“Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment but you humans do not. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus.” (Agent Smith, The Matrix)
Our system collapsed long before many realized. I’ve always thought I read and watched too many dystopian stories. It made me a bit paranoid, but not in denial. Here are ten of the best science-fiction stories you should both read and watch to help you make sense of what has happened, and most importantly, what’s yet to come. Between paranoia and denial, the choice is yours. Enjoy!
“You take the blue pill, the story ends”. So many people are confined, yet keep going out at least once a day, to “get fresh air”. It is true that the air must be less polluted since there is barely any vehicle on the street. Others keep changing households every week or two, to alternate their place of quarantine, or simply go visit some family. It is fine, because they are not infected, right? What surprises me the most in this crisis, is how much people keep believing their own ignorance. The human brain keeps selecting the best information available and makes a rational narrative out of it (the confirmation bias). We all picked the blue pill. I tried to pick it too, except, for me, I’m colorblind. Happy denial folks!
“Throughout human history, we have been dependent on machines to survive.” There is no more tragic image than an infected human intubated to remain alive. In the Matrix, every single human is maintained alive via a bunch of cables, including one on the back of their heads. In the movie, humans are not conscious and live their lives via a simulation. Today, ironically, the more infected people, the more ventilators we need to produce. The more the virus spreads, the more we need the machines to keep us alive.
Here is the irony: the streets of our planet are becoming deserted, empty of humans. We need to stay confined at home, and we rely exclusively on technology to keep communicating with our friends and family. We work remotely, and receive orders from our respective governments. Like never before, we rely on our technology to get food deliveries and other necessary goods. Our cities are empty because our social interactions disappeared. In the end, it seems that our physical public space was not that bad. Who wants to spend more time on social media now?
Office space creates a routine. At the beginning of the movie, Neo nicely performs his office work. His boss is always after him. Neo does not understand the world he lives in. He questions it, time and time again. Until one day, the phone rings and Neo gets extracted from his office box once and for all. Office spaces are being deserted, and people are forced to reinvent their routine, to reinvent their lives. Stuck at home all day long with roommates, with kids, or with pets, nothing matters anymore. Just as Neo was extracted from his office routine, this social experiment has brought at least one positive element: authenticity. This virus might be our best opportunity to look less like the robots we created.
Can we predict the future? What are the odds that an individual's consumption of a wild animal triggers the proliferation of a pandemic on a global scale? A very minor chance, for sure. In Minority Report, the data fuel every prediction. Different statistics determine both the seriousness and urgency of a future crime. A red ball means an imminent murder is about to happen. Today, in every minute of every day, in every country and state, we look at graphs and data. We trust the data because it gives us the impression that we can predict the future. The painful truth is that we do not really know how much time we need to get back to normal. Let’s do ourselves a favor and stop believing in precogs.
Governments all over the world started to track our phones via geolocation. This is particularly effective in fighting against the spread of the virus, because it is a way to become proactive. Identifying the path of an infected individual helps identify and alert other people who might have been in contact with an infected person. Some do it via QR codes and apps like in France, some do it directly by tracking your phone number, like China, South Korea or Israel. In Minority Report, the intrusion into private life is everywhere, and is considered to be the only way to track and prevent future crimes. Transmitting Corona is not a crime yet. But if you know you are infected, and you break your quarantine, should you be arrested?
“Everybody runs!” In Minority Report, self-driving cars bring you from A to B without the need to look at the street or meet anyone on public transportation. It limits your social interactions to a point where John Anderton, the hero of the story, feels particularly lonely in his high-tech apartment. One of the most iconic scenes of the movie is John’s escape from the system. After being geolocated, John breaks the windshield of his car in the middle of a vertical maglev highway because the police took remote control of his vehicle. He starts jumping from car to car, and lands onto a balcony. What is striking in this scene is the complete absence of public space. Everybody runs from A to B. This crisis might be a once-in-a-lifetime chance to break your windshield. It might be a real opportunity to escape your self-driving pod. You can choose to go beyond the vertical highway. Like John Anderton, you can choose to go sideways. It’s up to you.
“I can’t... rely on... my memories.” Just a few weeks ago, we were just talking about Covid-19 as if it was a benign flu, and as if this was the first time it happened. Yet, as surprising as it sounds, it’s happened before; many times in fact. Humans have a short memory. History books are great, but collective memory is even better. It happened to us in 1918. Collective memory is not history. Collective memory corresponds to what happened in between the memorable events of history. By definition, history is the collection of events that are written or recorded. Collective memory is not written; it lives inside our brains and RNA. And it tends to disappear after three generations. The human brain prefers to focus on what it can understand. Bad memories become confusing, and all of the acute details become purposely obfuscated. This pandemic has happened before, and it will happen again.
What were the actual vectors that spread the virus? The Internet? The belief that aspirin can solve it all? Planes? I, Robot is not a story against progress. Rather, it sheds light on our own excess, the feeling of being invincible, thanks to our advances. We think of our world as if it was way more advanced than in 1918: the Internet, modern medicine, and the ability to get to most places in under 24h.These advances, however, come at a price. The first action taken by authorities around the world was to shut down international travel. It’s as if we’ve become the victims of our own liberties. It is almost taboo to mention: what is killing us is really the rate at which fake news spread online, the feeling that thanks to modern medicine we’re invincible, and our compulsive obsession to travel everywhere. Just as eating too much of something one loves makes one sick, we literally have made ourselves sick.
