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More repercussions in a plague year… and some long term.


David Brin is a scientist, transparency/internet security expert, public speaker, consultant, social media influencer and best-selling author. You can find his books on his website, and his latest articles on his blog.


More repercussions in a plague year… and some long term.

Courtesy of David Brin, Contrary Brin Blog

First off, I want to discuss a couple of generalities. Let’s start with a fellow by name of Hyman Minsky, whose insights into the nature of stability in human systems have been getting a lot of attention. Basically, during times of great stability, many people – taking continuity for granted – pile up ever greater amounts of risk without hedging against a reversal… till reversal happens — a "Minsky Moment" when instability suddenly returns, at which point things shake out amid lots of pain. Perhaps everyone adjusts together, weaning themselves of bad habits and making things work better, with more wisdom. Alternately, things may go as Karl Marx, described, viewing such shakeouts as inevitably both culling the capitalist class and impoverishing workers, leading to revolution. 

Take the example of Japan, which had fine-tuned their economy according to the teachings of American quality and efficiency guru W. Edwards Demming. Taking Demming to an extreme, Toyota led at innovating ultra slim, just-in-time supply chains that squeeze every possible drop of margin from goods and services. Like an athlete who tunes her body to perfectly perform a particular movement, companies following Demming principles aimed for zero on-site storage or stockpiling – equivalent to the athlete’s nonexistent fat reserves. And just like such an athlete, stuck on a life-raft for a week without supplies, Japanese companies learned the “Minsky folly” of their mistake, when an exogenous shock – the Fukushima disaster – shattered supply chains and Japan virtually shut down.

As futurist Jamais Cascio  put it: "The villainization of over-capacity has been a hallmark of the current post-industrial capitalism environment. What we have seen over the past couple of months is the value of slack in a world that’s gone unstable." (Personal correspondence.) Certainly the short-sighted selling off of federal U.S. medical stockpiles, not long ago, is a rabid chicken now coming home to roost. One might wonder if this correlates with the rise of MBAs and decline of engineers in corporate boardrooms.

But back to Minsky’s core lesson. Periods of stability lead to unstable ones and vice versa. That is, if we learn lessons and avoid mistakes of the past. (We will find new mistakes to make.) 

My own take on all of this has been to rail for 20 years, all over DC and media, about our need for Resilient Systems that are robust enough to take shocks and ride them out. See this interview in ACM listing a dozen major ways that we have avoided simple preparations for the next Minsky Moment.

So what do I predict as outcomes from COVID-19?

Some of the following expands on ideas from an earlier posting, but taken logically farther. Other concepts are new. 

I foresee national and international changes falling into several categories.

Short term tactics:

- A friend reports how they’re doing in Hong Kong - "the city is is still pretty well rocking on per normal… we wear masks… time to amplify that message. Masks work! If everyone wears them. And if that works, it helps the doctors and nurses too." Though yes, we should have surged mask and test production months ago.

Impudent experiments:

- Cities and counties may both spur the economy and take advantage of deserted roads, by sending out many teams of two to four workers – trained in hygiene and safety – to fix potholes and repair empty schools. See this pothole option happening at one iconic London site.

- It will occur to someone – likely already Elon Musk – to staff a factory or office entirely with COVID-19 positives who are proved to be symptom free. Hospitals may be forced to do this, sooner than anyone. It is already locally possible, even with the outrageously hampered and uneven US testing system. But later, when testing is more reliable and routine, one might envision opening pairs of facilities for positives and negatives. Even restaurants and resorts.  

{Late note before posting: the same idea seems to have occurred elsewhere (duh?) "German researchers are suggesting that “immunity passports” could be given out to workers who have already caught the coronavirus — meaning they’re now immune — in a bid to get them back to work and help speed up the return to normal society." While there is some question about re-exposure to variant strains, what seems clear is that secondary infections of healthy 'survivors' are almost never lethal. We'll see if the idea 'catches.' Of course it will. Though it depends on testing.}

Technological changes: 

- There will be a Manhattan Project scale push to reduce the ramp-up time for testing kits and vaccines for all future disease threats. Abbott Labs now has a 5-13 minute test. They plan to scale up to 5 million/month, based on apparent need. What they need is 5 million/hour, for the US, and far more for the world. Likewise the 18 month predicted path for a vaccine must and will prove much shorter. 

{Late note: Jacob Glanville's lab aims to bypass a vaccine, which demands the body's own immune system gear up to produce stimulated antibodies, and instead mass produce antibodies industrially for injection into infected people, an approach similar to old-fashioned 'serums' based on the blood of immune persons. As in those lurid sci fi flicks OMEGA MAN and OUTBREAK.}

Local sourcing has long been predicted, ranging from new-techs in additive (3D) manufacturing (now getting a boost making emergency ventilator parts) to farm-to-table food supply chains. Urban farming will range from home gardens to new tall buildings utilizing the sunshine on their southern faces to both treat their own wastewater and grow organics. Seaborne supply chains will be seen as a negative, as managers seek nearer sources, less prone to disruption. Of course there will be climate benefits.

