthetic biology and artificial intelligence, two disruptive technologies that produce outcomes that are not fully controllable or predictable and whose impact on society will only grow in the following decades. These disruptive technologies will furthermore challenge basic aspects of human self-understanding, including our notion of autonomy.

Our observations

  • “The world is getting more and more complex.” Although it is rather a non-starter, the expression is widely used in different contexts today. As we are trying to get a grip on everyday changes that we witness, the expression needs more specification. In our research, we explore uncertainties in the geopolitical, socio-cultural and technological realm and how they are influencing and reinforcing each other. For instance, how the internet is influencing global power dynamics.
  • When looking at the rising complexity in new technologies in particular, the challenges and fears concerning their complexity are often related to the feeling of losing control over our own technological inventions and the consequences this would have for our society. Science fiction often tells us stories of technological innovations getting out of hand (Frankenstein), computers that are controlling us (The Matrix), or human-made viruses that threaten the entire world population (The Walking Dead). The rising complexity of technology, and more specifically, the uncontrollability and unpredictability of today’s technology is explored here by introducing philosopher Jan Schmidt’s concept of “late-modern technology”. Instead of trying to explain the uncontrollability and unpredictability of individual technologies, the concept helps us to see them in a wider class of technologies showing the same characteristics, such as the seemingly different innovations in AI and in synthetic biology (the scientific domain that involves redesigning organisms for specific uses by engineering them to have new abilities, such as cell factories).
  • According to the classic-modern view of technology, uncontrollable and unpredictable outcomes of technology are undesirable. Man gains control over his environment by making use of technology. Constructability and controllability, including a clear input-output relation, are key in this regard and technology was traditionally equated with and defined by stability. Think of cars that are made in a production line.
  • By contrast, late-modern technologies are a class of technology in which this idea of stability is abandoned. Late-modern technologies confront us with our ideas about autonomy and control over our own inventions. Autonomy can be regarded as the most celebrated outcome of the Enlightenment and makes up the foundation of moral philosophy that is still dominant in today’s moral theory.
  • An entire class of “autonomous” technologies is in the making or has already been deployed, from autonomous vehicles to autonomous weapons. These increasingly guide our behavior at a time when human human autonomy is challenged by the distraction and information overload in our digital age. As we described before, technological decisionism confronts us with the fact that our decisions will increasingly be supported, if not steered, by artificial intelligence. As non-living or non-human things are increasingly actively participating in and shaping our environment, we cannot ascribe autonomy to humans only anymore, as is acknowledged in the theory of new materialism.

Connecting the dots

When thinking or talking about technology, we often use words that describe the mechanical characteristics of technology. Not seldom is technology in books or movies depicted as machines or robots. Indeed, in our language this machine image is also widely present. The machine metonym is closely connected to an ontological assumption: a machine is assembled by humans, built up from parts to a whole, it has controllable and predictable characteristics. This is a classic-modern view of technology.

However, when turning to present cases of technological advances such as synthetic biology, this becomes problematic. Even if the goal was to create synthetic organisms as controllable and predictable entities, a living organism, whether “natural” or a product of human intervention, by definition evolves and interacts with other organisms and the environment in multiple ways. These characteristics do not fit the part-whole view and make organisms less controllable and predictable than machines. This complex interaction of technology with other technological or living systems creates complexity. In addition, organisms reproduce and grow, something that the machine metonym does not imply either. As a result, using machine metonyms might blind us from the implications of creating new life forms, such as synthetic organisms, as happens in synthetic biology. In the case of Artificial Intelligence, similar problems arise when using the machine metonym. AI, and more specifically machine learning, is confronting us with a case of technology that shows more autonomy than the machine metonym suggests. So, what are these cases of technological innovation showing us? How are they different from technologies that better suit our more mechanistic and predictable view of technology?

Already in 1985, philosopher Hans Jonas envisioned a historically new technoscientific era when technologies would show different characteristics than the previous class of technologies, such as a certain degree of autonomy and limited predictability. In current philosophy of technology debates, scholars differentiate between modern technology, or classic-modern technology, and late-modern technology. We can understand synthetic biology and AI as cases of the latter. Late-modern technologies differ from classic-modern technologies in two fundamental ways.

First, they show self-organization, autonomous behavior or agency properties. In the case of AI, an autonomous system goes beyond the behavior programmed in the initial algorithm, as it can learn by itself from data and environment, its behavior transgresses the initial objectives and conditions set by its creators (i.e. human engineers, computer scientists) and therefore gain a lower degree of predictability. Similarly, an organism created by means of synthetic biology, starts to interact with and “learn” from its environment in a way that makes it hard to predict its behavior. In both cases, the technology autonomously interacts with an open-ended and uncertain context, the real-world environment, and is thus less predictable than technological systems that merely react to human input and are otherwise passive. In that sense, technologies are sometimes regarded as “black boxes”, as insight into their input and output processes is difficult to acquire.

Second, in the case of late-modern technology, the technology no longer appears in its modern way, rather, technological traces are disappearing. Culturally established borders and modern dichotomies such as “natural” vs “artificial” are becoming blurred. For instance, a synthetic cell has an artificial pathway, but shows no traces of technology: it cannot easily be distinguished from “natural” cells. Similarly, the thinking of AI can sometimes hardly be separated from human thinking or decision-making. In 2018, Google gave a demo of its voice assistant calling a hairdresser to make an appointment and shocked the audience when the hairdresser did not notice that she was not talking to a human. Indeed, this novel kind of technology appears human or natural to us. This is what is called the naturalization of technology. However, moral debates about these sorts of technology, such as the debate about acceptance of GMOs, are often still framed in modern terms, with a strict distinction between us humans, the technology we use, and the natural environment.

Late-modern technology is thus difficult to predict and control, difficult to separate from the context and environment of its application, it can be said to “have a life of its own”. The fact that human beings are surrounding themselves with more and more technologies that are less controllable and show autonomous features, inevitably gives us the sense that we are facing greater technological complexity, losing control over our technology and that our notion of autonomy, which we regard as a fundamental human trait, is being challenged. Late-modern technologies such as AI could even undermine our autonomy, as its ubiquitous deployment could steer us implicitly and explicitly in our behavior. As is often the case with new technological developments, late-modern technologies force us to define and reframe values and views that used to be implicit and unchallenged.

Implications

  • Seeing advances in AI and synthetic biology in a wider class of technologies is also helpful in discussing the challenges for both. For instance, in both areas, a centralization of knowledge can lead to negative consequences for society, e.g. that not everyone can benefit from or even be involved in their creation. In AI and synthetic biology, there are efforts to organize knowledge and IP in open-source governance structures, such as the OpenAI initiative and open source seed initiatives for (GMO) seeds.

  • The rise of artificial intelligence or technological decisionism might teach us something about our human thinking. Similarly, synthetically created organisms might tell us something about living organisms. In a sense, late-modern technology can give us insights into fundamental concepts.

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.

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.