This will probably go down in history as one of the biggest social engineering events of humanity, probably one that will mark the beginning of a new era. In the sense that “life after Coronavirus” and “life before Coronavirus” will be strikingly different.
Covid-19 is a highly viral respiratory infection, first identified in China, at the beginning of 2020. It is more infectious than the usual flu (which is caused by other strains of coronaviruses) and, at least so far, it seems to have a higher mortality rate, especially in older people and people with other co-morbidities. I wrote “so far” because we have still very little accurate data for the extent of the epidemic, including asymptomatic carriers or infected people with very mild symptoms (specifically because this is more infectious and many carriers aren’t yet taken into account). When / if we will have more data, we will have a more accurate number of the actual death rate.
When the epidemic first started, it was largely ignored by the Chinese government, but soon after they realized the viral potential, they “over-reacted”. A big hospital was built in just 10 days in Wuhan, the epidemic centre, and then an entire province was put on lockdown, with people quarantined and a lot of economical consequences. The lockdown seems to have worked well, because now, at the moment of writing, the China epidemic drastically slowed down.
After the virus spread outside China, a similar scenario unfolded. The most affected country was Italy, which, after a couple of weeks of relatively low numbers, saw a similar explosion in cases, followed by a similar response: the entire province of Lombardy was put in lockdown. At the moment of writing, Italy, the entire country, is quarantined. Several European countries are also taking extreme measures, like Israel or Spain, which don’t allow entry of people coming from Italy.
The Information Surrounding This Phenomenon
At the moment of writing, more than 1.1 billion mentions of this event are out on the information highway: from social media to papers and televisions. And the number seems to grow just as exponentially as the disease. It’s hard to look anywhere and not see at least 50% of the information volume dedicated in some way or another to this situation.
This increase in information volume is what is very different at this event.
The Tipping Point
We do have epidemics all the time in the world. Moreover, we do have violent events occurring continuously: from volcano eruptions, tsunamis or tornadoes, to social unrest or wars. Why then, it was this event that captured the attention of people in such a profound and powerful way?
In my humble opinion, this happened simply because it was time. Because the way people interact changed immensely and became so different than what we use to have just 10 years ago. Because the way information is created and transmitted reached a certain tipping point.
It is this specific situation that creates the most important effects, not the actual disease. Which, to be clear, I’m not dismissing in any way. It’s a serious thing, it’s a real problem and it should be treated accordingly. But, like I said, it’s not the only serious problem we have right now. We do have flu every year and I’m not seeing entire countries in lockdown. We do have food and water shortages in many parts of the world, leading to (presumably, more) deaths every single day, and I’m not seeing concentrated and coordinated effort to tackle these issues. Why is that? Well, I think it’s because the amount of information surrounding these events is not as relevant as it is this “coronavirus” info-epidemic.
There seems to be no direct link between the magnitude or the potential danger of a specific event, and the amount of information about that event.
And this is starting to be a serious problem.
The World Is Not As It Is, But As You Think It Is
As information became easier to create and propagate, the collective behavior started to respond better to it. Social media, specifically, had a big role in this. With the rise of social media, every person started to have a voice, and these voices started to combine in many graphs and structures, across various platforms. Alas, most of these platforms are centralized, meaning a single entity (the company that owns / operates them) has access to these graphs. In the overwhelming majority of cases, these graphs are sold to advertisers, which then use them to activate potential customers. In short, for money.
There are also situations in which these graphs aren’t sold. They’re just slipping through and become available to other actors. It’s in this area that we need to look closer if we need to understand what’s really happening now.
The first signs of the “Coronavirus tipping point” are to be found in the Cambridge Analytica situation. Let me refresh your memory: Cambridge Analytica, a consulting company, got access to a few millions of user profiles a few years ago. Using this information, the company was able to successfully profile specific information sequences, meant to generate specific responses from users. All this was packaged and sold, attention, not to advertisers, but to social actors. Cambridge Analytica helped political factions to influence the result of elections, using social engineering.
This is a very, very important thing.
