#118: Pajama Party in a Haunted Hive

I spent last week relatively offline in Mexico, which became an interesting experiment in how the internet shapes perception: During the vacation, alarm about coronavirus in the United States escalated, but I didn’t really know because nothing in my offline environment reflected that sentiment. Since returning to the US and resuming my normal internet intake, it feels like my panic instinct missed a formative period in its development. As of now, I’m still less concerned about coronavirus than others seem to be, and while I feel a vague need, if not a civic duty, to step my worry up, I’m mainly just thankful to care less about something than I’m supposed to, for once. Regardless of how I feel, though, the coronavirus discourse is providing an interesting lesson in how these two different layers of reality can handle certain information so differently, and either amplify or suppress it: Usually the internet seems to overamplify things, but right now it seems to be properly amplifying something (although there’s nothing to check that against).

Even now in New York, there’s a surprising lack of detectable concern out on the streets (except at airports, the most internet-like public spaces we have). This is in noticeable contrast to my experience of Hurricane Sandy, an acutely tangible weather event, or even the day after the 2016 election, when a cloud of misery seemed to envelop the city and the only people on my train to work were visibly downtrodden. All of this raises the question: How would we find out about coronavirus if not for Twitter panic? Like climate change, a disease epidemic is a hyperobject—“a thing that surrounds us, envelops and entangles us, but that is literally too big to see in its entirety,” as James Bridle writes. Because we can’t see hyperobjects, we largely perceive them through their effects on other things, and though they’re often global in scope, we can only experience them locally. Understood this way, we’re all synapses in a global nervous system, individual sensors detecting localized phenomena without any perspective and feeding them up to the superhuman brain—the internet—that grasps and interprets something like coronavirus in a way we can’t as individuals. Our own nervous systems have a variety of responses to stimuli and perceived threats, many of which are useful overreactions; this may be the hive mind’s version of that.

So I don’t feel guilty about my insufficient emotional response to something that hasn’t yet touched me locally—because I’m just one synapse in the big brain. That doesn’t absolve me of responsibility for taking precautions, but it does transform those practices into rote behaviors with less baggage attached. I’m experiencing a rare moment of appreciation that we, as a civilization, actually have a decently-refined mechanism for grappling with unevenly-distributed global events—what John Robb just called “a complex social decision-making process where a huge amount of information is being processed in a very short period of time.” Meanwhile, despite the surveillance infrastructure that has increasingly encroached upon our lives in recent decades, we nonetheless lack accurate data in a situation where there’s an urgent need for it, suggesting that such intrusions are in fact much better at coercing us than helping us. In the absence of anything better, and maybe just for now, we can humbly accept our roles as mere nerve endings for a civilization-wide information system without worrying about a lack of perspective that we can’t actually attain.