To what world will we reemerge after the distress and devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic? Calling for a geopolitics based on a deliberate plan for the coordination of the planet, design theorist and The Terraforming Program Director Benjamin H. Bratton looks at the underlying causes of the current crisis and identifies important lessons to be learned from it.
It is difficult, if not impossible, to offer commentary on a quickly shifting situation based on what one assumes the outcome to be, because the most likely outcome is almost never what happens. Allow me then to timestamp my remarks according to known signposts. Today, Western countries are in various stages of lockdown, catastrophe, and contradiction, while China is tentatively opening up again after months of hardship. In the United States, where I am holed up, the government fumbles between incoherent phases of bluster and bet hedging. Friends who should know better are turning into the Jude Law character from Contagion. Spanning the globe, the Kübler-Ross stages of grief are the new national horoscope: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. To say that the USA is ten days behind Italy is not only an epidemiological analysis; it is a psychiatric diagnosis.
At this point, we are looking at months of extreme weirdness and grief and then things will return to a state that will feel more normal, but forever not the same normal. Right now, that is the optimistic scenario. Afterwards, many ways of doing things, ways of thinking, ways of getting things going and offering critiques, may just not come back. Some will be missed, others not even noticed. What are the important lessons to be learned before the normality that caused mayhem returns? A second wave of the virus would be catastrophic, but so would another wave of its underlying causes.
The sense of emergency is palpable and real. But instead of naming this moment a “state of exception,” we see it more as revealing “pre-existing conditions.” The consequences of poor planning (or no planning), broken social systems, and isolationist reflexes are explicit. Vigilance should be held not against the “exception” on behalf of familiar norms, but against the return to those dysfunctional norms after the coast is declared clear. We must keep the focus trained on the pathologies revealed and in doing so willfully inhabit the difficult ramifications of change.
The Epidemiological View of Society
Among these is an epidemiological view of society that focuses less on the individual vs. society, but on the enmeshed whole through which each of us lives. Each organism is a transmission medium for information—from ideas to viruses—and is defined by who and what each is connected to and disconnected from. With COVID-19, viral contagion is dangerous, but the risk is not just individual. It is a collective risk. The epidemiological view should shift our sense of subjectivity away from private individuation and toward public transmissibility. Emphasis shifts away from personal experience and toward responsibilities couched in the underlying biological and chemical realities that bind us. Dashboard interfaces and statistical models of contagion have become the visual profile of the event. The image of our interconnected whole seen in these reflections should stay with us, long after the crisis passes.
A Fast-Forward Experiment in Comparative Governance
Over these months we are witnessing the largest experiment in comparative governance we are likely to see in our lifetimes. The virus is the control variable. How different systems respond will change how political cultures evaluate their traditions. Brazil is failing, Singapore is succeeding, Iran is failing, Hong Kong is succeeding. Some aspects of central command and control have worked, others have not, some strengths of Western liberalism have worked in response to the virus, while other aspects are leaving their societies in a numb, incoherent daze. Each system faces the same test at the same time. The results are plain to see.
Governing Model Simulations
In each case, city or national governments intervene based on the information they have and do not have or do not heed. The most successful have robust empirical and predictive model simulations of the situation and use these as a tool for action. Others are working with data that is too sparse or untrustworthy to know what’s really going on and therefore what to do. The lesson is that the role of broadly-gathered, rigorous, statistically valid models as a key medium of public governance should persist long after the virus. We have the means, but have been using the technologies for less important things (advertising, arguing, affectation, etc.).
The Sensing Layer is Broken
Testing is the “sensing layer” of the governing epidemiological models. Without them the models are guesswork, but do we see them this way? Smart City infomercials have taught us to think of sensors as exotic expensive chips, and social democratic politics to think of public health in terms of non-technological therapeutic care. Each misses a significant part of the picture. Testing and sensing are the same thing. More testing is better sensing, which means better models, which means better public health response. Inadequate planning and provision for testing is inadequate modeling, which is inadequate governance. Cities that have passed this test are the ones that have flattened the curve effectively. Cities that have failed the sensing layer test are turning public meeting halls into makeshift morgues.