Because it showed that society, as a group of individuals, is now experiencing a different level of fluidity. It reacts way, way faster, and, with enough data and processing power, still predictably.
What we observe now, within the “Coronavirus Event”, is that the amount of data and processing power needed to have predictability is over the tipping point. The overwhelming majority of the information around this comes from individuals, based on their own assessment, and the predictability at the macro scale is actually following through, becoming just as fluid as these never ending, panic-filled social media posts.
Nobody could predict on January 1st, 2020, just 2 months ago, that Italy will shut down, as a country.
The amount of voices combined is now beyond any available processing power of a single entity (and I suspect even beyond the entire processing power we collectively have). It’s close to impossible to process and engineer a predictable response with the current resources. Emotion may be still triggered with carefully crafted messages, but viral reaction, once started, cannot be steered anymore. The rock, once rolling, it’s simply too big now.
The social media “swarm” has become a collective being, living on its own. No one can know where or how the majority of the opinions will swing, although, just to ride the wave, many will believe they know or they’ll claim they know.
And that’s how the world is shaped now: the collective being reacts and then reality obeys. Faster and more profoundly than ever.
In more practical terms: we don’t put countries in lockdown during wars, because the collective being is not yet triggered by them (at least not to the tipping point), but we do put countries in lockdown during Coronavirus pandemic, because the collective being, mirroring and multiplying individuals basic fears, is terrified by a new type of flu. Again, I’m not downsizing the effects of this illness, I’m just saying it’s not the only problem that we, as humanity, have right now.
There Is No Conspiracy Theory, It’s Simply Us. Billions Of Us
Rooted in our lack of personal responsibility, there is always the need for a scapegoat, being it a positive (savior) or a negative (punishable) external actor. If this imaginary actor has positive traits, it’s usually part of the political structure: the government, the ministry of something, somebody with power. If this imaginary actor has negative traits, it’s usually some hidden society plotting to enslave humanity, Illuminati, the filthy rich, etc.
Both ends of this stick aren’t existing in real life. They are just swings of our collective mind, creations that help us compensate our complacency. It’s ok to do nothing, because there’s always somebody out there with more impact. That’s conspiracy theory at its simplest.
Well, this tipping point event shows that there isn’t, really, anybody out there. Authorities are overwhelmed and following “orders” of cancelling events from the “swarm”, while the punishable actors are nowhere to be seen (if we take out from the picture the virus itself). Of course, some people, more aware, or more “immune” to the info-epidemic, can ride the wave of whatever social changes are occurring, and profit from them. But it’s a merely opportunistic activity, based on the reaction speed of the person, and not a coordinated activity, based on the predictability of the event.
The Way Out
If the problem is both the quantity and the speed of information, looks like the next reasonable approach is to focus on information processing technologies, as a survival tool.
Machine Learning will probably change the way we live, but not because it will outsmart every one of us, individually. It will change how we live because it will learn to identify predictable scenarios of the collective being that we’re becoming.
What we now name “trends”, are basically seeds for future planetary events, just like the fear-inducing propaganda spread by Cambridge Analytica morphed the collective being into becoming this fearful, paranoid and isolationist persona, who’s irrationally buying tons of toilet paper, as this could actually save it from extinction.
The “good” news is that this collective being can swing in any direction.
The current “Coronavirus Event” looks more like a fight-or-flight type of reaction, one that usually occurs in an individual’s reptilian brain. But, as the collective being is growing, and learns how to preserve its own existence, we may expect more constructive info-epidemics too.
For instance, the current “vegan” trends can translate in radical modifications of how treat food, in a not so distant future. Again, it will look like it came “from nowhere”, but it will display the force and amplitude of this current panic, once it’s set in motion. Same with “climate change” or other topics that are now at the trend level.
Until then, though, let’s take a moment and internalize this historical moment.
The world, as we know it, will never be the same anymore.
There will be, in fact, a continuous, morphing and dynamic competition of many “worlds”, all fighting for the attention of this collective being, while we, as individuals, have little (if any) power of knowing which one will win, and for how long.
Image by Robert Pastryk from Pixabay