very model of a postmodern pandemic:
is the other virus changing all our lives
and Tim Fowler
believe there is sufficient evidence that digital technology, more so
than COVID-19, is the viral agent ultimately changing our lives. Digital
technology helped us survive
and is getting us out of pandemic. The pandemic provided the catalyst
for the current spread of digital technology, which even may be moving
us into the next wave of globalisation. The contagions are four major
technology-driven shifts in western society: smart
science, gig services and the platform economy, work-at-home employment,
and Zoom culture.
CITE AS FOLLOWS: Castellani, B and Fowler, T
2021. “The very model of a postmodern pandemic: Why technology is the other
virus changing all our lives.” Sociology and Complexity Science Blog, 6 August
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Over the last 18
months, COVID-19 has clearly dramatically changed our lives in the global north,
but what exactly has changed and what is the cause? Is it the virus or is it
A Day in the life… COVID-19 Style
“I read the news today, oh boy…”
rings, it’s Amazon. Again. It is the third delivery of the day. The first was Tesco
and the second was your COVID-19 lateral flow kit – you just got your second mNRA-based
vaccination, but to protect others you are tested twice a week. There’s a Teams
meeting in half an hour to review the latest COVID-19 simulations to assess the
resilience of your company. You grab a minute to check on your kids for the fifth
time, who are pretending to listen to their online school lecture, while engrossed
in WhatsApp. Or perhaps it’s TikTok, you lose track. Your partner, who works in
healthcare, texts you a gift certificate for Deliveroo. You’ll eat your
delivered treat while celebrating your birthday on ZOOM with extended family
and friends, most of whom you haven’t seen face-to-face in over a year.
If you don’t see
yourself in all aspects of this vignette, no worries. There are endless
variants on this basic form across western countries in the global north.
Amazon, the gig economy, working from home via Zoom or Teams or the latest
advances in scientific modelling and vaccinations we see sharpy defined the new
constant of global life – digital technology.
During the pandemic, digital technology has been go-to, suitable-enough,
instant fix. It did not shut down businesses, increase mortality rates or force
people to work at home, COVID-19 did. Digital technology kept the world
rotating, albeit often in diminished form. The pandemic has
often shown a new set of qualities inherent in pre-existing technologies. In
western countries it has worked well with conventional and new approaches to
government, public health, environment, economy, and social life in general. We
were pre-infected for these new functions through digital technology’s complex
contagion, the global social-cybernetic network.
So, which viral
agent will ultimately change us more? The biological or the digital?
profound changes to daily life, the pandemic does not appear to have transformed
civic or governmental responsibilities or provided the catalyst for addressing global
social problems. However, it has catalysed the ever-accelerating spread of
digital technology, moving us into a new phase of globalisation. This
historical shift in technology is not a good or bad thing, nor is it
deterministic. It simply is how the history of technology tends to work -- technology and humans co-evolve through a complex interrelationship that cuts across economy, politics, culture, social institutions and organisations and so forth.
What has not changed?
A great deal has
changed in the global north due to COVID-19, but if the pandemic were to be
eradicated tomorrow, life in western society would strongly resemble December
2019. This is particularly true of civic and governmental institutions.
profit and the global economy are still the number one concern. Indeed, there
has been a noticeable dichotomy in political discourse between the offsetting
concerns of public health versus economic survival and future growth. The idea
that “the cure cannot be worse than the disease” was voiced by President Trump
and numerous others.
inequalities still abound, particularly for the working poor, minorities, and
immigrants. The environment continues to face ruin. Public health efforts are
often underfunded, under debated and misused for political and ideological ends.
Social media permits
the sowing of division through the spread of misinformation, mistrust, cruelty,
Most people sought
to do the right thing during the initial lockdown, but Successive lockdowns saw
individualism, flippancy, and privilege overwhelming social commitments and our
care for others. Should it really have been so necessary to reinforce the idea
of care for others, from wearing masks and social distancing to doing a small
part to honour the sacrifices of healthcare providers and key workers and the
lives lost to COVID-19?
failed. Politicians rebuffed scientific facts, and health experts were regularly
treated with contempt or used as political props to add seriousness where it
was lacking. Governments also adopted a reactive approach, to the point where the
cycle was predictable. Scientists and public health experts raise alarm; the
public worries and asks for guidance; government consults and waits;
misinformation, conflict, anxiety and confusion emerge. Government finally
responds but later rather than sooner; the working classes, minorities and
poor, due to various practicalities, particularly in urban environments, were
left to bend the rules to survive; the affluent would take care of themselves; morbidity
and mortality rates would rise; and the cycle repeats.