Business meetingware and work-from-home software – predicted for decades – languished due to managerial reluctance. These will now advance rapidly. But also expect a real estate boomlet in small scale satellite offices, where employees will spend at least part of each day being personally supervised, so their work-at-home hours can be kept effective. Education will go through similar changes. But what's to be done about those mass-tribal gatherings for sports, concerts and socializing?  Interesting times. 

- Expect a revival of the Obama-era push for nationwide broadband, as proved so useful in South Korea and Taiwan. 

Infrastructure. It goes far beyond potholes and school repairs. Democrats have demanded major programs to rebuild bridges etc while improving the quality (vs. quantity) of jobs and increasing money velocity. Republicans – while speaking the "I-Word" have blocked all such endeavors. All of this changes in a major recession, of course. Expect partisan gridlock to break in this one area. {And as we speak, suddenly Donald Trump is talking infrastructure, yet again.}

Transportation. The shift to Uber/Lyft style ride services will boom, short term. But also mid-scale van/jitney services in big cities… followed by a big push for self-driving taxis. But underground metros may not be finished. Today’s filthy subway trains could be supplanted by smaller, more efficient cars that shunt between lines and report in regularly for disinfecting.

Social effects: It will take more than COVID to end the personal handshake, but those European three-cheek air-kisses may be finished. Elbow greetings won’t last – but the fist-bump is likely the big winner, over time, as a compromise that's about 75% sanitary/safe and good enough for the new — post-COVID — normal. (My preference? I like the Roman style fore-arm clasp.)

More impudent measures:

- Elsewhere I spoke of several endeavors that make some logical sense to at least try, on a prototype-test basis, but that were politically too fraught. One of these would be to buy up a few of the countless moribund small towns in rural America, giving the few remaining residents a prosperous new start revitalizing another one. Then the evacuated hamlet might become experiments in – say – offering a voluntary place of space and fresh air refuge to some urban homeless. Or temporary homes for refugee families to work through their paperwork while gardening and farming outside of festering (and expensive) lockup cages. There are plenty of other potential sweet-spot uses, and more come to mind, in the era of pandemic.

Stepping back, remember who is hurting: As usual, those suffering most are the poor and working stiffs. Even if they keep a job and can manage the financial strain, families are stressed out in cramped quarters with many ensuing problems, from divorces and domestic violence to unexpected pregnancies. Others may take this as an opportunity to reconnect, with dads – especially – learning more about the difficult job of raising kids. While supporting actions to help, somehow we must also encourage such folks to do one thing to make a difference. Vote.

And yes, some foresee all this accelerating the exodus of the uber-rich, abandoning us to simmer in festering cities and suburbs. Connecticut, Wyoming and New Zealand have seen such influx. Certainly there is a “prepper” wing of oligarchy that’s bought up whole mountain ranges in Patagonia, Siberia and under the sea. I portrayed that mind set in The Postman and in Earth and in Existence. Of course the smarter half of the zillionaire caste wants no part of such insanity. Nor will such preparations avail the selfishness-fetishists an iota, even if the fit truly hits the shan. There are five reasons why this masturbatory survivalist fantasy is utter proof of mental defectiveness.

Finally Smart Sovereignty:

- Whether this Minsky Moment triggers revitalization and waves of new-creative solutions by an empowered citizenry… or one of Marx's purportedly "inevitable" stages of spiral into revolution… may depend on to what extent we revive civic goodwill and use new technologies to enhance logical, fact-centered, pragmatic civil discourse. Recall that earlier communication techs — e.g. the printing press, radio and loudspeakers — all led first to polemical horror shows that made things much worse… before folks sussed the new media and learned to parse truth from populist lies, making things much, much better.

That natural progression took decades, though. Time we simply do not have. 

The jury is still out

I left aside possible outcomes that seem more “science fictional”… 

…e.g. what-if there is more to this virus than meets the eye? We already know that corona viruses are not like the flu. Flu stays in business by mutating rapidly, every year, forcing new kinds of vaccines to be developed. (Again, see my predictive short story “The Giving Plague,” which dives into the many ways that viruses and parasites "negotiate" with their hosts.)

Coronas — like SARS and MERS and the common cold — have a different approach. Somehow they convince human immune systems to “forget” them, so they can re-infect at a later date. Generally with milder symptoms, and some think COVID19 will settle down to be more cold-like, with time. But either way, we may need to add coronavirus immunizations to every new flu shot, in coming years.

But you know I meant more than that, by “science fictional” repercussions. And so… I’ll leave those for another time.


Read also: Where might this all lead? Unexpected options and outcomes… and some solace.

David's recent book, POLEMICAL JUDO – Memes for our political knife-fight, discusses tactics we can use to save our country in this time of crisis. Read the first, second and final chapters of Polemical Judo on David's blog. You can also read excerpts from chapter 5, The War on All Fact People, here, and from chapter 10, We are Different, Different is Difficult, here.

Picture of Hyman Minsky by Pontificador – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link. Other pictures via Pixabay.

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