Social distancing might invite unanticipated results.
Back in 2018 I posted a Medium article explaining how the media exploits our emotional reactions to tragedy in order to attract viewers and advance social and political agendas.
Here’s a bit of that article:
When our brain becomes emotional, it is no longer logical. Our brains cannot simultaneously hold strong emotions and logical cognitive function at the same time. In one of my previous articles on math anxiety, I go into detail about this. During times of emotional stress, the need to scan the environment for dangers overwhelms our working memory.
This is why people and organizations with agendas come out of the woodwork during items of crisis. The best chance of success in gaining approval or support for a plan is when people are not thinking clearly in the aftermath of a tragedy.
Rahm Emmanuel gets credit for the phrase: “Never let a good crisis go to waste.”
This is why the aftermath of tragic shootings is always followed by calls for gun control from the gun control advocates, calls for more funding for mental health from mental health advocates, calls for armed teachers from the pro-gun groups, and calls for armed guards from police and security organizations. (You can read the rest here.)
They are using the same techniques with the Coronavirus.
Every year we go through “flu season”. It’s routine. We are urged to get a flu shot, wash our hands and stay home when we are sick. That’s good advice. The flu is uncomfortable to say the least, and sometimes people die from it.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, (CDC), seasonal flu kills 12,000 to 61,000 people annually in the US.
But those numbers rarely make the news because…it’s not news. Those deaths are so predictable, so closely related to everything else we anticipate about flu season, the media pays little attention to it.
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It’s not emotionally intrusive enough to bring eyeballs to web pages and therefore is ignored. Coronavirus is different. It spreads more easily and has a higher fatality rate.
And the news media is capitalizing on that aspect.
Headlines and videos breathlessly scream out every positive test for the disease and every tragic death. Those stories are followed by pronouncements from politicians and health officials warning of ever more concerning possibilities.
Here are a few recent headlines. It took no time at all to find them.
The media is hyper focusing on this crisis in the same way it hyper focuses on mass shootings. That is to say, wall to wall coverage to the exclusion of everything else. It’s stressful and disturbing. And we can’t get away from it.
But there a couple of things making Coronavirus different.
First, the alarm is not about events that are happening, it’s about what might happen.
For example, how widely and quickly the disease may spread. Worst case estimates of infection rates and fatalities. Are there enough hospital beds? Ventilators? Test kits? What if police and doctors get sick?
Second, the really concerning thing…
Unlike other crises the media hyper focuses on, this one will be around for a while. Mass shootings fade away in a week or so. The same as natural disasters, deaths of world leaders and terrorist attacks.
Coronavirus is not going away any time soon and the media will exploit it for weeks. Maybe months.
One of the best ways to combat epidemics is through social distancing — — simply avoiding or discouraging large groups of people assembling in small areas. Already colleges and high schools are cancelling courses or closing all together. Businesses are requiring employees to stay home and telecommute. Huge chains like Nike are closing completely.
Sooner or later Coronavirus will fade from the headlines.
After the crisis is over, will we go back to doing the same things we did before? Or will we expand our use of technologies allowing us to work and play together without actually being together?
Although business has been embracing internet technologies for decades, the move to remote jobs and business meetings has been very slow. Online education has been a disappointment. According to National Center for Education Statistics, only about 15% of college students are enrolled in full time online college programs. A 2016 academic paper claims that only about a third of businesses offer full time telecommuting positions, but the total number of remote jobs is unclear.
We might be on the verge of an economic transformation.
Maybe Coronavirus will deliver the push we need to create a low-cost high-speed internet infrastructure. Virtual reality combined with artificial intelligence and high-speed internet is already making it possible for people separated by geography to meet anywhere they like.
Humans represented by avatars identical in appearance to them can meet anywhere. Maybe an outdoor cafe in Venice, or a ski lodge in Colorado. This isn’t futuristic fantasy. It’s already happening in computer labs.
Don’t believe it?
Listen to Peter Ruben of Wired Magazine in this Big Picture Science podcast or read his 2018 book, Future Presence. This future is not only possible, but may have been waiting for a time when it would be accepted by large numbers of people.
The reduction in transportation costs and the increase in productivity by using this technology would be phenomenal. It would ignite a new economy creating wealth and jobs like never before.
Infrastructure no longer means roads, rails and bridges.
Our concept of infrastructure needs to include national or global wi-fi with enough bandwidth to carry immersive virtual reality. In order to make this happen, a true 21st century infrastructure would need to develop.