Perhaps this was
inevitable in western democracies, with their premium on economy, individualism,
and political differences and debate. The exponential growth of viruses like
COVID-19 require near total commitment for their control and eradication.
Western societies did not respond in such a manner. Hence the need for digital
technology in the form of vaccinations, big data, public health modelling,
communication platforms, and biomedical advance. Point to a western country
COVID-19, the very model of a postmodern pandemic
As Frank Snowden states
in Epidemics and Society:
are not random events that afflict societies
capriciously and without warning. On the contrary, every society produces
its own specific vulnerabilities. To study them is to understand that society’s structure, its standard of living, and its political
priorities. Epidemic diseases,
in that sense, have always
been signifiers, and the challenge
of medical history is to decipher
the meanings embedded
in them. (2020, p.7)
a massive stress test on our society and shows us a postmodern, globalised
world where western countries are highly dependent upon universal digital
technologies to solve public health problems, including pandemic. These
technologies – be it biomedical, smart machines, computational science, communication
platforms, or global cyber-infrastructure – are really the virus changing all our
lives, not COVID-19. This change, which may be moving us into a new phase of
globalisation, is happening along four major forms of digital transformation, each involving a complex interplay between humans and a particular arena of digital technology, which the pandemic has catalysed into new emergent forms of self-organising social arrangement:
The first is
smart science -- a term that, to the best of our knowledge, we are first using. The rise of big data and concurrent advances in computational
modelling – the use of high-speed computation and algorithms to search for
nonobvious patterns in data and simulate various aspects of life – have changed
our world irreversibly. Smart science is the usage of smart technology, big data, and computational modelling methods.
What has been
accomplished in a span of only eighteen months is unparalleled historically,
including the rollout of mass vaccinations, the exposure of public rhetoric and
post-truth propaganda, the sharing of health data, the simulation of various
public health scenarios, and the ability to impact the policy decisions of
governments the world over.
A superb example of
smart science is mRNA vaccines. Developed through the ground-breaking work of Katalin Karikó and her global network of colleagues, these vaccines have high potency,
capacity for rapid development and potential for low-cost manufacture and safe
administration. Another is public health simulation. The
number and variety of scientific simulations of COVID-19 during pandemic not
only provided governments and public health officials key insights into how the
virus was spreading, but they also forced many governments to respond faster
than they otherwise might have, including moving into lockdown, enacting social
distancing measures, and figuring out useful vaccination approaches and exit solutions.
(For more on simulations, see my six-part series -- 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 -- on this blog. See also our recent JASSS article on one of the COVID-19 models we developed.)
the high likelihood of us facing another pandemic soon, as well as the environmental
and other global health challenges we face, smart science will continue to radically improve the health of our
Gig services and the platform economy
second is gig services and platform economy. The platform economy uses
digital platforms to link businesses and provide goods and services the
world-over. Amazon.com has already
posted an $8.1
billion profit during the pandemic. Gig services involve independent contractors, online platform workers,
and temporary workers who provide on-demand services such as Deliveroo and
Uber. Both approaches come
with serious consequences – but can we imagine life now without them?
of the major social problems of globalisation in the late 20th
century was the outsourcing of work (particularly to countries in the global
south) and the exploitation of workers that often comes with it. Gig workers and
the platform economy represent another form of this social problem. Gig services is another form of global outsourcing, and the platform economy is really just a more efficient workbench by which to do it, making neither particularly new in principle, and only really new in form (See Freidman 2014).
advantages of gig services and the platform economy for workers are high levels
of flexibility, autonomy, task variety and complexity and the ability to work
from home or while mobile. The disadvantages range from health and safety
issues to employer-provided benefits and workplace protections to low pay and
social isolation. For companies, the primary advantage is the reduction in
overhead and regulations, from office space and inventory management to worker
retention and healthcare costs, as well as the ability to compete globally and survive
without an established workforce, office front, or face-to-face interaction.
the pandemic, given the dangers of proximity, the immediate enticement of gig
services and the platform economy for workers and companies and we, the
consumers, was too powerful. When COVID-19 hit, stores and restaurants were closed, travel was
illegal. Home schooling became the norm. You put your life at risk going to or
working in the office, grocery store or gas station. Those with health
vulnerabilities were told to shield themselves, some for months on end, and
COVID-19 swept through hospitals and care homes like wildfire. Supplies were
suddenly in high demand, a rush on things took place. Toilet paper became an
odd obsession. In all, the complex infrastructure of western life basically
came to a screeching halt.
