Governments and policy-makers firmly believe in digitization as the panacea to humankind’s most crucial challenges. This exuberant belief in human ingenuity rather diminishes the potential to locate real-world issues than helps to resolve them sustainably. COVID-19 demonstrated its incredible resilience to evade the logics and tools of digitized human civilization. We believe that the exposure of human vulnerability due to the pandemic should shake up EU-leaders to build and integrate more resilient and comprehensive digital – but also non-digital – infrastructures. Only a comprehensive and sustainable reconsideration of the EU’s infrastructures in light of the current pandemic will ensure the continued well-being and security of EU-citizens.
Almost a year and a half into the relationship between humankind and COVID-19, both sides have got to know each other rather well, and it has become clear that this liaison is heading somewhere. However, there is somewhat of a dysfunctionality to this mésalliance, a kind of bad “on-and-off-thingy”. While humans have been repeatedly declaring an end to its relationship with the virus, this cohabitation of humans and non-human cells has been going far more steady than anyone could have predicted so far. We would like to present one major reason why both sides keep ending up together over and over again.
After the first shy encounter, humankind tried to tame the virus according to its own terms – humanity is a patriarchal and subjecting partner in any relationship. When the virus did not get in line and surrendered to humankind’s will, the latter got upset and tried to end the relation through annihilation – a martial yet proven way of bringing things to an end from a human perspective. Pretentious humanity did not even hesitate to put forward its most shiny and promising new toy: Digitization. However, COVID-19 has proven a considerable degree of resilience and adaptability and further clings to its oppressive counterpart. Why does it not work? Are we not meant to shake off the virus? Is this love in the end?
Human civilizations have been leaning towards rationalization to make themselves a home of the world. Cartographies provide the blueprints for ordering the human everyday life. Digitization is only the latest means to do so. This process has been taking up speed lately with large-scale Chinese investments. Considerable payoffs have been made in many fields, not only knowledge production and information transmission have multiplied in efficiency and speed, but entire new fields of research have also emerged. Accordingly, the DNA of human civilizations has been rewritten into binary code, a process that has homogenized and facilitated communication and exchange across populations on a material level tremendously. The most basic transactions build on the capacity to read and write in ones and zeroes at magnificent speed. Latency times in transcontinental communication are measured in milliseconds and satellite navigation builds on clock-synchronization at the nano-scale. Present-day human civilizations function according to the principles of binarity.
However, unlike most other challenges and threats humanity faced in the past decades – even centuries, if we take into consideration the victorious auto-narration of modernity – COVID-19 dwells beyond and between the pale digital grids structuring and driving human societies. It does not succumb to the binary modernist division into a human and a natural world; rather, it is inextricably entwined with both. Therefore, it does not reveal itself to a digitized logic: The virus lurks beneath at first, which constitutes its dynamic permissiveness. Its incubation period – engineers would say: its latency – is days. Given the chance that people with symptoms are willing to undergo an antigen test to verify an infection, the means to do so are flawed. People can either test negative albeit being COVID-positive and vice versa; no tested person can safely be considered negative or positive. Instead of ones and zeroes, COVID-19 produces insecurity, doubt and confusion. Due to this very quality, it shifts from invisible to visible and back easily. It crosses borders, physical boundaries and even overcomes oceans to reach isolated islands. As the last year has shown, even isolation and quarantine may not offer total protection.
This spiky virus successfully made its way into the digital techno-civilization of the human world, and its success builds precisely on its capacity to go between the technological standards and the global conventions providing for and regulating the exchange and circulation of information, matter and humans. But the monoculture of binary logic has imbued human communication as well as human thinking. Epistemologies and ontologies can claim validity only as long as they keep up compatibility with its digital representation.
Humankind has to look itself into the mirror and stop pretending that it has the ability to order the world at will. In fact, admitting that it never was above the world, but rather was always embedded in a dynamic relationship within a complexly and infinitely entwined web of human and the non-human interrelationships, is nothing new. Therefore, following the obviously catastrophic repercussions of human-induced climate change, COVID-19 presents another opportunity to fundamentally rethink the human self-perception in the Anthropocene.
Based on the European experiences with the pandemic, its leaders have to humbly acknowledge their miscalculations and have to react quickly and firmly:
- While the world cannot be dominated, suitable and sustainable ways of coexistence can very well be found.
- Digitization is no end in itself. The EU requires a non-digital emergency infrastructure, capable of keeping up emergency services for European citizens in the event that the frail digital network collapses for a longer period of time.
- A digitized techno-civilization represents a confusing assemblage of public and private actors. Therefore, digitization requires a European strategy, including a strategic infrastructure and close cooperation with leading European industries (cf. EPI).
About the Authors
Wolfgang Göderle is a postdoctoral lecturer with the Department of Historical Information Science at the Institute of History of the University of Graz. His research interests cover 19th and 20th century modern history in the Anthropocene, digitization and digital infrastructures.
Maximilian Lakitsch is a postdoctoral lecturer at the Institute of the Foundations of Law (Department of Global Governance) at the University of Graz. His research focuses on issues of authority, legitimacy, and violence in conflict, peacebuilding and religion.