Why is this interesting? - The Moral Obligation Edition

On Coronavirus, perception, and shared cultural values

Noah here. In WITI contributor’s Slack this week (one of the perks of writing for us), I asked folks whether they would prefer we isolated the Coronavirus conversation to a single #covid19 channel or if we should let it spread unabated across #general, #random, and #interesting-links as it had been doing for the last few weeks. Spread won the vote—allowing the virus to overtake our chat in the way it’s moving across cities. 

It’s hard not to spend huge amounts of time sifting through whatever I can find about the virus. Beyond the immediate danger to the world, it’s all but taken over every dimension of public life—from media to work to conversations at home and with friends. To that end, it’s interesting to examine what kind of people are most susceptible to the Coronavirus idea. Tyler Cowentook this on for his Bloomberg opinion column this week, positing that tech people seem particularly primed for the concepts prevalent in this particular outbreak:

The term growthers refers to the notion of exponential growth, and indeed the number of Covid-19 cases appears (by some accounts) to be following an exponential pattern. Some scientists have estimated that the number of cases doubles about every seven days. If you play that logic out, it is easy enough to see how people might be complacent at first, then in a few months there is a public health crisis. … 

In tech, the major companies have grown from nothing to very large fairly quickly, often by taking advantage of a (positive) network or contagion effect for their products. Tech people are also familiar with Moore’s Law, which says that computing power increases exponentially as its cost decreases dramatically. It is no surprise that Bill Gates recently suggested that Covid-19 may be the once-in-a-century pathogen the world has been worried about.

Why is this interesting?

Just as particular demographic or behavioral traits can make you more or less vulnerable to serious reactions from the virus, a whole separate set of them can dictate how you interpret the story around it. What’s made me spend so much time reading about COVID-19 is mainly the number of analytically-minded, non-alarmist people I respect who are extremely freaked out about Coronavirus. (Wednesday’s newsletter from Alexis Madrigal being a prime example.)

Of course, none of this is particularly new or specific to this outbreak. Years ago, Duncan Watts pointed out that the most important factor in an idea spreading wasn’t the idea itself, but rather the susceptibility of the group at that particular time. As Watts explained in his 2007 paper, “Influentials, Networks, and Public Opinion Formation”:

Some forest fires, for example, are many times larger than average; yet no one would claim that the size of a forest fire can be in any way attributed to the exceptional properties of the spark that ignited it or the size of the tree that was the first to burn. Major forest fires require a conspiracy of wind, temperature, low humidity, and combustible fuel that extends over large tracts of land. Just as for large cascades in social influence networks, when the right global combination of conditions exists, any spark will do; when it does not, none will suffice.

Finally, and this is a little departure back to the virus itself, there is one idea I’m not seeing spread as much as I would expect and that’s moral obligation. I had this conversation with my doctor yesterday (appointment scheduled six months ago) and he agreed: the reason to be prepared for quarantine is not so if things get bad out there you’ll be able to avoid the germs, it’s so if you get sick you can isolate yourself and keep the rest of the population—particularly those most at risk of extreme effects—safe from you. That kind of duty can seem absent from American culture, though you see it shine through in moments of need (anyone who lived in NYC on September 11th can attest to the shared humanity). Just last night the New York Times reported that the city has almost 3,000 people voluntarily self-quarantining.

The warnings that are out there right now to wash your hands and avoid touching your face are almost always paired with a third point about keeping others safe. As the CDC’s Prevention & Treatment page recommends, “Stay home when you are sick.” (NRB

Interesting Product of the Day: 

Amass makes premium botanical spirits. They, like many places, ran out of hand sanitizer, and in the words of the CEO, “we realized we had a nuclear vault’s worth of 180 proof alcohol at the distillery in vats and plenty of extra botanicals.” So they made a very stylish hand wash with cinnamon, allspice, clove, and eucalyptus, available here.  

Quick Links: 

Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN)


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