The Northern Spy — The Global Hospital

The Northern Spy

Technology News and Views Since 1983

March 2020

Our long time reader will recall 

the Spy’s having many moons ago differed sharply from the majority view that the “global village” created by what we today call the Internet that many of us saw coming in the heady early 80s when this column was first started, would promote world peace and understanding and usher in a new era of understanding and co-operation. The Spy was rather criticized for his emphatic “not”, but has been proven right. 

Siblings and cousins may decide that building forts together is better than punching each other in the nose. They may not. Neighbours may get along. They may fight over that broken fence that allow one’s cattle to eat the other’s turnips, one’s children to play soccer on the other’s lawn. They may become infuriated by the endless partying in the next door apartment or by the practice of religion or politics down the street. A neighbourhood may be peaceful and proud of its cleanliness, its fine schools, its prosperous businesses, well-kept parks, and its energetic, visionary, and supportive council. Or its racially and socially divided streets and schools may be carved up by competing gangs into drug infested, crime-ridden war zones, filled with hatred and violence, the businesses all boarded up and the parks littered with used needles; its governance in a shambles. 

Global communication enables the spread of ideas, but neither the desire nor the ability to understand or even respect competing memes. People who come to any form of conversation concerning matters on which they already have a settled position ill very rarely have their minds changed by any form of facts or argument. “Adults” (quotes intentional) approach life’s issues with well-formed pre-conceptions about most matters, and tend to caucus with others of like mind in mutual self-reinforcement of their positions. (Group think.) Whether intellectuals, factory workers, taxi drivers, housekeepers, care givers, or truck drivers, most people are closed minded on most topics. Connection with reality (whatever that is or however it is perceived) has become irrelevant.

Thus, one should never have imagined that the Internet would ameliorate national or intellectual tribalism; we should all have realized it would greatly exacerbate them. People used to one form of association are most decidedly unwelcome in competing contexts. The new tolerance is the old intolerance, the new morality is the old immorality, the new truths are the old lies, the new good is the old bad, and all vice-versa.

Bloom was right in the late 80s, but didn’t go far enough. Not only the American mind has closed; the phenomenon has spread worldwide. Even in the supposed bastions of free thinking and speech, an academic who espouses views out of step with his or her guild will be frozen out of tenure, promotion and grants. Society has indeed become the classical melting pot–except that the sludge that rises up isn’t skimmed off and discarded, it’s retained at the top, and rules the pot.

Politically speaking, the demagogue with the loudest voice wins. All it takes is sufficient Facebook or Twitter followers to spread his or her ideas far and wide. Facts, accuracy, and truth become either negotiable or irrelevant in such atmospheres. This is not new. Just review newsreels from the thirties of the glorious dictators haranguing adoring mobs. All one has to do to ensure loyalty, to harvest trust and belief in even the most outrageous of falsehoods is to repeat them often and loudly. Has the nation troubles? Craft and spread a lie excoriating a convenient scapegoat group as the perpetrator and you’re not only off the hook for any responsibility, you can silence your perceived enemies in the same swell foop (!). All that has changed in the last century is the ease of spreading (mis)information.

Dissenters can be accused of anything, blamed for everything, labelled with impunity. Don’t agree? You’re phobic, anathema, beyond contempt. Since your followers have already made up their minds, they’ll believe anything. Critical thinking has died. Alfred E. Newman might as well opine “What, me think?” After all, there are alternate “facts” for every political or social belief. We live in the Internet-fueled post-modern world, where truth originates with the the persuader and is implanted in the mind of the follower-beholder. People are easily manipulated into joining the beholden. Modern civilization has no compass, moral, ethical, political, religious, or otherwise. It has drowned in an ocean of opinions masquerading as alternate realities. Only perceptions of one’s narrative matter, nothing else.

The Internet empowers one to make up anything and find gullible people to believe it. Is the economy booming? Take credit, even though you know government has almost nothing to do with it. Want to win an election? Accuse the other party of having a secret agenda. (Never mind the logical fallacy that your knowing about it means there is no secret.) Is the stock market down? Blame it on your political foes, a racial or religious community, an activist organization, a secret cabal of manipulators, immigrants–anyone you want to put down. Are there drug problems? Is disease spreading? Pick a convenient target group and blame them. Your minions will always believe you. Tried and true, and easy-peasy on Twitter. Besides, the “other side” (which need not be more than vaguely defined) does it, so why not?

In this environment, ideas not only readily replace reality, they become memes, spreading virus-like through the population to no good end. The Spy tells his students that if all they do in his ethics course is parrot back the lectures and text they cannot expect much more than a C letter grade, but his is a voice crying in the wilderness. Alas, too many have become well-conditioned not to think for themselves (or at all), too used to allowing others to do what passes for thinking on their behalf. Count on a future of increasing division and disunity fueled by political, religious, and moral-ethical tribalism. This epidemic of mindlessness can have no good ending.

