The Unreckoned

In the span of a few weeks the Dutch government has told people to stop doing self tests for COVID and reiterated that there’s no need for any more boosters. The era of mass hypochondria and hysteria has come to a close. COVID is done.

Good riddance.

But we need a reckoning that will likely never come. COVID as a social phenomenon was largely a product of the American media, fueled by Silicon Valley tech companies, and used by large corporations for record profits while obliterating their smaller competitors.

What could have been

Decades of painstaking research, trial and error, and planning went into developing the protocols for a pandemic caused by flu-like viruses. These protocols fleshed out why it was critical to keep schools open, how wearing masks doesn’t stop airborne viruses, and how to use limited quarantining to protect vulnerable people such as the elderly.

Sweden is the only Western country that followed these existing protocols with the results speaking for themselves. Sweden had Europe’s lowest mortality rate in 2021 and one of the lowest for the entire duration of the pandemic. Because of high trust in public health authorities, which didn’t become involved in partisan politics, Sweden quickly achieved a high vaccination rate, thereby further protecting vulnerable members of society from COVID.

But so much more could have been done. Besides age, obesity and related diseases are the main co-morbidities leading to severe disease and death from COVID. This would have been the perfect opportunity to stop subsidizing the processed junk food that’s making so many people obese. Instead, it could have been treated like tobacco: hard to get and heavily taxed. Imagine if the money from that were used to provide a healthy breakfast and lunch at every school.

One of the main problems causing the entire crisis was lack of hospital capacity. I have yet to hear any politicians talk about plans to increase funding for national health systems or how to encourage more young people to go into healthcare professions.

There will be more novel viruses. A healthy and resilient population along with a robust healthcare system is the best defense. It seems nobody has learned this lesson.

Remembering the Maine

Sensationalist media played a key role in getting the United States to enter the Spanish-American War of 1898. Wars and rumors of war are profitable things for media companies, and we should exercise the utmost caution when the media are playing into hype cycles that demand you consume even more media. In the case of the Spanish-American War, it’s not that the the USS Maine didn’t sink, nor that there weren’t real reasons for diplomatic tension. But the hastily conclusions of sensationalist, profit-driven journalism rushed to misattribute blame for the sinking of the Maine, and whipped the US populace into such a frenzy that anything less than war was impossible.

For some reason, we seem to forget that we’re just as susceptible to the forces of limbic capitalism as the war hungry American public of the late 19th Century.

The Silicon Valley worldview

We also tend to forget how much the media, especially big tech companies, shape the information we have access to and how much of the narrative overlay comes from the ideology of Silicon Valley. According to which, all old ideas, such as existing pandemic protocols, need to be “disrupted”, and some wunderkind with an algorithm — without any domain knowledge — will save the day.

And that’s why people like Bill Gates can only view COVID as if it were a software problem with a technological solution. In fact, in this worldview, there’s nothing without a tech solution and some nudging from the Science™.

To quote from the book Stolen Focus:

And how did we cope [with the pandemic]? We turned more heavily than ever before to our Silicon Valley-controlled screens, which were waiting for us, offering connection, or a least a hologram of it. As we used them more, our attention seemed to get worse. In the US, in April 2020, the average citizen spent thirteen hours a day looking at a screen. The number of children looking at screens for more than six hours a day increased sixfold, and traffic to kids apps trebled.

In this respect, Covid gave us a glimpse of the future we were already skidding towards. My friend Naomi Klein, a political writer who has made many strikingly accurate predictions about the future for twenty years, explained to me: ‘We were on a gradual slide into a world in which every one of our relationships was mediated by platforms and screens, and because of Covid, that gradual process went into hyper-speed.’

Unsurprisingly, the profits of the tech and media companies went up when people were forced to stay home and stare at screens all day. Companies like Netflix have literally only been profitable when the majority of Western World was under house arrest. And thus many of the tech-bros see of this as an unmitigated success validating their original ideology.

Insidiously, questioning this point on one of the major tech platforms was a quick way to get banned as many doctors and scientists quickly learned. Dissent from the Science™, meaning that essentially everyone needed to stay home, eat processed food, and interact with screens all day, was a surefire way to face social exile. The levers of power were diverse, ranging from outright social media bans to calling anyone who questioned the absurdity of the official narrative a conspiracy theorist.

To summarize:

  1. Media companies and social media companies, whose profits soar during fear-driven events, hype up and exaggerate the risk of a new flu-like virus.
  2. These same companies decide to ban anyone who questions this narrative, including doctors who promoted the standard protocols for a flu-like pandemic.
  3. The only solution offered to the problem is a complete surrender of nearly every waking moment to big-tech.
  4. Large corporations and investors made huge amounts of money during the pandemic while using regulations to destroy smaller competitors.
  5. Zero health promoting public policies were actually undertaken during the pandemic.
  6. The media made sure the debate centered around masks, hand-sanitizer, and other equally useless totems.

To be clear, I’m not claiming that the likes of Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerburg sat in a room and cooked up this whole thing. What likely happened is that the tech and media types got high on their own supply: overexposure to news and social media led to a vast overreaction to COVID and further entrenched them in their Silicon Valley worldview of needing a high-tech solution, more screens, and more big tech.

The anemic European media environment

Nearly every Western nation experience COVID through the eyes of America. This either took the form of clickbait hysteria that the American tech ecosystem has made more profitable than serious journalism or it happened on platforms entirely under the control of Silicon Valley. As a side note, look at the role Facebook has played in places such as Burma and Brazil; it’s an even more sordid tale than in the West.

This is nothing less than an existential threat to Europe. Following McLuhan’s logic, American-style, engagement-driven media will always devolve to the basest impulses of limbic capitalism.

Americans, at least for now, are wholly incapable of emerging from this quagmire because of partisan myopia and the influence of social media itself. The answer to Donald Trump isn’t AOC; the answer is to realize that both of them are products of the same media environment. And thus nearly every American I’ve talked to is only looking at how to manipulate social media to win the next election cycle for their preferred candidate rather than thinking of systemic reform.

It’s up to Europe to regulate big tech and build an alternative to the attention economy that promotes thoughtful reflection instead of 140 character hot takes. This is far less radical than it sounds. Start taxing online advertising like it’s alcohol or tobacco, ban personalized ads, and put regulations in place for algorithmic feeds.

Given how much American blood has been spilled to save Europe from itself in the 20th Century, it’s nigh time that debt is repaid.