Peter Weibel on the consequences of the COVID-19 crisis and media theory

Novel Coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 (Transmission electron micrograph of SARS-CoV-2 virus particles, isolated from a patient. Image captured and color-enhanced at the NIAID Integrated Research Facility (IRF) in Fort Detrick, Maryland. Photo Credit: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, NIH.

Artist and media theorist Peter Weibel recently published an impressive article about the consequences of the COVID-19 crisis on our society and communities (“Virus, Viralität, Virtualität: Wie gerade die erste Ferngesellschaft der Menschheitsgeschichte entsteht”, Neue Züricher Zeitung, March 20, 2020) and he sums up four lessons we have to learn while our world is transforming fast from an on-site and analogue world to a virtual world.

Peter Weibel shows that we are obviously standing at a crossroads now. The decisions and actions we take today will shape our future for years and decades to come: When we have overcome this pandemic our society will never be the same as before. Right before our eyes a drama is taking place that we are calling “Shutdown”, because all of Europe is in the mode of a shutdown. In New York City, because of the strict order to stay at home, we see there is “shelter in place”. The term “resident” reveals its true meaning during the crisis; namely, being in custody in your own apartment. The infected are interned and detained in solitary confinement.

Staying in your own apartment (in a separate single room, from the Italian word appartare, “separate”) means, in part, to be on the edge, to be outside, to be excluded. What a paradox: being excluded from public and social life by being trapped in our homes, house, and yard. We live in closed rooms, locked up in a closed society—like after death, just under lockdown. The lesson we have to learn is that the system is fragile.

But it is also a peak time of media theory. From William S. Burroughs, an American writer of the Beat Generation to the French media theorist Jean Baudrillard, theorists already tried to grasp the effectiveness of our mass media using virological metaphors years ago. Burroughs even claims, that “Language is a virus from outer space”; that is, language, the first communication medium, is a virus. In numerous essays on virality, video, and virulence, Baudrillard never went tired of characterizing the spread of information as contagious and warning about these viral mass media.

Had governance only observed and followed system theories, they would have known that the more complex a system becomes, the more fragile it becomes. Chaos theory famously suggests that the flap of a butterfly’s wing in Brazil can trigger a tornado in Texas (Edward Lorenz, 1961). One or two infected people in the metropolis of Wuhan triggered a pandemic across Europe and across the globe.

Minimal deviations or anormality from the common conditions can indirectly lead to a catastrophic implosion of the system, and even cause a complete collapse. This is exactly how viruses behave, from computer viruses to natural viruses, with their system-destabilizing effects. They attack both the genetic and the informational code. Because they are hyperfunctional, they spread rapidly in the accelerated circulation of global systems and are able to force catastrophes. Metaphorically speaking and turned positively, the virus makes the desiderata, the shortcomings, the defects of a system visible and obvious. As William S. Burroughs wrote, the drug needle pierces a hole.

The deficits range from defective democracies to defective transport and health care systems, and there are delays, misconduct, failures. The health care system was literally destroyed through the budget cutbacks—now we have too few staff and not enough beds, and too meagre salaries for the nursing staff.

A modest 23,000 intensive care beds are available for more than 80 million Germans. Now this system actually produces dead people. The system has to contain the virus as quickly and brutally as possible, not only for the sake of the sick, but also to cover up the failures of economic and political regimes, which despite all warning signs could be disguised for decades by the recurring financial and migration crises as well as the health care and global climate crisis. That is the dangerous potential of the virus. This is the subversion of the system, which can lead to a complete shutdown of the system.

The second lesson we have to learn is: the media are also viral: The first infodemic is being identified on social networks, because now a real virus has met the virality of the media. The media amplify the effects of the real virus exponentially because they form an echo space, a resonance that multiplies the effect of the virus.

The virus spreads at high speed, but reports about the virus spread just as rapidly. The virtual exponential growth of the effects of the virus in the mass media corresponds to the real exponential growth of the virus. Every single infected or dead person is extrapolated every day. We receive reports that the German politician and chancellor candidate Friedrich Merz, member of a liberal conservative political party in Germany called the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) or American actor Tom Hanks and his wife are infected.

If we acted with the same rigor with every influenza outbreak, the communication highways would not be wide enough to spread the information about illnesses and deaths every hour. If we were to report the number of flu cases as frequently as the Corona cases, there would be a panic that could be as dangerous as the virus itself. The pandemic is intensified to panic in the media. If the statistics are correct, there are 500 million people worldwide who catch the flu every single year. Of these, between 290,000 and 650,000 people are said to die each year from the effects of the flu. For comparison: The virus that causes Covid-19 has resulted in more than 10,000 deaths (status: March 20, 2020) worldwide.

It is impossible to predict the further development of the pandemic with any certainty. We do not know whether the situation is bad enough, whether it will get worse, or whether it will be less bad. Therefore, we can deal with the time after the crisis later and enquire at the moment into the deeper causes, symptoms, and problems of this crisis.

