Thursday, March 12, 2020

#72 / Public Health, And Fear, And Public Space

People are very worried about public health dangers - and for very good reason. These dangers are real. The dramatic image at the top of this blog posting comes from an article in The New York Review of Books. The first line of that article reads as follows: "The United States is in the throes of a colossal health crisis." You have to admit that it is a pretty powerful image! The author of the statement I have just quoted is Helen Epstein, and she made this observation as she began her review of a couple of recent books.

Epstein is not talking about a potential coronavirus pandemic. 

The second image I have posted, appearing below the first, is related to the potential of a coronavirus pandemic. This is a screenshot of a headline that appeared on the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle on Sunday, March 8, 2020. I have posted a third image, too, from Politico, with the image illustrating another article focused on the spread of the coronavirus: "We Predicted a Coronavirus Pandemic. Here’s What Policymakers Could Have Seen Coming."

The Politico article is dated March 7, 2020, and the prediction mentioned in the title of the article references a meeting convened by Politico in October 2019. An appreciation of the dangers associated with possible global pandemics is certainly nothing new. Vox ran an article about the subject in 2015 with the title, "The most predictable disaster in the history of the human race." 

We have understood the dangers of potential global pandemics for quite some time. Preparations to deal with them, it appears, have not been as robust as we might now wish. That is not good, and I don't want to argue that we should not take emergency actions, now, against the spread of the coronavirus. I do, however, want to raise a concern.

One idea for responding to the possibility of a coronavirus epidemic has been to suggest that we should "isolate" ourselves. This is the strategy talked about in the Chronicle article. There are numerous proposals on how online technologies can be used as a way to isolate ourselves from others, and thus minimize vectors of infection. Some colleges and universities, to take one example, are turning all their normal courses into "online" teaching. That is certainly true for UCSC, where I teach. Today is the "Last Class" in the course I am teaching this Quarter, "Privacy, Technology, And Freedom." I am holding that Last Class "online," and not "in-person," because of the adoption of the "isolation" strategy by the University.

Here is my concern: Individual and social isolation, as mentioned in the Chronicle headline, is contraindicated with respect to the "colossal health crisis" that Epstein is writing about. The crisis Epstein identifies is the fact that "suicides, alcohol-related deaths, and drug overdoses" claim roughly 190,000 lives each year. Social isolation and loneliness are contributing causes.

Real human interactions, IRL (in real life), are often difficult, and fraught. Given that, potential pandemics aside, there is a temptation to move more and more of our relationships and interactions online, using technologies that allow communication without contact. 

The possibility of a coronavirus pandemic is just one more stimulus to urge people to exit the public sphere, and to work and play in cyberspace, but the threat of such a pandemic is not the only stimulus tending towards translating face to face human interactions into a set of interactions based on and mediated by, technology. That's already happening, with or without the coronavirus. Fears of contagion are now simply accelerating the process. It is that process of increasing social isolation that I am worried about.

More social isolation is the very opposite of what we need to solve the economic, social, and political problems that Epstein properly identifies as causative factors in a "colossal health crisis." 

We do "live in a political world," and "real" politics demands real human contact and interaction. Tweets and conferencing programs just don't do it! 

As one Washington Post columnist puts it (in a column that you may or may not be able to see, given the near ubiquity of the "paywall" protections put in place by our major media), life lived online, when that's all you have, is "not that chill."

Image Credits:
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