One way into thinking about the wider effects of the coronavirus—beyond the immediate travel restrictions and healthcare challenges—is to think of it as a technology. It is, after all, a non-human technology. And this means that we can use McLuhan’s Laws of Media to explore some of its implications.
McLuhan developed these late in life with his son Eric, who was then working as his research assistant. He’d been asked by a publisher to update one of his books, but ended up producing a different book instead.
Laws of technology
Apparently this was an idea that he’d had for much of his life: that there were ‘laws’ that governed how technologies influenced the world. He concluded that there were four.
1. The technology enhances some human capability
2. The technology retrieves an idea or an aspect from the past.
3. The technology obsolesces (or erodes) some existing capability
4. The technology reverses into some new state (for example when it reaches its extreme.
In McLuhan’s example of the car, in The Laws of Technology, it enhances speed and our ability to cover distance. It retrieves the idea of chivalry or ‘the knights of the road’ (take a look at the images of the car in the ‘20s and ‘30s). It obsolesces the horse. And it reverses into congestion and the traffic jam.
So what does the coronavirus do?
Because it is a non-human technology, it enhances our death rate, particularly among older people.
This has some other effects as well. It enhances the rate of inter-generational transfer of assets, and accelerates the shift in values, as a proportion of the population, from the ‘modern’ values that dominated much of the 20th century to the ‘post-materialist’ values that have emerged over the last four decades or so. This may also accelerate the generational shift in political leadership in places like the US.
It retrieves the idea of the plague, the public health catastrophe, that puts everyone at risk mostly regardless of social status. This fear has been a constant pretty much since people first moved into cities, from the Black Death to the Spanish flu. We remember the big ones (see the image from Visual Capitalist below), but—for example—the Elizabethan and Jacobean theatres closed repeatedly while Shakespeare was working because of fears of plague. (We know that he wrote King Lear while in quarantine, and may have written some of the sonnets, earlier, when theatres were closed).
But the other half of this is that it retrieves the idea of public health, precisely because it’s impossible to avoid a pandemic, regardless of your social status. There’s a story that I remember but can’t find at the moment, I think about the Rothschilds at a time in the 19th century when they were the richest family in Europe. One of their favoured children died of an infectious disease, and the Rothschilds realised that their money could not protect them from this.
And, of course, the hyper-networked lifestyles of the rich, and their expectations of constant access and constant mobility, means that they are more likely to get coronavirus first.
But this is interesting because while public authorities have been worrying about public health issues such as poor air quality, a lot of the trends in health recently have been about individualised health, and even about the ‘undeserving’ ill, whose ill-health has, it is suggested, been brought about by poor lifestyle choices.
It seems to be obsolescing much of the infrastructure of globalisation. A virulently pro-market American President bans transatlantic flights to most, then all, of Europe, for example. Travel restrictions are imposed, internally and externally. Our just-in-time supply chains are no longer fit for purpose.
The bans on tourism, and on business travel for meetings, may be temporary, or they may be a glimpse of a new way of working and living that sticks afterwards.
It obsolesces low margin businesses which are also over-leveraged with debt. I mean, how many more shocks can the aviation industry survive?
All the assumptions of neo-liberalism (and in Germany, of ordo-liberalism) have also been obsolesced. The political commentator who suggested that the British Conservatives were about to implement most of Jeremy Corbyn’s economic programme (more precisely, John McDonnell’s) was only half-joking.
The handshake has been obsolesced for the moment—a a deep and long-lived social ritual in many countries that is also an indicator of trust. It’s early days, but a drama worker who had to reorganise a workshop to remove all forms of touch reports that participants found it unsettling to replicate the idea of the handshake without touching. Some shook hands anyway.
There are some obvious candidates for reversing into, though some could go either way.
It could reverse into the collapse of public health systems, or it could reverse into a reinvestment in public health, especially in the UK, where the National Health Service has been eroded by a thousand and one endless cuts. Or, at last, even some lightly socialised health care in the US, where the perverse public health effects of charging people for precautionary health care are suddenly obvious.
It could also reverse into greater communalism or localism, as people reach out to support neighbours who are otherwise isolated. This isn’t inevitable: it could also reverse into greater digital dependency and social isolation.
Less uncertainly, it is likely to reverse into widespread social post-traumatic stress, since if the anticipated numbers of dead are of the right order of magnitude, everyone will know someone who died. But obviously this isn’t the 1920s, when the trauma of the war dead was overlaid with the trauma of the influenza deaths, and deepened because so many of those who died were young. But a shared experience of social trauma does lead societies to behave differently, though not always for the better.
And finally, it is likely to reverse into a new biopolitics. It seems fitting that so far France has produced the most Foucauldian response to the epidemic. I’m not even going to try to scratch the surface of this idea here, since it needs far more thought. But it seems obvious that a pandemic will change the rules that govern the relationship between the state and our bodies, and potentially our own sense of freedom concerning our bodies, in the same way that the AIDS virus did for those communities that were most affected by it. And, as with the AIDS virus, that relationship will be contested.