Rebooting the Health of Humanity
How COVID-19 must spur a new approach to humane technology and global social service
Way back in mid-February, I was in Brussels, Belgium, sitting in a sunny alcove on an upper floor of the Berlaymont, which houses the headquarters of the European Commission. I was talking with an EU strategist who had taken an interest in my work. On the same day, in a more formal setting, Mark Zuckerberg was also at the Commission, deep in a discussion about his understanding of his massive platform’s global responsibilities, which largely differs from those of policymakers.
With Zuckerberg and the EU at an impasse, it did not feel like business as usual. It was during this time that Margrethe Vestager, the EU’s executive vice-president and overseer of digital policy, announced that the European Commission was inviting any business, worldwide, to collaborate on developing new technologies that will earn citizens’ trust. Technology that works for people, instead of the other way around.
Way back in mid-February, Covid-19 was still a small blip on the world’s radar, and though I’d worn a mask and gloves on my flight home to Seattle, I didn’t anticipate that within days of returning, an overheated world would begin to slow down, and so would we.
In astronomy, the word corona refers to the phenomenon whereby the sun’s plasma becomes visible around the moon during a solar eclipse — this can only be seen during temporary darkness. On earth, the critical question is, how can a virus help us see what is not normally seen and how can we rise to the occasion and become better?
A traumatic event can dramatically shift consciousness and culture.
Schools and businesses are shut. Conferences and cultural events are cancelled. Flights are all but empty. Borders are closed or closing. A weighted blanket has settled over us. From beneath it, we can begin to listen. We can consider what and whom we hold dear and reflect upon the current shape of our humanity, and what has brought us to this moment.
Since reaching Antarctica, COVID-19 inhabits every human population on Earth. Around the world we are slowly beginning to process the facts, and also the impacts in every sector that relates to our basic needs as humans. We are focussed upon the common challenge of survival without enormous loss.
This virus is an extraordinary demonstration of our interconnectedness as humans, the systems of our global infrastructure, and specifically our health systems, now in severe disruption. Under this rare corona, we can take the time to re-examine the heart of our human behavior, instead of only the symptoms, and to work towards the reform and re-functioning of our future.
Has the remarkably cogent COVID-19 been mirroring our society’s emotional climate change like a warped fun-house reflection? If so, from the other side of the mirror we can inspect the virus, more potent than any biological contagion, that’s been breeding in ourselves, and permeating enormous swaths of our infrastructure.
There is no more ancient and powerfully catalytic innovator than the earth. Just as climate change has starkly revealed our underlying impact upon nature, COVID-19 is exposing the imbalances and chasms of our exterior world, physically, socially and emotionally.
People feel helpless, alone, and in many cases, they are devastatingly sick or dying. In the best of times, our society faces a crisis of loneliness. But in this global pandemic, the need for bonding, social sanctuary and islands of authentic connection is imperative. We seek answers and guidance on social channels, clogged with divisiveness, misinformation and uneasy rhetoric.
How do we respond, mitigate and move on, as a global society, together? How can we coalesce into a family, gathered around the fire, shoulder to shoulder, inclusive of everyone?
We live in a world where humanity revolves around tech, politics, economics, and health. It is crucial that we work towards a world where tech, politics, economics, and health revolve around humanity.
There are many dimensions to this pandemic and they all add up to the same message: It is time for a change in our values, culture and approach to life on earth.
Urgency wrapped in fear is debilitating. Urgency wrapped in hope can be unbelievably powerful. The next wave of global platforms, private or policy based, must function from the heart. To become a healthy societal body, we cannot continue to maximize profit at the expense of minimizing humanity. Our dependence on technology, now amplified, could easily be reformed to meet an audience that is seeking a new kind of participation and confidence.
Vestager’s prescient announcement was a compelling statement that certain systems are beyond reform, and it should be echoed by political leaders around the world as a call towards something better.
It will take the entire global family to resolve the health of humanity. Universal service requires universal collaboration. We all have a story. We all have something to offer. We all have something we need help with. Perhaps only in the quiet of our temporarily solitary orbits — in the corona of our society’s collective pause — can we find our way back to meaningful connection.
Last November, in Amsterdam, I presented my work at Politico’s Annual Health Summit. In that forum, I was the outlier, a role that takes considerable stamina. When the summit was over, completely drained of energy, I made my way to a local hair salon. The Turkish stylist took one look at me and gently sat me down to wait as he went into the back. A few minutes later, he returned and presented me with his dinner, a plate of brown bread, cheese and butter. ‘In Turkey’, he told me, ‘when someone comes to the door, we all take a little bit from our plate and make a meal for that person.’ The taste was unforgettable, like home and belonging. We all need to add something to the plate. This is how we build a collaborative society and a global family.
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