Coming Together to Socially Distance

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Over the years CollabSystem has gained a reputation as a cutting-edge parody website. Our blog articles often taken a seemingly reasonable concept to the extreme, most often with hilarious consequences.

For those of you expecting more of the same, this is not one of those articles.

In the past few months we’ve witnessed a seismic shift in the way we function as a society, the impact of which is yet to be truly understood. COVID-19 has shaken us to the core, and we’re yet to figure this challenge out. These times deserves a different type of blog post. So here goes a CollabSystem attempt at … ‘serious’.

Social Distancing

We’re told that social distancing is the key to collectively overcoming this disease. The obvious problem is that for the last few hundred years, humans have unknowingly come to rely on earch other for survival. The antidote to the disease, staying apart, threatens the elaborate social and economic structures that we’ve put a lot of effort into constructing and now come to take for granted.

There has been much discussion about whether social distancing is effective, or whether we should instead wait for science to conjure up a vaccine. That becomes a moot discussion if your government adopts social distancing as policy.  You may well have no choice.

Technology to the Rescue

This is the make-or-break moment for technology. Are we going to do something useful with this stuff, or is it just going to exacerbate the problem?

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In a typical CollabSystem post we would examine all the ways in whch disinformation could accelerate the impact of the virus, spreading panic or complacency.  Make no mistake, social distancing is going to test the limits of our collective mental health resilience in one way or another. Technology could very easily amplify those impacts. Or technology could whip up hysteria when people use their social media accounts to share timelapse videos of panic buying and handbooks on doomsday prepping.

Or …

We could use technology for good. We could use technology to share information about current infections. We could use technology to pinpoint likely outbreaks and prevent the spread of the disease. We could use technology to track and share scarce resources. We could use technology to overcome the side effects of social isolation. We could use technology to calculate the most cost-effective way to combat this threat (hint: wash your hands).

In short, this virus won’t know what hit it. The virus survives by replicating profusely, hoping that one of its descendants will eventually get coughed onto someone else, maybe even onto many others. Today humans have at our disposal something far more powerful: technology. Information is power in this war, and we have the technology to transmit terrabytes of data across the globe at the speed of light. That’s millions of times faster and further than a cough droplet could ever dream of. If we play our cards right, we may well stand a chance against this disease.

As an aside, we also have blockchain. Bonus points for anyone who cures this pandemic with a distributed ledger.

Enter Wikipedia et al

Just over 100 years ago humanity faced a deadly influenza pandemic. Today we have Wikipedia, a WHO website and a bunch of other truly amazing resources. There are too many to name (and what do all these people do when they’re not solving COVID-19?).

Although the data might be alarming at times, literally billions of people have access to detailed information about this disease from every corner of the globe, in real time. This is the first time this has happened in human history. Knowledge is going to be the building block of any strategic advantage we have in the war against this disease, so let’s no squander the opportunity.

Just what we do with all that information is yet to be seen. Sure, it makes for beautiful animated infographics, but it could literally save lives. We’ve already seen one interesting development where, with enough data, if becomes possible to estimate the true percentage of the population that is infected, even if the local testing and reporting policies are aimed at making the numbers look good.

Flattening the Curve

As we all become experts in flattening various curves, it quickly becomes apparent that big data might actually be useful. Who knew! With increasingly sophisticated algorithms that we’ve developed for all sorts of purposes over the years, now is the time to try and figure out how to minimise the number of deaths, not to mention reduce the wider disruption to society.

Use all that sophisticated artificial intelligence to figure out what we should be doing to fight this thing. Use artificial intelligence to veto dumb ideas that humans will inevitably come up with.

In short, now would be a convenient time for algorithms to prove that they aren’t just a fancy way to generate clickbait ad revenue. Make ‘the cloud’ finally earn its keep.

The Sharing, Caring Economy

Not so long ago, there were a group of people who understood power tools from a Marxist perspective. A belt sander is an expensive piece of kit, which means that it’s scarce. It’s also gathering dust for most of its life. So why not share it? Sounds great in theory, and then we developed a myriad of platforms and two-sided marketplaces to share things that didn’t really suit being shared.

If it wasn’t already obvious, now would be the time to start sharing things that might help us fight this pandemic. Useful items only, please. It may not even require ‘sharing’ in the benevolent sense. It would be helpful even just to understand where critical resources are located, and where they’re urgently needed. If a hospital needs surgical masks in a hurry, who has them? How quickly can they be delivered?  Substitute power tools and cars with medical supplies and equipment, and technology looks like it might well have a role to play here.

Coming together to pool resources has been the way people have survived for millenia. For some unknown reason, the unwavering success of this strategy has been forgotten by those panic-buying toliet paper and pasta. What makes them think they need to be self-sufficient, in the absence of any generosity from others?

Coming together means that we may ask others for help, just as they may ask us. There is strength and comfort to be found in understanding the mutual interdependence. It means that you don’t need to buy your own belt sander, because you know that you can always borrow your neighbour’s. Ditto for the pasta.

Lastly to our mental health, which is perhaps where technology can have the most impact. Social distancing is isolating. Humans are hard-wired for social contact, and countless psychological experiments have shown the horrific consequences of denying people interaction with others. Back in 1918, social distancing would have meant being completely cut off from communication with others.

We now have more chat platforms that you can poke a stick at. Video is becoming the new normal. Now in 2020, social interaction is possible even when practising social distancing. Technology allows us to be social, even as we stop this this disease in its tracks by limiting our physical proximity to others. Wasn’t this why we invented social networking in the first place – to interact with people we couldn’t be together with in person? Which for our sanity, becomes the caring economy.

Stay safe. Wash your hands.

Jerome.

austin

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