[By Charlie Warzel]
Constant connectivity defines 21st-century life, and the infrastructure undergirding it all is both digital (the internet and our social media platforms) and physical (the gig economy, e-commerce, global workplaces). Despite a tumultuous first two decades of the century, much of our connected way of life has evaded the stress of a singular global event. The possibility of a global pandemic currently posed by the new coronavirus threatens to change that altogether. Should the virus reach extreme levels of infection globally, it would very likely be the first true test of the 21st-century way of life, laying bare the hidden fragility of a system that has long felt seamless.
The most obvious example is our global and connected economy, which has already weathered a deep recession. There could be shortages in crucial imports.
On Thursday, the Food and Drug Administration reported one of its first shortages of a drug for human use (they did not specify which) as a result of supply chain disruptions. The agency is monitoring 63 manufacturers in China supplying medical devices “that may be prone to potential shortage if there is a supply disruption.”
Worries about the future of the global economy have had interest rates headed toward to record lows while oil prices have dropped. This past week the United States saw its worst weekly decline for stocks since the 2008 financial crisis. Major indexes around the world fell between 4 percent and 12 percent.
“It’s common when thinking about networks to talk about the trade-off between efficiency versus resilience,” Jon Stokes, a founder of Ars Technica and a deputy editor at The Prepared, an emergency preparedness site, told me recently. “Computers enable us to dial in the efficiency and complexity to insane degrees but we lose resilience in the system.”
“We design systems presuming a steady state of normalcy,” Mr. Stokes argued. “But now, we’re about to hit this big ball of stress imminently. It will flex the system in weird ways that will cause parts to snap. And it’s impossible to predict what will snap.”
A global pandemic also threatens to test other systems in ways that are harder to quantify. Chief among them: our complex information ecosystem. In the event of widespread illness, we’ll need to rely on accurate, vetted information to keep us safe. While the internet has made distribution easier than ever before, the democratization of information has created platforms and advertising economies built to reward misinformation.
When it comes to the coronavirus, the spread of misinformation hoaxes and rumors about the outbreak in China have plagued YouTube and Facebook while adapting to new platforms. As BuzzFeed News’s Ryan Broderick recently explained, “unverified videos from Chinese social media are shared by local Twitter influencers, viral WhatsApp forwards warn users of government advisories that don’t actually exist, and people share bogus cures for the virus.” Literal virality and online virality begin to mimic and influence each other.
Over the past few years, it has become clear that our social media ecosystem is easily hijacked to incentivize behavior from the worst actors, further amplifying existing tensions and disagreements. The result? A volatile political climate, where news is weaponized for political gain — a state further exacerbated by black-box algorithms protected as corporate secrets that dictate the information we see. Their unknowable nature breeds conspiratorial ideas about the flow and control of information. Trust in what we see online decreases, and news fatigue grows more widespread, especially among the least engaged political-news consumers. Those who are checked out become even more susceptible to cynicism and deception.
A global pandemic and its attendant fear and uncertainty will only add more strain into an already flawed and complex system. Politically, we can already see the contours of the information war around the coronavirus. For Democrats, the response to the virus is a demonstration of the failure of America’s health care and private insurance systems — and a way to highlight the incompetence of the Trump administration. At the same time, the Trump administration and the pro-Trump media ecosystem are invoking factual reporting about the seriousness of the virus and concern about government ineptitude to claim political bias and downplay the risks to Americans. A legitimate public health crisis becomes yet another choose-your-own-reality event, a wedge to amplify divisions.
Information pollution bleeds into our online commerce systems as well. Conspiracy grifters like the website Infowars are already stoking fears of government-caused food shortages, using fear to drive product sales. Huge online retailers like Amazon have faced a deluge of get-rich-quick products offering misleading claims about protecting from the coronavirus — the company has already banned over one million products in recent weeks. It also warned sellers not to gouge users on mask prices.
Despite Amazon’s attempts at moderation, the site — its size made possible by its global reach — is difficult to protect from scammers and faulty products. And like other platforms, its algorithms and user-generated content — and in Amazon’s case, reviews — can be easily manipulated and falsified, leading to confusion, anxiety and unsafe purchases.
Amazon, which is the biggest retailer on the planet, operating in over 180 countries, also represents the connection between the digital and the physical. With its Prime same-day and second-day delivery, it has reshaped shopping behaviors, supported by millions of workers managing the logistics of delivery, package sorting and fulfillment warehouses.
The company’s labor practices have already come under fire, for long, demanding shifts, dangerous expectations for delivery drivers and wage issues. Such concerns would certainly be exacerbated by a global pandemic. Increased desire to prepare to shelter from the virus will no doubt drive up grocery and essentials orders. Should U.S. coronavirus cases spike, demand would probably increase drastically, forcing low-wage employees — even those who may feel sick — to report to work, subjecting them and others to contagions. But the reverse scenario also creates problems: Imagine an impending pandemic scenario where quarantines or shelter in place orders require warehouse and delivery employees to stay home, causing panic when Amazon can no longer guarantee or fulfill orders.
Similarly, the gig economy, a fragile ecosystem that relies on contract labor on behalf of multibillion-dollar tech companies to provide physical-world services, has rewired our cities and suburban areas. It’s also a precarious system of labor that is especially vulnerable to the strains of a pandemic. As Alexis Madrigal writes in The Atlantic, we have no way to predict how the gig economy’s services like Uber, Lyft, Instacart, Airbnb or even the dog-walking service Wag will respond to a coronavirus outbreak. What we do know though, is that the algorithmic incentives of the service and the lack of worker protections are likely to produce extreme outcomes. As Madrigal notes, “if those drivers decide to quarantine themselves at home as demand goes up, the price of a ride could shoot very high. Conversely, if drivers flood into metro centers from outlying regions, they could become vectors spreading Covid-19 within cities and bringing it to outlying areas.”
Each example — and there are legions more, including our current campaign and election system, which is predicated on large public gatherings — is but one node in an enormous and extremely fragile network. It’s a network that has been building for centuries but that in the past two decades has grown through seamless connection to modern technology. Our way of life has shifted — from individuals to markets, from localized to globalized. So far, this interconnectivity has largely been a strength, creating a network so big that each of its smaller nodes can be imperfect or fail while the others persist. But much like a virus exploits a small vulnerability, creating a chain of reactions that allow it to weaken its host, a true global pandemic could work its way through the interconnected ecosystems that support our present way of life.
We’ve never experienced such a stress test. We may not have to. But if we do, there’s no guarantee we’ll pass.