Excessive and extensive media coverage can unleash a media storm over Europe. Entire cities, nations, continents will be infected, interned, forcibly isolated and imprisoned. The state of emergency, like a lockdown, becomes a normal and commonplace state because fear keeps the population imprisoned. In the drama The Flies (Les Mouches, 1943) by French author Jean-Paul Sartre, Orestes ends the reign of terror of the murderer Aegisthus, who ruled through generating fear, which is symbolized by the plague of flies. Orestes takes away the plague of flies and sets people free from fear because power is based on people not knowing that they are actually free. This is why phobocracy and plagues have been an effective instrument of ruling since days of the ancient Egyptians.

The third lesson we have to learn: Mobility for the masses is over. In his texts written in the 1980s, for example, “From the disappearance of distance” (1990) and “The acceleration of images” (1987), Peter Weibel fielded the idea that the nineteenth century not only spawned the industrial revolution, but also telecommunications, which are equally crucial. The industrial revolution was based on machines and on wheel technology. Rolling wheels (trains, cars, bicycles, airplanes) have accelerated the mobility of bodies and goods. This massive material mobility has led humanity to adopt fatal strategies.

The highways became obviously dead ends, stretches of standstill. Mass transport and mass tourism made possible by trains, planes, and cars have devastated our ecosystems and contaminated the world’s oceans. The etymological relationship between gigantic cruise ships, floating cities, cruise liners, and cruise missiles, has been overlooked.

These ships are missiles. The travel and tourism industry is waging war on nature. Now, nature is forcing us to end this war because of a virus, and to stop our excessive mass mobility, at least temporarily. Airplanes remain on the ground, ships stay in harbours, hotels and shops are closed, people are locked up in their homes. The globalization balloon has run out of air.

The fourth lesson we have to learn is that the social dynamics, which our face-to-face societies are based on, is coming to an end. For the post-industrial media-based revolution, which is crucial for the twenty-first century, the separation of messenger and message applies. Before the invention of distance technologies like telegraphy, fax, and telephone, a message could only be transmitted with the help of a messenger, more precisely, with the body of a messenger.

Whether it was Pheidippides, the Athenian marathon runner of 490 BCE, a dove, a horse, a rider, a carriage, an airplane, or a railway system, it always took a messenger to deliver a message. With the invention of the telegram and Morse code messages could be transmitted disembodied for the first time in human history.

The body of the transmitter stayed in one place, the message was transmitted by cable, and the receiver located at another place was able to process the information. This cable-based way of telecommunication (telegraphy, telephony, fax) was, after the discovery of electromagnetic waves, converted into wireless communication (radio, television) in the twentieth century, into an infosphere, which is surrounding the globe.

From the moment onward when messages could travel on their own, our face-to-face interactions-based societies transformed into long-distance societies. Any technology—whether the automobile or the telephone—serves to overcome distances. We have been living in a long-distance telecommunications society for more than a hundred years, but the world has not yet made this change.

Atavistic tribal rituals of our face-to-face interactions-based society exist parallel to the virtual long-distance society. The mobility of bodies and machines exists alongside the immaterial mobility of signals and media. This makes our society look like the automobiles of the turn of the century, the design of which resembled horse-drawn vehicles. In the beginning, the designers did not understand that the automobiles drive by themselves and still thought about the messenger’s body, the horse, and consequently built automobiles like horse carriages.

Something similar is happening today and provides the foundation of the pandemic, the risk of contagion for everyone, as the Greek word and prefix pan- indicates. People, local collectives, hordes, and herds graze on beaches, meadows, and on grass in stadiums to attend a rock concert or a soccer game. However, the games and concerts do not basically serve the local mass audience, but rather the remote masses, the virtual audience, which sits decentralized and distributed in front of TV sets and tablets around the globe. The audience in the stadium serves only as a picturesque backdrop for the remote and virtual society at home.

In talk shows guests actually talk to the moderator for a virtual TV audience, but they need a small group of local claqueurs as staffage. These agglutinations, clumping of bodies in our mass society, from entertainment in a stadium to beach holidays, are obsolete rituals of our face-to-face interactions-based society and are possible sources of the pandemic. That’s why we recently played in front of empty concert halls and in empty stadiums. From soccer games to rock concerts, the local audience, which has long been superfluous, is finally being removed. Both, the music business as well as the sports industries, make their money with the virtual, not with the local audience on site.

It now seems that the gigantic stadiums and opulent opera houses are the pharaohs’ tombs of the future. Exaggerated bizarre architectural signatures, already created in the awareness of the death of the forms of entertainment of our face-to-face interactions-based society, will soon be proven to be superfluous. If they remain without an audience, if there are only ghost games in stadiums and concert halls, we will wonder why we actually need such gigantic empty venues. This question will become particularly urgent if the Summer Olympics take place in Japan in empty stadiums and in front of empty stands and will only be seen by a virtual and remote mass audience.