“Don’t panic!” Politicians and the media keep asking the population not to “panic”. The only other moment where the phrase “Don’t Panic” was mentioned so many times was in Douglas Adams’ 1978 publication of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. In his book series, Adams focuses on the importance of always carrying a towel with you. A towel can serve you at any time, for many reasons. In 1918, people wrapped their door knob with a towel to signify the disease got to their homes. We in 2020 are hoarding toilet paper. Adams was right, since 1978! Humans seem to worry more about wiping their asses than about putting food into their mouths.
How many hours of live feed do you stream every day at home? We are now spending a big part of our days in live stream. Truman will always hold the ultimate record of having spent more than three decades in involuntary live stream. Should you also just keep the livestream open to simplify your day? Whatever you choose to do, if you start feeling watched or that cameras are constantly recording your life, you might actually become delusional. Be careful, the Truman Show delusion is real!
Our homes became our stage. Like in the Truman show, each moment of the day becomes a new scene and deserves a different stage. So we keep changing the scenery for every type of video meeting. On the sofa when talking to friends and family, or sitting in the living room for professional meetings, the background is key. Many of us even move the table and camera to make sure the background looks professional enough, such as books and plants. It inspires calm and stability in this time of crisis, doesn’t it?
“We have mortgage payments, Truman. What, we’re going to just walk away from our financial obligations?” Should we all ask the Chinese government to erase our debt? Of course not, that would trigger a chain reaction that would disrupt the whole world’s economy. Pretty ironic, I know. I am glad the Chinese authorities keep sending the masks and other medical supplies to other countries, although we would have appreciated it if they were free of charge. After covering the truth with smokescreens, the Chinese government covers our faces with masks. The WHO and everyone else will appreciate the gesture.
We all hope for strong political leadership in times of crisis. We all hope for our government to make the right decisions at the right time. Yet, let’s not forget what contributed to the crisis in the first place: a strong, totalitarian political leadership. The Chinese government tried to hide the fact that a new virus started to spread in the Wuhan province as soon as November of 2019. The Chinese government lied to the World Health Organization. I am not sure anymore if we need strong leadership. What I want though, is complete transparency. We need an international mechanism led by the WHO to know when viruses start from day 1. Only transparency might help prevent the spread of the next pandemic.
If you tried to call your airline company these days, you probably spent some significant time trying to deal with an evil robot voice. The Department of Transportation is very clear: canceled flights have to be refunded. Some people spend hours on the phone, only to hear the same refusal over and over. Many airline companies seem to make their own laws and disregard the Federal Law. When you finally get to talk to someone, the representative sounds more like a cyborg than a real human. They feed you with the same robotic answer because they follow a script. Robot or human, airline companies actually expressed a complete disregard for the rule of law, and a total lack of empathy. “I’m afraid I can’t do that, Dave.”
Spring breakers can sleep peacefully. One of the most reassuring news for young people was that the virus only affected very old people, or individuals with a pre-existing condition. We now know that this is not the case. While you might have a statistical advantage of surviving if you are young and healthy, anyone can become infected, no matter who or how old you are. In March of 2020, stories started to emerge in Italy and in Israel of some centenarians who survive the virus. The only plausible explanation given was that they may have had the antibodies in their blood since the time of the 1918 pandemic. Eugenics is a very difficult thing, you see. In Gattaca, your ability to go to space is not based on training; rather, only superior DNAs are allowed to experience zero gravity. It is almost funny how our judgement is almost always based on our ignorance.
“Maybe I’m not leaving. Maybe I’m going home.” These are the last known words of Vincent Freeman as he leaves Earth for outer space In Gattaca. “Stay home”, they keep saying. Don’t take a plane to another country, don’t take a train to another city, don’t even think of setting foot onto the street. What, however, is home exactly? Many people abandoned their urban apartments, and went back to their family homes. Going back home means going back in time. We do not want to “stay home”. We want to go places, it gives us a raison d’être. There is something really interesting when you read the news. The whole planet is pretty much in quarantine, yet efforts to go back to the Moon and then to Mars did not cease. We keep focusing on the grand scheme of things, as the continued space exploration demonstrates. Where there is hope, there is life.
In Total Recall, Douglas Quaid is so bored in his life, he decides to go visit Mars. Way too expensive for him to actually do the trip, he gets memories implanted in his brain. In 2020, each quarantined human is doing its best to fight boredom. We are stranded at home, condemned to keep traveling between our kitchens and bathrooms. People learn how to bake, watch series, and work remotely as much as possible. If boredom begins to take root, why not think of implanting yourself some nice memories? Keep watching your favorite series all day long. Nobody will judge you. Oh, and keep baking!
“We hope you enjoyed the ride!” said the robot driver. A bumpy ride ending with a car accident. Everyone thinks of the collapse of our system as if it was the collapse of our society. Our system is not our society. Our cultures, values, and aspirations are far more enduring than our system. I know it is very difficult to dissociate the system (supply chain, travels, technology, etc.) from our culture. I understand it is inextricably linked. Yet, look at every World War, natural disaster or pandemics in the past century. It was not the end of society. The 1918 pandemic did not put an end to our culture. It did not annihilate our dreams. It did not make us forget our values. While it certainly shook down our culture, delayed our dreams, and put our values to test, this 2020 pandemic, too, shall pass. So hang tight, and enjoy the ride!
- Lio Slama
Image credits: The Truman Show, Peter Weir, 1998