“Surveillance” Is Not the Right Word
The way we define, interpret, discuss, deploy, and resist “surveillance” has shifted decisively. A couple weeks ago, another academic argued to me that people should resist testing for the virus because acquiescing only encouraged “big data biopolitics.” He even told his students to refuse testing and he maintains this position still. Last year he had a bigger audience for this line of thought, but few would see it that way now. People are seeing the suppressed potential of such technologies anew. Reconstructing infection by tracking phones can be an important tool, despite the direct confrontation with principles of libertarian anonymity. The epidemiological view of society is changing the conversation about these matters. The debate isn’t made easier, but it is opened up in important ways. It is a mistake to reflexively interpret all forms of sensing and modeling as “surveillance” and all forms of active governance as “social control.” We need a different and more nuanced vocabulary.
First in China and now in every city to the degree it can bear, platform delivery systems are keeping the stressed social fabric intact. In response to the virus, stores are closed, streets are empty, and yet life goes on. Hundreds of millions of shut-ins persist in private encapsulation, shopping on their phones and eating what the person + food factory at the end of the app brings to the door. With the automated order relays, waves of sysadmins and couriers are keeping the world moving when the government cannot. In doing so, the chains of automation have become an emergency public sphere. Sometimes automation isn’t the fragile virtual layer on top of the sturdy city, but rather the inverse.
As cities shut down, only parts deemed essential stay open to enable those relays of subsistence. Our societies are pared down to the bare functions of food, medicine, and communications, not unlike moon bases. City centers have become human-exclusion zones, given over to serene neglect. Meanwhile online, organizations continue as improvised virtual versions of themselves: telemedicine, simulated sports, metaverse intimacies, online education and conferencing, etc. Supply chains are interrogated for having left essential needs vulnerable without backups. Planetary urbanism’s lockdown mode is an uneven compression to the most essential aspects of its industrial interconnections: signal, transmission, metabolism.
Fully Automated Luxury Quarantine vs. Solitary Confinement
We are uncomfortably adapting to psychogeographies of isolation. In course we learn new vocabulary, such as “social distancing-compliant building design.” “Quarantine” means a kind of suspended indeterminate status. It is a limbo. Days slur into weeks. The official suspicion that any one person may be a risk to the rest will continue even after the lockdown rules are relaxed. Meanwhile, our immediate habitats are defined by paranoid new relations between inside and outside. If the general quarantine lasts a very long time, some of these will become permanent. As amenities that were once known as places in the city are transformed now into apps and appliances inside the home, public space is evacuated and the “domestic” sphere becomes its own horizon.
The Camp/Bunker Vacillation
All around us we see camp and bunker switching places. Is the fence keeping you in or out? The barrier that keeps the perceived danger contained (camp) versus the one that keeps it out (bunker) may look like identical architectural forms. On the same day, we see travelers arriving at O’Hare airport in Chicago crammed into a hallway waiting to be screened for re-entry into the United States, probably infecting one another. We also see images of packed London clubs with visually similar throngs of revelers, most definitely infecting each other. The former is an infrastructural bottleneck while the latter is an expensive cultural experience, but the virus doesn’t care. It replicates equally well in one as the other. At home, rooms are remade into astronaut habitats and interfaces to the outside world shifted to forms of “touchless delivery.” We stage our own camp versus bunker dramas as the script of everyday life.
Basic forms of social intimacy and trust, like handshakes, are frozen and renegotiated. The bond of the handshake once meant personal trust through touch, but now if a stranger offers you their exposed hand, you would find them deeply untrustworthy. Those who refuse to grasp the shift (in the name of “preserving life” or “refusing xenophobia”) loudly announce and expose their untrustworthiness. In previous pandemics, such as HIV, prophylactics became an important part of the politics of contact. How we preserve intimacy while informed by viral reality will be a defining challenge for cultures re-emerging from isolation in the months to come.
Biometrics at Hand
How we relate to each other is part of how we relate to the city, and we have long done so through layers of artificial skins and prostheses (aka clothes and phones). Biometric touchpoints are another way that the city decides who goes where, and today some are expanding while others are shutting down. Of biometric technologies, thermometers are in ascent but fingerprint scanners have been turned off. Phone location tracking is up, but facial recognition is on hiatus as wearing masks in public has flipped overnight from an act of defiance to a mandatory precaution.