Which segues well to the COVID-19 pandemic

“not a pandemic,” you say. No, not officially. Not yet. It’s only a matter of time before it is recognized as such, now that the number of cases outside China are multiplying. At this writing Italy, Korea, and Iran are also major centres and the (dis)United States is quickly becoming one.

This is another case where the technologically-enabled  “global village” works against our best interests rather than for anyone’s benefit. Our collective memory does not reach back to the era of the Black Death that once killed a large percentage of Europe’s population. It should still reach to the 1930s and 1940s when polio was the killer disease. Once it got a foothold in a small tightly-knit community it could, and too often did, wipe the entire town off the map. What survivors there were from the dread disease moved away rather than face the empty streets. What person of the Spy’s generation does not remember lining up to get the Salk vaccine sugar cube in the 50s, and being in tears as we said to one another “perhaps we’re not all going to all die after all”?

What’s different this time is that everyone is closely connected to everyone else, mutually dependent (admit it or not), in literal touch with everyone else. COVID-19 is easily communicable, and few of us are separated by more than a handful of people from someone who has potential exposure. Black Death took a few years to march across Europe. This virus is in dozens of countries only three months after discovery, and has likely been quietly spreading longer and wider than currently assumed. It already spans the world, and an effective vaccine, should one of the current candidates prove out, is probably at least a year away. By that time only those living in near complete isolation cut off from all human contact will not have been exposed. Close national borders? Way too late. Conspiracy theory? One ought to understand that this is no time for nonsensical imaginings, but such notions are bound to abound. Bad ideas, like bad money, drive out good.

What we don’t know includes

– where it first came from (snakes, bats, others??)

– which animals are susceptible (dogs and??)

– how many people already carry the virus

– all the ways it is communicated

– how long it has been in the human population (e.g. was the flu sometimes misdiagnosed?)

– whether it can hide out in the body through an apparent cure and re-infect the carrier or others

– what the “real” fatality rate is (much higher than the flu, at least)

– who is most vulnerable

– what are all the strains and how fast is it mutating

– whether there is an effective prevention strategy

– whether there is an effective treatment

– whether after the cessation of symptoms a person is immune to re-infection or not

– why some (many?) cases are asymptomatic, others variously symptomatic, a significant percentage deadly

– how many similar viruses are circulating in the animal and/or human population

– whether or when a vaccine can be produced

– what else there is that we don’t know enough to ask?

Much has been said and written

about the effect of the virus on the economy. Markets are at this writing in correction territory, with travel industry and certain tech stocks dependant on Chinese manufacturing (e.g. Apple) particularly hard hit. The market was well enough due for a correction anyway, given the slowing pace of the economy and its overbought condition, so the coronavirus merely provided a trigger. But the full impact is not yet within sight. Check back in a month or two when the death toll has climbed and the virus is in every country. And, do not imagine a stimulus attempt via interest rate cuts would do much other than shift wealth around and artificially inflate the market with cheap money. Such cuts have only transient effects, and the rates are low already, so any effect will be moderate.

So, it will be a while before airlines really need those mothballed 737 Max planes again; a while before cruise ships are thought safe again; a while before Apple and others can restore their damaged supply chains; a while before governments realize they have already lost control in a physically connected world; a while before the economy bottoms; longer before it recovers.  Ignore daily swings and look at the trends. They are down. Ensure you have an exit strategy that goes beyond stop-loss sells and extends to your job or corporate succession, an up-to-date will, and a plan for eternity. More of us than usual won’t be around this world in a year. Some wouldn’t anyway, but the numbers are rapidly inflating, and this life-and-death reality cannot be sent packing by wishful thinking, denial, alternate facts, elections, or any number of conspiracy theories. 

Solving this and other mega-problems (climate, housing, poverty, the economy, war, pollution, energy, etc) will take global co-operative efforts on scales never before attempted, much less actualized. It’s time to straighten up and think better. Right?

Food for thought (sic!)

–The Northern Spy

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About the Author

Rick Sutcliffe

Opinions expressed here are entirely the author's own, and no endorsement is implied by any community or organization to which he may be attached. Rick Sutcliffe, (a. k. a. The Northern Spy) is professor of Computing Science and Mathematics at Canada's Trinity Western University. He has been involved as a member or consultant with the boards of several community and organizations, and participated in developing industry standards at the national and international level. He is a co-author of the Modula-2 programming language R10 dialect. He is a long time technology author and has written two textbooks and nine alternate history SF novels, one named best ePublished SF novel for 2003. His columns have appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers (paper and online), and he's a regular speaker at churches, schools, academic meetings, and conferences. He and his wife Joyce have lived in the Aldergrove/Bradner area of BC since 1972.