Belmont Club

World War V: The Coronavirus Is a Battle Between Freedom and Skynet

(AP Photo/Andy Wong)

When academics were asked to predict the most probable risks to humanity they concluded “human extinction is more likely to result from anthropogenic causes than natural causes”: man, rather than nature, was to be feared. The top candidates were a malign artificial intelligence and a runaway biotechnological event. The Covid-19 crisis may be a biological threat but few anticipated a pandemic could also increase the demand for greater artificial intelligence-powered mass surveillance from a frightened population desperate for safety.

The fear of contagion was compared by Angela Merkel to WWII. “Not since German reunification, no, not since the Second World War has our country faced a challenge that depends so much on our collective solidarity,” she said. Perhaps World War V (for virus) is the better name for it and WWV is as much a competition between systems as WWII was. Authoritarian China, the unapologetic origin of the virus, claims “we can outsurvive the West through our ruthless decisiveness” and showcases its superiority by sending aid to Italy.

Real Clear Politics reports, “China is fighting a propaganda war. Beijing’s war aim is simple: shift away from China all blame for the outbreak … At stake is China’s global reputation, as well as the potential of a fundamental shift away from China for trade and manufacturing.” At stake is the putative superiority of its system to which Trump has responded by calling Covid-19 the “China virus.” Real Clear Politics continues:

Chinese propaganda mouthpieces have launched a broad array of attacks against the facts, attempting to create a new narrative about China’s historic victory over the Wuhan virus. Chinese state media is praising the government’s “effective, responsible governance,” but the truth is that Beijing is culpable for the spread of the pathogen around China and the world. Chinese officials knew about the new virus back in December, and did nothing to warn their citizens or impose measures to curb it early on.

By “effective, responsible governance” is meant the hardcore population-control measures and AI-powered surveillance that many Western journalists have come to admire so much. Time says of Italy:

“This isn’t China, and the imposition can only last up to a certain point and must be justified by questions of public order and public health,” … And yet for Chinese nationals living in Italy, the government measures failed to impress.

“You call this a lockdown?” was the general sense of the WeChat social media group that Susan Gao belongs to along with other Chinese women living in Italy.

What constitutes a real and presumably admirable lockdown was described by Lily Kuo in The Guardian. “Over the last two months, Chinese citizens have had to adjust to a new level of government intrusion.”

Getting into one’s apartment compound or workplace requires scanning a QR code, writing down one’s name and ID number, temperature and recent travel history. Telecom operators track people’s movements while social media platforms like WeChat and Weibo have hotlines for people to report others who may be sick. Some cities are offering people rewards for informing on sick neighbours.

Chinese companies are meanwhile rolling out facial recognition technology that can detect elevated temperatures in a crowd or flag citizens not wearing a face mask. A range of apps use the personal health information of citizens to alert others of their proximity to infected patients or whether they have been in close contact.

State authorities, in addition to locking down entire cities, have implemented a myriad of security measures in the name of containing the coronavirus outbreak. From top officials to local community workers, those enforcing the rules repeat the same refrain: this is an “extraordinary time” feichang shiqi, requiring extraordinary measures.

Ian Johnson grudgingly says in The New York Times that by such methods “China bought the West time. The West squandered it.” WHO’s director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, echoed the theme. “The steps China has taken to contain the outbreak at its source appear to have bought the world time.” There is still time, presumably, to be like China.

For some Western leaders, the challenge was how not to be like China. They wanted to avoid the ruinous lockdowns and intrusions that turned nations into prisons while still containing the virus. Perhaps the most daring but failed attempt was the UK’s “herd immunity” plan as The Atlantic described it:

In lieu of any major social-distancing measures, Johnson instead offered a suite of soft advice—people with symptoms should stay home; no school trips abroad; people over 70 should avoid cruises … They worried about “behavioral fatigue”… while suppressing the virus through draconian measures might be successful for months, when they lift, the virus will return, said Sir Patrick Vallance, the U.K.’s chief scientific adviser.

…since the virus causes milder illness in younger age groups, most would recover and subsequently be immune to the virus. This “herd immunity” would reduce transmission in the event of a winter resurgence. On Sky News, Vallance said that “probably about 60 percent” of people would need to be infected to achieve herd immunity.

What scuttled the UK gambit was the tremendous death toll in Italy. The Atlantic article pointed out the two big unknowns. “First, we don’t know how long immunity against the new coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, lasts. … We don’t know how the virus will behave across the year either.” Given those uncertainties, Boris Johnson couldn’t take the chance of being the next Italy. Bowing to risk, the UK hunkered down like everyone else waiting for the vaccine cavalry to arrive.

Europe, like the U.S., is now spending — some would say printing — trillions of dollars to prop up their economies until pharma comes to the rescue. No one is really sure for how long. Scott Gottlieb notes that “disturbing new analysis from the modeling team at Imperial College shows initial #COVID19 epidemic lasting much longer in U.S. than other circulating models that show a peak in April/May; with a resurgence of infections when mitigation steps are lifted.”

Both Singapore and Hong Kong have already experienced a resurgence of either imported or community-spread infections. Channel News Asia reports: “The SARS-CoV-2 virus will likely continue to circulate globally, perhaps becoming the fifth endemic human coronavirus, given that countries and territories are at different stages of the pandemic… That means China, Singapore and other places thought to be recovering from the spread will remain vulnerable to virus importation and new outbreaks that are potentially as severe as the first wave as more than 99 per cent of their populations have not yet been infected.”

Perhaps Trump was politically astute to brand it the China virus—a name the public may remember in case they are hunkered down three months from now. While Chinese-style Skynet might provide a temporary refuge from Umbrella Corporation-type biothreats, the only lasting hope lies in human creativity, which may produce vaccines and a civilizational restoration that can inform political choices. That is far from given among the panicked and demoralized politicians.

Will ours be a world where populations confine themselves to progressively smaller rooms with ever-dwindling supplies? Or a world where each country, perhaps empowered by equivalents of the Defense Production Act, is busy rearchitecting the global supply chain and creating new workflows? Will it be a world where ‘government will save us’ or one in which we decide to do things differently?

Werner Heisenberg argued that mankind has always needed more than technique to survive. It needed a guide to good and evil as well.

Science is the basis of technology, religion the basis of ethics. … Science is, so to speak, the manner in which we confront, in which we argue about, the objective side of reality. Religious faith, on the other hand, is the expression of the subjective decisions that help us choose the standards by which we propose to act and live.

The last two decades have been premised on the belief that technology alone would exalt us — that civilization was not only unnecessary but actual bigotry — only to find that when homo deus stood triumphant on the mountaintop that homo diabolus was right beside him with the same magical tools. Technology without civilization is a net-zero.

World War V is about how we will choose to act if we ever get out of the situation where the global world has become its own worst enemy. No longer does it suffice to say “whereof one cannot speak thereof one must be silent” because there are questions of right and wrong we must dare to answer at the risk of being wrong. There is no safety in abdicating judgment. We must rebuild not only the supply chain but civilization. At least Beijing knows what it wants the world to look like in the end. It’s the offer of Skynet to be saved from Umbrella. What is our counter-offer?

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Open Curtains by George Spix and Richard Fernandez. Technology represents both unlimited promise and menace. Which transpires depends on whether people can claim ownership over their knowledge or whether human informational capital continues to suffer the Tragedy of the Commons.

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