As the coronavirus rages across the world, we are struggling to understand what our future technological, political and economic systems will look like. Whereas the future of a post-corona society is uncertain, the only thing that is certain is that many things will change. Furthermore, the current coronavirus and its devastating effects should be understood from deeper transformations in the fabric of our societies, having to do with technological innovations, the process of modernization, as well as general cultural dynamics.
- In her book Meeting the Universe Halfway,Karen Barad recognizes agency of the nonhuman realm, based on a relational ontology and agential realism, in turn based on insights from quantum physics. The quantum entanglement means that there is no ontological separation between subject and object, but only intra-acting agencies between “entangled agencies”. As a result, phenomena of various sorts “emerge” between various agents. This relational ontology questions our ideas on causality, individuality, and agency in analyzing these complex phenomena (indeed it draws from insights of quantum mechanics, such as the measurement problem of quantum field theory, or the quantum entanglement).
- Our world has become much more complex and interconnected in the past two decades, both in a material and more ethereal sense. For example, the number of people crossing national boundaries (measured as the number of outbound tourist departures) almost tripled to over 1 billion annually between 1995 and 2018. Likewise, global trade in merchandise exports almost quadrupled, to $20 trillion. And the stock of international migrants, i.e. people living outside the country where they were born, increased by almost 70% between 1995 and 2019, to 272 million international migrants. But the world has also become much more complex and interconnected from a social and political perspective (measured by the KOF Social Globalization and Political Globalization Index). In a less material sense but in terms of “flows” this holds as well. For example, international capitals flows has quadrupled (e.g. foreign direct investments, international portfolio flows) between 1995 and 2018, while cross-border data flows grew 45 times between 2005 and 2015 and will continue to grow at a rapid pace in the foreseeable future due to the emerging sensor-based economy.
- We have written before that this integration and increased complexity of the world are driven by a deeper development of the idea of freedom in history and reality. By neoliberal politics, for example, which favors open borders and promotes economic integration between countries to benefit from comparative advantages and heterogeneous endowments of production factors; by digital technologies that help to dismantle borders and break open the small world of traditional societies to the “global village”, or by the end of the Cold War and the concurrent belief in the “end of history” that led to a huge wave of liberalization and democratization in many parts of the world that had thus far been unconnected and isolated.
- Wicked problems, such as the climate or economic and financial systems, are difficult to define, hard to solve, unstable, multi-causal and have many unforeseen consequences. However, the current reality shows that our social, political and economic systems are not able to induce systemic change to tackle these problems (e.g. financial crises, ecological degradation). As such, we are increasingly in need of complexity thinking. Crucial to this approach is an understanding of the complex nature of the quantitative growth of systems, as well as their qualitative aspect. Fragile systems are those that break in times of chaos and stress, resilient systems are those that can survive negative stressors and absorb shocks, while anti-fragile systems go beyond fragile and robust systems in the sense that they show non-linear responses to crashes and crises by becoming better overall from stressors and shocks.
- Examples of this are the human immune system, which becomes better when exposed to (small doses) of disease or the body of scientific knowledge, which increases in corroboration when confronted with anomalies. Antifragile design principles have been implemented in many fields, such as logistics, urban planning, software development, AI development, molecular biology, business economics, megastructure engineering.
Currently, the world is trying to deal with the coronavirus and its sweeping effects on human lives, the economy, political and social systems, and cultural habits. Indeed, we are in the midst of a full-blown “corona crisis”. Our word “crisis” is etymologically derived from the Greek krinein, meaning to separate and decide. This makes a period of crisis a moment of truth, a decisive moment in which we need to make judgments about what is truly important and what is not, about right and wrong, and about molding the present situation into a brighter and more positive future. As such, a crisis is always a deeply political and ethical period. So what can we learn from our current corona crisis?
First, the corona crisis is a “transdisciplinary phenomenon” that is impossible to narrow down to a fixed and stable entity. One reason is that the corona virus is an exponent of our increasingly complex and interconnected world. Originating from China, it has spread rapidly across the world, as China itself has become much more interconnected with the world. Since the outbreak of the SARS virus, which swept across the world between 2002 and 2003 and is from the same corona virus family as the current Covid-19 disease, China’s GDP and outbound tourist flights have increased almost ten-fold, while China’s multi-trillion Belt and Road Initiative with investment and infrastructure projects across the world has made the country a heavily invested actor in global affairs and linkages. This has led to a much quicker spreading of the virus across the world (besides the fact that the current corona virus is more contagious than SARS) due to airplanes, international tourists in China or Chinese tourists overseas. As such, the coronavirus shows itself to be an exponent of our increasingly vulnerable world: as we all become much more dependent on and interconnected with global flows, trade, production systems, and so on, we also become more vulnerable when something goes wrong in any of these sub-systems. Similar to the failed harvests in Russia that led to the Arab Spring, transmitted via accelerating food inflation, a relatively unknown market in the city of Wuhan is now wreaking havoc across the world.
The only way to negotiate both issues appropriately, that of increasingly rapid and ubiquitous intra-acting agents and our risk society, is to take the notion of risk and uncertainty much more seriously
Furthermore, the current corona crisis is beyond control and comprehension of a single field of knowledge. Following Barad’s relational ontology, we can say that the corona crisis is not only about the virus itself, but an interaction of the coronavirus, the effects of COVID-19 on human and non-human actors such as human bodies, nurses and hospitals, our implicit beliefs about fundamental tradeoffs between economic costs and prevention, privacy and surveillance, as well as about national policies, feelings of fear, the state of medical technology, the funding of medical technology, global power politics and so on. This goes against our determination to contain risks and our constant occupation with creating stability and security, or what Ulrich Beck has called a “risk society”.
The only way to negotiate both issues appropriately, that of increasingly rapid and ubiquitous intra-acting agents and our risk society, is to take the notion of risk and uncertainty much more seriously. We should do this no longer ex post, but ex ante, by creating design from a precautionary strategy of perspective. This is incompatible with the proactionary principle that has been dominant in our political, economic and social views on systems, such as openness to trade, freedom of innovation, or our belief that the state should not be involved in private matters. We are already seeing the state assume such an active role, for example, in their banning the trade of wild animals and “wet markets” and even putting whole cities and countries on “lockdown”. But going beyond these measures, which are mostly reactionary and containing in nature, we should work on building anti-fragile systems that have enough space to deal with uncertainty, but also have enough feedback loops and intra-acting agents built in to deal with uncertainty in a proper way.
Furthermore, containing and understanding the current corona crisis requires a transdisciplinary approach that shows that the subject and object of investigation are highly interconnected. Because this corona crisis will arguably leave a deep imprint on our individual and collective consciousness. As we wrote before, social patterns and cultural habits and norms are shaped by “formative experiences”. As such, the corona crisis is a kind of “shock therapy” for future systems in our increasingly vulnerable, interconnected and uncertain world.
- Living in the Information Age, phenomena have a much more “viral” nature, just like the current corona virus. In a negative sense, this increases uncertainty and fragility, but it can also help to quickly contain risks and spread information. As such, a future digital virus can be dealt with much more quickly, with the right cultural, economic, (geo)political and technological systems in place.
- Being a formative experience, the current corona crisis will induce many new practices, norms and habits, such as social distancing, teleworking, vegetarianism and so on. In a more abstract sense, these developments towards a post-corona society will be formulated in response to the current failures of containing and dealing with the corona crisis.