COVID-19 and the fallacy of the future

Let us not forget that we do not know what we do not know

There is no such thing as the future, only an ongoing series of todays that we experience in relative succession. This tyranny of today is something I’m not sure we can escape from.

Which is not to devalue either history or foresight. I think both have important roles to play, and history in particular is something I wish we all spent more time studying, as we all benefit from cultivating the skills of a historian.

Yet the future remains something we should all be skeptical of. Any conception of the future will always be an exercise in ideology and power: an attempt to create a vision that is designed to influence what we do today and how we prepare for tomorrow.

I’ve been meaning to write an issue refuting the concept of the future, arguing that predictions, and in particular AI based predictive services, should be heavily regulated, or in some cases even outlawed. A kind of anti-futurist manifesto if you will. However that is not today’s issue. I’ll wait until some point in the future to argue that the future doesn’t exist.

However I will offer as an aside, that I used to think “futurists” were frauds and full of shit, until that is I found out how much they were paid, at which point I became a futurist. My perspective of futurists being full of shit has not changed, I just adopted the position that we’re all futurists, in so far as we spend time thinking about tomorrow (even if tomorrow never truly arrives).

I’ve also been toying with the idea of calling myself a time traveler, as what is life but a journey through time, and by definition that means that everyone is a time traveler. It’s just that we travel in one direction, and have little to no influence over our velocity, and only one opportunity to stop traveling, which is irreversible.

Alas I digress, but this is a moment in history where we are somewhat collectively reflecting on our mortality, as well as those of our elders and vulnerable members of our respective communities.

Which is why we should be wary of people claiming to know our future. Further we must recognize that the future is inherently a political construct, the result of political economic forces, that we ought to be part of. Therefore it is always a good (political) exercise to imagine a future that you desire. What future do you want? What future does your community want? What would it take for such a future to manifest? What can we do to make that future our own?

If we had a competent, responsible, or democratic government, this would be the exercise they would be engaging in right now. While I do assume all governments are engaging in variations of this at the moment, I know of none that are doing so in a participatory and engaging manner with their subjects. Rather they arrogantly believe that such a process should be secret, exclusive, or even worse, they don’t believe they have the agency to do so in the first place.

Instead this void will be filled by the professional pundit class, which by virtue of some of you paying for this subscription, I continue to remain a reluctant part of. Let us therefore take a moment to go through two of the more heavily circulated examples to get a sense of what people think or want our future to be.

On the surface this is a reasonable article that argues for a reasonable outcome that combines solidarity and empowerment. However I dislike Harari’s rhetorical technique of creating a totalitarian straw man, as a means of mythologizing the problem and valourizing the solution. For example, with regard to trust:

But to achieve such a level of compliance and co-operation, you need trust. People need to trust science, to trust public authorities, and to trust the media. Over the past few years, irresponsible politicians have deliberately undermined trust in science, in public authorities and in the media. Now these same irresponsible politicians might be tempted to take the high road to authoritarianism, arguing that you just cannot trust the public to do the right thing. 

Blaming populist politicians for the erosion of trust in society is blaming the symptom rather than exploring the cause. We published an issue about trust in January, and to quickly summarize: it’s complicated.

The distrust of journalists, health authorities, and academics is not new, and it cannot be solved overnight. Further, as we argued in our trust issue, perhaps distrust is healthy? Maybe we have reason to distrust the corporate media, distrust health officials who allowed if not enabled the opioid crisis, and distrust academics who are increasingly disconnected from the world we live in.

There is of course a difference between distrust and disobedience. I’m not suggesting we defy science or health authorities. I’m just suggesting we remain skeptical, and like any good scientists, demand evidence, proof, and retain our desire to check the results for ourselves. Science is not about faith, it is about being able to repeat the experiment and achieve the same result.

Yet back to Harari’s simplistic vision of trust and politics:

Normally, trust that has been eroded for years cannot be rebuilt overnight. But these are not normal times. In a moment of crisis, minds too can change quickly. You can have bitter arguments with your siblings for years, but when some emergency occurs, you suddenly discover a hidden reservoir of trust and amity, and you rush to help one another. Instead of building a surveillance regime, it is not too late to rebuild people’s trust in science, in public authorities and in the media. We should definitely make use of new technologies too, but these technologies should empower citizens. I am all in favour of monitoring my body temperature and blood pressure, but that data should not be used to create an all-powerful government.

This argument is naive because it does not acknowledge the reality of the 800 pound gorilla in the room which is Facebook, or Google, or even Amazon. The government does not have the ability or proficiency to handle this kind of data or be all-powerful. No, governments around the industrialized world have been decimated by neo-liberalism and reduced to an emaciated form that has made them unable to effectively respond to this crisis.

For example how come we’re not scrutinizing why governments and hospitals were not prepared for this? Why was their emergency preparedness and planning incapable of anticipating a viral pandemic like this when the science and scenarios suggested they should be? I mean literally, and with multimedia!? We can leave that question for later.

