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Communications of the ACM


The COVID Catalyst

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John Arquilla.

Credit: Naval Postgraduate School.

The coronavirus pandemic has, like its predecessors from the Black Plague to the Spanish Flu, once again demonstrated the great vulnerability of social and economic systems to microbes. Yet, it may be that there is an important difference this time around.  The bubonic plague of the 14th century completely disrupted the huge Mongol Empire and killed off a third of the population of Europe. The flu that hit at the end of World War I killed tens of millions as well. But this time around, advances in medicine – and skillful use of information technology for hotspot detection and backtracking contacts, among other functions – will, in addition to sheltering in place, keep the cost of corona in lives lost relatively low.

That the world has recourse to such boons to lifesaving ought to be seen as very good news, despite the huge economic costs and serious psychological damage inflicted by the virus. And, if we're able to look a little deeper, there may be even more good news. For beyond reducing the toll taken in lives by COVID, some mitigating measures put in place may have profoundly beneficial effects if they are continued, or perhaps even expanded upon. Three areas of activity come quickly to mind.

The most obvious improvement, literally visible already, has been to air quality in metropolitan areas. Vast numbers of people can work from home – in many places around the world – sharply reducing pollution caused by commuting in automobiles. Clearly, many people will still have to go to physical workplaces outside the home. But all who don't have to should keep doing their jobs remotely. This will have tremendous benefit for those living in the urban areas blighted by pollution, and will also contribute usefully to the larger fight against global warming.

The response of the educational sector is less well developed at this point. But the use of networking systems has proved there is a way to continue to educate via distance learning. This is surely less effective at the elementary level; but the possibilities abound for high school, college-level and postgraduate education. During this quarter, I am remote-teaching master's students at the military school where I work, and find that there is in some ways a deeper, more tutorial quality that has emerged in the absence of the formal classroom setting.

This experience has caused me to muse about teaching my regular seminars "from a distance" as well, but with more than the usual flat-screen TV-style connection. Instead, we should pursue the kind of immediacy that virtual reality provides. This is certainly an area of advancing technology that could have profound effects on education, at many levels. VR might even prove an interesting way to bring actors and audiences together in "theaters" made of bits and bytes. Think of concerts, too, and a range of other kinds of group activities that can be conducted via well-designed VR.

The third area of opportunity that COVID may catalyze is the possibility of networking medical research. If Metcalfe's Law, about the power of networks being a strong multiple, perhaps the square, of the number of interconnected nodes, then it is time to put in place a global medical network. To some extent, this is already being done; but it can be built upon. What we don't want to see is what is happening right now; medical research activities are being subjected to a steady stream of hacks. Officials of the U.S. government – including the Secretary of State – have gone so far as to accuse particular foreign powers of being behind these activities. Of course, perpetrator ambiguity remains a problem; and these actions might also be by criminals who intend to sell whatever they steal.

We have international policing entities that will surely need to be increasingly attentive to this threat. But the larger point is about the need for nations to begin to think less in terms of power as gained through the control of information, and more in terms of the value created, for all, by sharing it. And not only as relates to medical research. Imagine the power of the "global mind" that has the potential to emerge. There is scarcely a problem bedeviling the world that would not succumb to this kind of networked, collective intelligence.

Beyond the three areas of opportunity discussed above, there are surely other ways in which COVID can catalyze progress – by reshaping governance and statecraft while improving global public discourse in more participatory ways, and with greater immediacy, for example. But that is a far reach. For now, the focus should be on how the response to COVID has opened up the possibility of making quantum leaps in environmental protection, education, and global health research.

Progress in each of these areas, however, is wholly dependent upon robust cybersecurity. Without a solid virtual foundation, the ability to move forward in any of these areas will always be held at risk. And in a world still too wedded to the firewall-and-antiviral paradigm – rather than, say, to ubiquitous use of strong crypto and cloud computing – what COVID catalyzes may end up producing a fizzle instead of a fountainhead for transformation.

John Arquilla is Distinguished Professor of Defense Analysis at the United States Naval Postgraduate School.  The views expressed are his alone. 


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