Conclusion: The new era has begun. Finally we are able to claim that one of the insights we gain from this virus is that it is forcing us into the digital age. No forms of production and no ways of perception will remain unaffected. The constant exhortation “Do not touch!” means nothing less than that all our familiar forms of social interaction will be affected by the virus. The constant call “Do not come closer!” adorns the entrance portal to the long-distance society in a prognostic way.

With the personal computer and in the 1990s with the Internet we already developed the technologies that will enable the life of the non-local masses in virtual worlds. All available online services, from ordering goods and shopping online to online health checks, have already shown ways of avoiding physical contact.

You no longer have to go to the cinema to watch movies, you can stream them at home. You no longer go to bookstores to buy books, but have them delivered to you by postal services. You no longer go to restaurants to eat out, but have the meal delivered to you by a pizza service. There is e-commerce and e-banking—all virtual and remote ways of communicating and disembodied forms of transaction.

The locally bound mass audience in real physical spaces is transformed into a gathering of individuals in a remote, decentralized, and distributed virtual space of tele-technology, and agglutination becomes an association. As a consequence of the separation of messenger and message excessive mobility, which is destructive to our ecosystems and thus also harmful to humans, becomes intangible virtual mobility. The flow of traffic becomes the flow of signs. We not only drive on the motor highway, but send signals on electronic highways. Culture becomes an online paradise. Due to its virality, the virus forces our culture to migrate into virtual worlds—an important step for increasing the power of abstraction and symbolization in humans, that is, for evolution.

With the global spread of the corona virus, we are experiencing how the globalization balloon runs out of air, because all wheels stand still—not because of the strong arm of the workers, as Georg Herwegh, a German poet and writer, who was active in the labour and socialist movement, still claimed in a hymn from 1863, but because a virus brings everything to a standstill. This virus forces us to reassess the silence—and to let go of the noise and emissions that we have been producing in ever growing quantities for the last 200 years. In this caesura we have the opportunity to instigate fundamental and profound reforms and to change of our economic, social, and cultural systems. What previously seemed to be impossible is now inevitable. Our world will be different one.

Peter Weibel’s evaluation of the effects of the COVID-19 crisis reviews the past 200 years, when media became an integral part of our ways to communicate remotely and to perceive the world at a distance in a meaningful way, and how this development will be reinforced by the crisis sweeping away ways of living that are rooted in pre-(digital) media times. However, when we have overcome this pandemic, in the virus aftermath we shall also have to start to reflect on the fact that this situation has increased the appreciation for living online on the one hand—something that will likely continue and even grow once we get through this crisis. On the other hand, we will have to talk about the uneven level of preparedness for moving our lives into virtual worlds, because this crisis has exposed the massive scale of existing inequalities. We shall also have to become aware that this pandemic outbreak did not happen out of the blue. In the last two decades we have experienced two disease outbreaks caused by new coronaviruses that have jumped from animal to human, the current pandemic is the third that we see (Sars-CoV, Mers-CoV and Sars-CoV-2). The fact that viruses cross the animal-human barrier from time to time is a phenomenon that has long existed, but today it is our social and economic behaviour—the way we destroy our ecosystems and put pressure on our wildlife and how we promote mass development of global trade and travel (which allow infections to spread quickly)—that is providing an ideal environment for the transmission and spreading of pathogens.

Pandemics are regarded as global catastrophic risks by bodies and institutions for some time, which deal with global challenges and models for more effective global collaboration, like the Global Challenges Foundation in Stockholm. Global catastrophic risks are very rare, but when they happen, they are extremely disruptive. Therefore, knowledge and expertise about global catastrophic risks and effective structures of global governance facing them, need to be widely spread. The Global Catastrophic Risks report from 2017 lists next to pandemics also a number of other risks, which are regarded as the greatest threats to humanity: weapons of mass destruction, nuclear warfare, biological and chemical warfare, catastrophic climate change, ecological collapse, asteroid impact, supervolcanic eruption, geoengineering, and Artificial Intelligence, emphasizing also that today’s risks are interconnected and cannot be considered in isolation. Although we are still in the middle of the crisis, it is already clear that most governments did too little too late to fight the spread of the corona virus. Only some countries in Asia were better prepared, because they had learned their lesson from the SARS outbreak in 2003. The lack of leadership and governance for managing, reducing, or even eliminating this pandemic shows deficits on many levels and make it obvious that we have to break down old silos and set aside narrow national and political interests. We all have to learn our lesson from the failures in global cooperation to date, because a pandemic like the COVID-19 crisis or other global catastrophic risks cannot be stopped at international borders. (Ingeborg Reichle, April 10, 2020)