The problem with Harari’s rhetoric above is that the government is not in a position to unleash a totalitarian surveillance regime, but the private sector already has. The real question is why we don’t regulate or control it. Instead, thanks to people like Harari, we will encourage it, or worse ignore it.

If I could track my own medical condition 24 hours a day, I would learn not only whether I have become a health hazard to other people, but also which habits contribute to my health. And if I could access and analyse reliable statistics on the spread of coronavirus, I would be able to judge whether the government is telling me the truth and whether it is adopting the right policies to combat the epidemic.

This is total and utter bullshit, not to mention delusional and misleading. Nobody can do this individually. They either depend upon governments, or the private sector. Harari is imagining and proposing a future dominated by digital monopolies who are undemocratic and beyond public oversight and control. In creating the false threat of the state, Harari is distracting us from the real threat of private power and corporate dominance (of society and the public sector).

Rather than acknowledge the cost of globalization and the pillage of the planet by industry, Harari creates another rhetorical straw man in the form of national isolationism:

Humanity needs to make a choice. Will we travel down the route of disunity, or will we adopt the path of global solidarity? If we choose disunity, this will not only prolong the crisis, but will probably result in even worse catastrophes in the future. If we choose global solidarity, it will be a victory not only against the coronavirus, but against all future epidemics and crises that might assail humankind in the 21st century.

What a bullshit dichotomy and false choice. Using the word disunity evokes the idea that we are traitors if we object to the current world order as it is presently configured.

National isolation in the era of the Internet is impossible. Governments like Iran and China may posture and take measures towards a nationally isolated Internet, but even when they sever said Internet from the rest of the world they fail. Internet users are a significant social force that is near impossible to stop.

Global solidarity has already been chosen, long ago, and it is our governments that are the obstacles to its further development. The problem is that the global solidarity imagined by individuals and communities bears no relationship with the bullshit globalization that we’ve been sold for decades.

Harari’s vision of the future is just a continuation of that bullshit, of that illegitimate model of the world, and we should reject his narrow vision as being inefficient and fundamentally ineffective at addressing the issues and challenges we face. Namely corporate power and the concentration of wealth. Which so far this crisis is accelerating.

Now that I’m pissed off, and reminded why I so dislike futurists and pundits, let’s look at the second article about the post-pandemic future that is actively circulating:

OK, I’ll start by admitting I already like this guy because not only did he tweet out the summary of the article in a thread, making it easier for people to digest, but he wrote about the need to prepare over a year before this happened! While I may dislike futurists, I do have a soft spot for “I told you so” futurists.

A global pandemic of this scale was inevitable. In recent years, hundreds of health experts have written books, white papers, and op-eds warning of the possibility. Bill Gates has been telling anyone who would listen, including the 18 million viewers of his TED Talk.

As an aside, given Joe Biden’s apparently rapid cognitive decline, there are people suggesting Bill Gates to run for president (he has no desire to do so).

What I also like about this article, compared to Harari, is that before talking about the future, Ed Yong puts in the effort to set the context, and explain how we got here.

That a biomedical powerhouse like the U.S. should so thoroughly fail to create a very simple diagnostic test was, quite literally, unimaginable. “I’m not aware of any simulations that I or others have run where we [considered] a failure of testing,” says Alexandra Phelan of Georgetown University, who works on legal and policy issues related to infectious diseases.

This is important because it establishes that when it comes to the future, we’re consistently wrong. There are always things that were previously unimaginable. Although entertaining the idea that everything would fail seems prudent to me, given that it is not that unusual in my experience. Now read the following paragraph, and tell me if any of this surprises you:

Rudderless, blindsided, lethargic, and uncoordinated, America has mishandled the COVID-19 crisis to a substantially worse degree than what every health expert I’ve spoken with had feared. “Much worse,” said Ron Klain, who coordinated the U.S. response to the West African Ebola outbreak in 2014. “Beyond any expectations we had,” said Lauren Sauer, who works on disaster preparedness at Johns Hopkins Medicine. “As an American, I’m horrified,” said Seth Berkley, who heads Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance. “The U.S. may end up with the worst outbreak in the industrialized world.”

Perhaps I’m jaded, a result of spending most of my life as a “patient”, and as an outsider, but the above does not surprise me. It upsets me, sure. However I see it as the natural consequence of policies that erode the public interest and reward private self interest. This is the consequence of “everyone for themselves” and “winner takes all”.

Now let’s get into the future scenarios presented in this article:

The first is that every nation manages to simultaneously bring the virus to heel, as with the original SARS in 2003. Given how widespread the coronavirus pandemic is, and how badly many countries are faring, the odds of worldwide synchronous control seem vanishingly small.

The second is that the virus does what past flu pandemics have done: It burns through the world and leaves behind enough immune survivors that it eventually struggles to find viable hosts. This “herd immunity” scenario would be quick, and thus tempting. But it would also come at a terrible cost: SARS-CoV-2 is more transmissible and fatal than the flu, and it would likely leave behind many millions of corpses and a trail of devastated health systems. The United Kingdom initially seemed to consider this herd-immunity strategy, before backtracking when models revealed the dire consequences. The U.S. now seems to be considering it too.

