I’ve been in a bit of a slump these last few days, knowing I’ve got things I could be doing but not finding the will or energy to do them. The warning signs of a depressive period are there so I’m going to try and head that off by just doing stuff that might not have any purpose other than to shake my brain into shape. Sort of like jogging around the park.
So let’s have a look at my browser tabs. I’ve been reading a lot of stuff, as you can imagine, and have kept a few things open because they felt worthy of sharing at some point. I’m going to use them here as prompts to just write about stuff.
Ed Yong at the Atlantic has been one of the better distillers of facts over the last month and his Our Pandemic Summer helped me see how this all might pan out over the next year or so. It’s US centric, which means it has to take into account the dark absurdity playing out in the White House, but given our historic relative economic alignment with the US, most things are broadly applicable.
Related to this, and also at the Atlantic, is The Real Reason to Wear a Mask by Zeynep Tufekci, Jeremy Howard and Trisha Greenhalgh. This breaks down the confusion over whether the general public should be wearing masks and pretty much convinced me to wear one when I’m around other people. Essentially, masks that protect the wearer, such as hospital workers, are expensive, complicated and should be saved for those who need them most. But simple cloth masks that protect people from the wearer don’t have to be medical grade and can significantly reduce the viral load you expel from your lungs when talking. So when you wear a mask in public you’re not protecting yourself, you’re protecting others. And if everyone is wearing masks then you are protected. It’s one of those things that isn’t going to work if we approach it with a selfish mindset, which is unfortunate as so much of our societal mindset is geared towards the individual and their immediate family against all else. But if we’re going to come out of the lockdown and start mixing with relative strangers again we’re going to need to do something like this.
In John Higgs’ March newsletter he talks about the rise and fall of individualism over the last century or so (see also Adam Curtis’ Century of the Self) and how the current crisis may be accelerating the decline of the cult of the individual as we rapidly realise we depend on each other and cannot survive alone. (Sidebar - that this realisation might happen in a time of locked-down isolation I find fascinating on a number of levels.) He references Tom Oliver’s book The Self Delusion which I haven’t read (too many unread books already on the shelf) but it chimes with a lot of things I’ve been thinking about. As a mildly autistic person I tend to self-isolate at the best of times and remember as a youth finding the notion of man being an island to be quite desirable, but it’s become obvious to me that human beings should not be considered as discrete organisms. Firstly, on a physical level, we are constantly being renewed by the food we take in which is processed by organisms that contain no human DNA. But on a social and psychological level we are constantly being programmed by the people we come into contact with, whether in person or via media. Your brain will be wired ever-so-slightly differently after reading this, which means that your identity, your “self” is connected to mine. We are part of a biological mesh that stretches across the whole planet.
This profile of New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was of interest to me as my mother and sister’s family all live there so it’s reassuring to see they’re in good hands. I noted that Ardern’s degree was in Communications, which is often used for evil and marketing but which she seems to be employing for good. I studied a bit of Communications and Media Studies back in my teen years and it always struck me as an undervalued discipline that one might think was rubbished by those in power because it pulled back the curtain on their machinations.
It’s been interesting to see how people whose job is it to look at the world and figure out what it all means have responded to their whole world changing almost overnight. I liked Ben Bratton’s 18 Lessons of Quarantine Urbanism which feels like a valiant attempt to get on top of everything in the only way he knows how. I particularly enjoyed the subheading “Fully Automated Luxury Quarantine vs. Solitary Confinement”. Our home feels a bit like that at times. We’re nesting to an absurd degree while feeling horribly confined by it all.
(An intriguing image in Bratton’s piece lead me to download the film Prospect which I very much enjoyed as a low-budget piece of thinky sci-fi that does resonate a bit with the whole [handwave] thing.)
Speaking of grumpy what-does-it-all-mean men, the hoary spectre of Evgeny Morozov emerged with a terrific takedown of tech “solutionism”. Morozov is problematic because he comes over a total arsehole in his writing, but he’s more often than not on the money. I’m struggling to summarise this further, because Morozov 🤷♂️, but in essence, when tech-bros come at you preaching disruption and innovation as the only answer to this crisis, give them the side-eye they deserve.
One of the many systems that has been revealed of late to be massively broken is that of procurement, as in how stuff is manufactured and distributed. Without giving the UK government a get-out over PPE, it’s fairly clear they’re struggling because the established systems are not able to deal with sudden change. After the crisis: let’s fix procurement is a surprisingly interesting breakdown of how government buys things. It ends with a bit of tech-solutionism (it’s published on Medium, after all) but the analysis feels sound.
OG blogger Matt Webb has started blogging in earnest again. He appears to have been spending a bit too much time in rarified VC startup land (one recent post used the example of a guy he knows “who sold his company then negotiated that, during the earn-out, he could remote work. Then moved to a ski resort and worked from there” which I’m sure we can all relate to) but I’ve been enjoying some of his observations on the current crisis. In this one after musing about cities looking like a neutron bombs has hit, he casts the “key economy” as a hyperobject he didn’t know existed. He doesn’t know exactly how to define the key economy, the life-support system of a society that must be maintained to keep us going, but he now knows that he can, and that throws up loads of questions. We’d sort-of assumed that “the economy” was this single thing broken down into sectors for organisational reasons but ultimately one blob of activity. I work in a bakery, you work in a pub, we both earn money, pay taxes and spend the rest. But it turns out I’m part of the key economy and you’re not. At Loaf we hit this pretty hard on discovering that half our business was key (food production) and the other half not-key (cookery courses). How do we juggle that?
OK, my browser tabs have reduced to the point where I can actually read the first couple of words on each one, so I’ll draw this to a close. While for me it was an exercise in getting my brain working again, I hope it was of interest or even of use, and not too depressing.
I’ll leave you with a lovely thing Kottke found: Live broadcasts from a South African safari where the guides drive to the lions and point their cameras at them for ages. It’s very soothing and I’ve learned loads already.