Extreme Social Distancing: Internet vs Coronavirus

Self-Quarantine Diary, Day 2

STRAYING FROM THE HERD: Social distancing feels unnatural and goes against our deepest human instincts. but unlike any other animal we have the technological capacity to overcome it.

Due to a prior medical condition that puts me at higher risk, I aim to ride out this coronavirus crisis in my bedroom, physically separated from my family and others. I’m writing a daily diary to reflect on what all this means. The first post, laying out my(possibly flawed) reasoning, is here. This is the second. I welcome comments. We’re all figuring this out together.

I you haven’t read Yuval Harari’s Sapiens, do yourself a favor. I can’t think of a more relevant book to read during an epidemic-induced lockdown.

Harari explains that the reason we humans — and not, say, the chimpanzees — came to dominate the earth is that we alone had the capacity to tell and believe in stories. The most powerful of those stories are often highly dubious — such as the yarn about that guy who rose from the dead 2,000 years ago, or the one that says a piece of paper carrying Ben Franklin’s face is worth 100 pieces of paper bearing George Washington’s. Regardless, the common beliefs these stories fostered were extremely valuable as social organizing principles. They are, Harari says, the foundations on which civilization was built.

Seeing life through this lens helps us grasp how we are fundamentally social beings, even to the point that it explains our physical state. As we created ever more complex social systems, we evolved ever more complex brain capacity. to process all the stories and ideas coming our way.(Tomorrow I intend to explore the fascinating, but frightening way in which viruses like COVID-19 are themselves a direct product of that social evolution, having evolved precisely to exploit it.)

This is not to say animal instincts don’t still drive our behavior: the fear-driven fight or flight instinct, for example, can be witnessed in the toilet paper aisles of supermarkets these days. Nor did civilization quash our prehistoric tribal instincts. How else to explain certain politicians’ penchant for calling COVID-19 the “China Virus?”

But to Harari’s point, we live for stories. The economics of our digital, information-saturated existence is driven by an incessant need for them. We have an innate desire to connect with each other, to communicate, to tell and listen to each other’s blather.

The key now, then, if we are to protect civilization, is to figure out how to feed that need in a way that doesn’t make us all sick. Until very recently, that was an almost impossible task, because communication was a largely in-person activity. But modern technology, most importantly the rise of the Internet, gives us a way out. This is not 1918, when the great H1N1 pandemic killed 50 million people and infected 500 million — proportionately equivalent to 216 million deaths and 2.16 billion infections today. What makes things different a century later is not only that we’ve figured out vaccines. It’s also that we now have the means to deny the virus the human pathways on which it thrives.

We have no choice but to go against our evolved social instincts and avoid each other for a while. Exponential network effects, like those laid out in this Washington Post piece explain why. But the good news is that much of society has the tools to achieve this without entirely giving up on human connectivity. It won’t be easy; obviously, human physical contact is also a base need. (I’m craving it already.) And we still need to deliver physical food and other goods to each other. Also, dependence on social media for human connection can inject a different form of toxicity into our lives.

Nonetheless, we now have the tools to do this. The work-from-home solutions now being employed by pretty much any company whose workforce can function remotely are a case in point. Ideas like the virtual conference that CoinDesk will stage in place of its physical Consensus event in May are another. All this is possible because the digital revolution has given us the means to socialize while being apart from each other.

It’s why video-conferencing company Zoom Video Communications’ three-month stock chart looks like this, compared with the S&P 500.

The virus has evolved into an extremely cunning adversary. It turns people into ignorant, contagious transmitters well before they’ve the developed the symptoms that would otherwise set off warning signs to the world. But we too benefit from a different force of evolution: that of changes in technology and in the means of socialization and value creation built around these tools. They demonstrate that, despite the mammoth amount of idiocy currently on display, we do have the capacity to defeat the virus. We can outlast it. And that means we will eventually get back to something approaching normal, healthy, in-person connections.

Trust me, I don’t want to stay holed up in this bedroom. But for now I’m staying put, and believing in this story of projected human triumph.