A virtual reality-based economy might be closer than we think.
Give some thought to how quickly automobiles, gasoline and asphalt replaced horses. The lessons of how the transportation industry of the 20th century so quickly replaced the horse and wagon of the 19th century is important to keep in mind.
One of the reasons automobiles were considered a short-term fad in 1900 was that they had a difficult time negotiating the dirt roads of a horse drawn transport system. Roads were so bad that cars could not go far or fast. But by 1916, there were more than half a million miles of miles of asphalt roads.
Why so much road building all of a sudden? Because once people realized how much cheaper and efficient cars were compared to horses, everybody wanted a car. Only about 1,000 cars were built — by hand — in 1899, but auto production passed the one million mark less than twenty years later in 1917.
But that’s not the most impressive thing about the rise of the automobile economy. Give some thought to what was needed to accommodate that sort of growth…
Oil refineries, concrete and asphalt production, of course. But also, rail lines and locomotives connecting manufacturers and suppliers. Don’t forget the industries turning rocks, sand and gravel into concrete and asphalt. All these technologies were brand new at that time, representing the cutting edge of chemistry, physics, metallurgy, and organizational theory.
This brings up an important point to remember when presidential elections roll around bringing constant job creation schemes:
Maintaining and repairing infrastructure requires far less labor than building it in the first place, creating vast numbers of jobs, opportunities for investment and a huge demand for creation of small businesses.
Interestingly, our modern education system emerged at the same time as the automotive industry. High school and college classrooms and the way we teach are very similar to the 1930’s.
Let’s think about how the education industry might make the leap from the 20th to the 21st century.
The latest iteration of online education is Massive Open Online Classrooms or MOOCs.
The force behind MOOCs is Sebastian Thrun. He was a vice president at Google, celebrated artificial intelligence researcher, and designer of autonomous vehicles. In 2011, Thrun got the idea of putting his Stanford University graduate level Artificial Intelligence class online. He would simultaneously deliver the class to traditional graduate students and an online audience.
Only one major problem. Nobody was interested.
Lectures are the most boring of teaching methods, and teachers are always looking for better ways to keep students engaged. A screen filled with someone droning on at a lectern is not very engaging. Online students rarely finished a course, instead popping in for a few minutes, then popping out again.
This is the core of the problem with online education. It is a one-way interaction.
The most engaging online activity is class discussions, but they are little more than a 1990’s style electronic bulletin board. Students post their thoughts on a topic assigned by the instructor and respond to the thoughts posted by other students.
It’s a great way to learn how to express complex thoughts through writing, but it’s not a good way to teach, say, statistics or engineering.
In online settings students have the ability to communicate with teachers via email or chat of course. But there is no opportunity to speak up in an online classroom and say “What are you talking about? I’m completely lost.”
Now imagine online education in the immersive environment that Peter Rubin describes.
As students survey the virtual reality classroom, they would see avatars looking like the students they represent. The setting might be much like a traditional classroom, or it could be something more exotic. Educators will quickly begin searching for virtual reality environments most conducive to learning.
Questions could be asked in real time, and students could voice insights, comments and questions at any time, just like traditional classrooms.
Students could be physically located anywhere in the world. The same is true of teachers. The most highly rated teachers on the globe could collaborate in real time in the virtual classroom with the students.
And think about this…
They could take students into the real-world environment in which they work. Want to be a surgeon? Step this way and observe this heart transplant. Performed remotely, of course, by the leading world specialist in Calcutta on a patient in Bonn.
So, pick a huge problem the world is facing and think about how this technology could be applied to solve it.
How about energy? We never have enough. When we get a little more, we find ways to demand more than that. Big screen TVs, smartphones, ever larger SUVs and LED displays that are constantly on, but do nothing more than an old-fashioned billboard.
I’ll bet there are probably a dozen or so people living in the world right now who could solve our energy problems. We don’t know who they are and they don’t know each other. But if we could magically identify and assemble them, they could pool their knowledge and design and build say, a space based solar collector that could safely beam vast amounts of energy to earth.
Or capture the energy of an earthquake or volcano.
Virtual reality, artificial intelligence and high-speed internet makes those sorts of advances possible. We have the technology to build a 21st century economy and need only the will to put it into place.
Maybe the medias’ preoccupation with physical separation such as self-isolation, quarantine and the suspension of school and business gatherings will fuel creation a true 21st century economy. One that will be a platform for our children and grandchildren to prepare for the 22nd century.
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