Nature abhors a vacuum,
and the global economy could not be allowed to crash. Work life and the
provision of goods and services needed to somehow continue. Same with medical
care, social services, and education. Thanks to digital technology it all
survived. Sort of. During the pandemic, small businesses took a major hit.
Online education was variable. Store fronts and newly constructed buildings and
downtowns sat empty, and it is unclear if or how they will ever reopen.
Meanwhile Amazon and other major online corporations became global monsters,
often putting the health and safety of employees at risk and undermining local
While it is
unclear how exactly this shift will play out over the next several years, what
is clear is that we are not going back to the way things were. The
opportunities that gig services and the platform economy provide us during the
pandemic are too powerful to go back in the box.
The third is work-at-home
employment (technically called telecommuting). While statistics vary across western countries, the number of
people working at home in the first year of the pandemic more than doubled from
most 2019 figures (1). In the UK, roughly 46% of workers did some or all their job at
home during the first wave, with higher percentages in urban environments and
amongst professional occupations (2 3). As the pandemic unfolded and we moved in and out of lockdown,
the numbers varied and, as of summer 2021, they have yet to settle.
One of the ideas
most clearly discredited during the pandemic was that home working was not
practical for most businesses and negatively impacted productivity and
efficiency. Most employers were forced to acknowledge that, in terms of productivity, teamwork,
and communication not only did the
work generally get done; it also reduced the costs of a full-time workplace. Workers could be hired
anywhere in the world: eliminating commute time allowed companies to improve
their environmental impact, and organisations could more easily collaborate
globally through the usage of communications technologies.
workers, it could mean long hours, more meetings, a sense of increased
surveillance, increased mental health issues, stress, and a general blurring of
the boundaries between personal and private life, all of which made work-at-home
employment a challenge for a significant percentage of people (4).
Employers likewise struggled to inculcate new employees into office culture,
manage burnout and employee distractions, and cultivate community (5)
While many people will want to return to office life, the percentage of
employees who will continue to work at home will most likely stay far above 2019
figures. Work-at-home employment
presents too many options, a shift has taken place (6).
Online life saved
us, didn’t it? Isolation is used as a form of torture. COVID-19 was social
anguish for many of us, particularly those left isolated, heartbroken, and
alone from friends and family. The elderly isolated in care homes, the
vulnerable shielding. Key workers and healthcare providers staying in hotels to
protect the ones they love. It was – let’s not understate this – terrible.
Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp, they became our lifeline. There were others,
however, that found online life a different form of saving grace – the socially
anxious, those who struggle with face-to-face interactions, the introverts.
However, social media has its major limitation. Teaching
or speaking to a screen with everyone’s cameras off, for example, and no sound other than
one’s voice heard is like being on Mars and communicating with folks back on
earth, each text a challenge to decipher its emotional and social content.
There is no substitute for human contact and being physically present to other
We will return to
life in each other’s physical presence and travel will resume. But the
ecological footprint and economic costs that online life helped to reduce, as
well as the strong online bonds people were able to form through digital
technology the worldover, will be a strong incentive to rethink how we come back into each
other’s’ lives. Hopefully for the better.
what can we conclude from this brief essay? The global problems and
inequalities and inequities revealed by the COVID-19 pandemic are not new,
neither are most of the solutions. Life post-covid is also shaping up to be
rather like life before it, with most folks wanting to relegate the pandemic to
the past and get on with things.
would like to suggest that COVID has acted as a magnifier of existing trends
and technological possibilities. The most novel thing about the pandemic is the
COVID virus itself – the technologies deployed to combat it all pre-dated it.
Indeed, it’s tempting to extend this to individuals and societal groups: have
the kind become kinder, the angry more enraged, the dysfunctions more exposed?
believe there is sufficient evidence, then, that digital technology, more so
than COVID-19, is the viral agent that humans are using to change their lives. Digital
technology helped us survive and is getting us out of pandemic. The pandemic
provided the catalyst for the current spread of digital technology, which we may be engaging with sufficient to move us into the next wave of globalisation. The contagions are four major
technology-driven shifts in western society: smart science, gig services and
the platform economy, work-at-home employment, and Zoom culture. As with any
venture in social forecasting, it is impossible to envisage the extent of
change these contagions will bring about. Global warming, environmental
pressures, the instability of global capitalism, the exponential growth of
metropolitan areas, a potential reactionary movement against digital life, and
the possibility of another all-too-soon pandemic all constitute unpredictable
factors in the equation.
nonetheless has taken place and, at least along these avenues, we are not
presently going back to the way things were.