Speaking of masks, they are among humanity’s most ancient and accomplished art forms, but in times of plague or war they also serve as machines for filtering air and ensuring a livable artificial atmosphere. Today the shortage of available masks is a visceral signal of systemic fragility. In the long-term, supply will meet the demand and desire to wear masks as we venture back into the public. The purpose of the masks will not only be social distancing of ourselves from ambient viral particulates, but also to communicate to others the terms of personal engagement. Masks are and will be both expressive and functional; they will not only ensure filtration, but also signal our personalities and communicate solidarity with the epidemiological and immunological commons.
Awareness of the epidemiological social reality extends to the entire biosphere. As the RNA code of COVID-19 hacks our cells, it starts a domino effect of consequences, altering not only the movement of people, but affecting planetary cycles of energy, materialization, expenditure, and waste. This is the ecological principle of trophic cascade, by which the agency of one form of life sets in motion changes with an outsize effect. This conclusion to be drawn is not that global interconnection is a bad idea (or a good idea), but that it is intrinsic and runs deeper than conventionally realized. The planetary metabolism has been distorted by the exuberant liberation of carbon and heat. The composition of the needed alternatives can’t rely on turning a single master knob in the right direction, such as growth versus degrowth. Our thinking and our interventions must be based on a higher resolution understanding of cyclical interrelations and physical economies, from scales of viral infection to intercontinental circulation and back again.
Greener Newer Deals
It is impossible for any serious person not to see parallels between the inadequate governing responses to both the coronavirus crisis and climate change. Where effective planetary-scale planning and governance should reside, there is instead a screeching void. The various national and regional Green New Deals all imply a shift in the role of governance. Instead of just reflecting the general will, governance is now also the direct management of ecosystems (inclusive of human society). However, this may not go far enough. The absence of strong planning discourages investment in infrastructures predicated on long-term recuperative cycles of energy and material flows. A planetary-scale Green New Deal would also be based on the painfully obvious link between robust public health systems and economic and ecological viability. It would forego nationalism on behalf of coordination, foreground core research, and delink culture war romanticism from ecosystem administration. As we all stare into our contagion dashboard apps, we should look more closely at model simulations as a medium of ecological governance.
These plans should take the intrinsically “artificial” reality of our planetary condition as the starting point. Refusal to engage and embrace that artificiality, on behalf of a return to “nature,” has led to catastrophic denial and neglect. Concepts like “geoengineering” should be redefined to imply planetary-scale design effects, not just specific technological interventions. Regulatory regimes such as a global carbon tax, as well as the conservation of natural carbon sinks and biodiversity, are also, in this way, forms of “geoengineering.” At the same time, deploying new technologies at a massive scale is not optional because decarbonization must go “beyond zero.” We need to not only radically cut carbon emissions, but also subtract and sequester the many billions of tons of carbon already in the atmosphere. Yet negative emissions technologies are banished from most proposed Green New Deals. Mainstream environmentalism will follow the science, but not when it contradicts deeply-held technophobia. Instead, extreme pragmatism is the path to real creativity.
Mobilization and Enforcement
But how is it possible to build such things? How can disruptive interventions based on climate models be enforced? Among the most divisive and decisive issues of the 2020s will be not if—but how—national and transnational militaries are deployed for the protection of ecological commons, mitigation monitoring, preventative land management, and the development of climate intervention technologies. The notion is clearly uncomfortable, but what are realistic alternatives that forgo large-scale mobilization and enforcement? Is it even possible that fundamental shifts to our climate crisis are defended only through deliberative consensus? Even if so, how would it do so without subsequent enforcement at the same scale as the problem? Next fire season, will international troops be sent to protect the Amazon? If not, let’s list the reasons why not and make sure they are still good ones.
The Revenge of the Real
What now? This moment should be a death blow for the populist wave of recent years, but will it be? Populism despises experts and expertise, but right now people desire competence. At this moment, dry, prepared, trustworthy, available, adaptable, responsive technocratic foresight and effectiveness seem like the most idealistic politics imaginable. Yet, the human ability to bend facts to favored narratives remains incredible. The global contagion and the varied responses by different societies have exposed ideologies and traditions as ineffective, fraudulent, and suicidal. What is required is less a new narrative or a new art than acceptance of how the rapid intrusion of an indifferent reality can make symbolic resistance futile. The pre-existing conditions now exposed clarify the need for a geopolitics based not on self-undermining prisoner’s dilemma tactics in the face of common risks, but on a deliberate plan for the coordination of the planet we occupy and make and re-make over again. Otherwise, this moment really will be a permanent emergency.
Cover image: U.S. Army
Benjamin H. Bratton