The third scenario is that the world plays a protracted game of whack-a-mole with the virus, stamping out outbreaks here and there until a vaccine can be produced. This is the best option, but also the longest and most complicated.

Unlike Harari, Ed Yong presents three scenarios that reflect the current scientific debate. Rather than engage in a blatant ideological construct as Harari has done, Yong wants to empower his readers to understand the debate and make up their own mind. This third scenario is what scientists currently see as the most likely, but note that it is still couched in language of probability, which acknowledges that everything can change. It will also depend upon how we react to this potential game of whack-a-mole.

There’s no reason that the U.S. should let SARS-CoV-2 catch it unawares again, and thus no reason that social-distancing measures need to be deployed as broadly and heavy-handedly as they now must be. As Aaron E. Carroll and Ashish Jha recently wrote, “We can keep schools and businesses open as much as possible, closing them quickly when suppression fails, then opening them back up again once the infected are identified and isolated. Instead of playing defense, we could play more offense.”

Instead of a rigid future, we see a vision of the future that focuses on capability rather than certainty. It accepts that we don’t know, but it focuses on what we can do once we know. An open mind approach to the future that emphasizes ability and agency rather than determinism or fate.

Ed Yong also makes a prediction about the future that is already playing out in the present:

After infections begin ebbing, a secondary pandemic of mental-health problems will follow. At a moment of profound dread and uncertainty, people are being cut off from soothing human contact. Hugs, handshakes, and other social rituals are now tinged with danger. People with anxiety or obsessive-compulsive disorder are struggling. Elderly people, who are already excluded from much of public life, are being asked to distance themselves even further, deepening their loneliness. Asian people are suffering racist insults, fueled by a president who insists on labeling the new coronavirus the “Chinese virus.” Incidents of domestic violence and child abuse are likely to spike as people are forced to stay in unsafe homes. Children, whose bodies are mostly spared by the virus, may endure mental trauma that stays with them into adulthood.

This is one of the long lasting impacts of this invisible threat, and reinforces why we should reject the previous status-quo, and instead entertain radical alternatives for how we live and thrive. Actually having compassion for each other and demanding a society that does as well.

This is not where we were before the crisis. Before the crisis we lived in a society that encouraged exploitation and narcissism. That cannot continue.

Pandemics can also catalyze social change. People, businesses, and institutions have been remarkably quick to adopt or call for practices that they might once have dragged their heels on, including working from home, conference-calling to accommodate people with disabilities, proper sick leave, and flexible child-care arrangements. “This is the first time in my lifetime that I’ve heard someone say, ‘Oh, if you’re sick, stay home,’” says Adia Benton, an anthropologist at Northwestern University. Perhaps the nation will learn that preparedness isn’t just about masks, vaccines, and tests, but also about fair labor policies and a stable and equal health-care system. Perhaps it will appreciate that health-care workers and public-health specialists compose America’s social immune system, and that this system has been suppressed.

It is remarkable and encouraging how this crisis has given us permission to imagine a different world, even a better world.

My goal today, in contrasting these two articles with you, was to show the different ways in which we can imagine a future, and the political economic dynamics that are part of that. Harari did not acknowledge where we came from or why, and that makes his vision of the future suspect and unrealistic. In contrast Yong does acknowledge where we came from and why, and his vision of the future is inclusive, open, and easy to imagine, if not adapt to our own needs. Which is ironic, as the futures articulated by these two authors are relatively similar.

One could also envisage a future in which America learns a different lesson. A communal spirit, ironically born through social distancing, causes people to turn outward, to neighbors both foreign and domestic. The election of November 2020 becomes a repudiation of “America first” politics. The nation pivots, as it did after World War II, from isolationism to international cooperation. Buoyed by steady investments and an influx of the brightest minds, the health-care workforce surges. Gen C kids write school essays about growing up to be epidemiologists. Public health becomes the centerpiece of foreign policy. The U.S. leads a new global partnership focused on solving challenges like pandemics and climate change.

In 2030, SARS-CoV-3 emerges from nowhere, and is brought to heel within a month.

The difference however is that Yong’s future involves an articulation of the necessary political economy, an acknowledgement of the potential costs, with links to relevant resources.

As we move forward in this crisis, predictions about the future will increase in frequency and potential impact. In spite of this, we should remember that the future does not exist, and that predictions are just guesses, some more informed than others.

Instead we should imagine a future that we desire. We should demand that future, and demand access to the path that makes that future possible.

The future is political, and you should not allow other people to proscribe your future for you. Especially since you will only ever experience the present. The future is always a dream, whether fantasy or nightmare, and your dreams belong to you, let’s not forget that.

What do you think? What kind of future do you want? #metaviews

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Finally, I leave you with one of my favourite anti-futurist presentations, which significantly influenced my own position on AI, Maciej Ceglowski’s fantastic diatribe against the concept of Superintelligence: The Idea That Eats Smart People: