The Contagious Moment

As the credits roll at the end of Rise of the Planet of the Apes a jet carrying a pilot infected with a deadly brain virus traverses the screen. The pilot has already coughed up blood in the departure terminal at San Francisco International airport so we know that the prognosis for mankind is not good, and as the plane traces a path between New York, Frankfurt and other destinations it isn’t long before the globe is ensnared in a web of inter-connecting lines. Like a Lufthansa map iterated to the power of ten, the lines symbolize both the path the virus will take and the technological network that governs the transmission of material and immaterial objects in Rise’s post-modern, and soon to be post-human, world. It is a neat way of signaling the imminent Armageddon and the film’s sequel. Ever since the early 1980s when an Air Canada flight attendant, Gaetan Dugas – aka ‘patient zero’—supposedly introduced AIDS to North America, novel contagions have been difficult to contain. Thanks to international air travel and the ceaseless demands of global trade and commerce, deadly rainforest pathogens are never more than a truck, train, or plane-ride away from the nearest metropolis, which in our highly networked world is the same thing as saying that in an instant they can be everywhere.

Contagion: 'Nothing spreads like fear'.

However, it is not the incursion of nature ‘red in tooth and claw’ into sanitised urban spaces that is the true subject of films like Rise and Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion, which gets its long-overdue release in the UK this week, so much as the mayhem wrought by 21st century technological networks. Sure, the posters for Contagion are adorned with biohazard signs, but it is the contaminating effects of panic—what might be termed moral or emotional contagion—that really gets Soderbergh’s creative juices flowing, hence the film’s tag line, ‘Nothing spreads like fear’.

Fear—and the money that can be made from it—is also at the centre of  Robert Harris’s new thriller,The Fear Index, in which the author employs Charles Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872) as a none-too-subtle plot device to signal to readers the thrills ahead. ‘The heart beats quickly and violently, so that it palpitates or knocks against the ribs,’ writes Harris quoting Darwin shortly before an intruder bursts into the home of his central character, Dr Alexander Hoffman. ‘As fear rises to an extreme pitch, the dreadful scream of terror is heard. Great beads of sweat stand on the skin…’ However, it is not the physiology of fear that interests Harris so much as its psychology and epidemiology. Hoffman, a brilliant physicist who has quit CERN to set up a hedge fund in Geneva, has devised an alogithm, codenamed VIXAL-4, to monitor fear and its impacts on financial markets. As one would expect from a writer whose ear is tuned to the Zeitgeist, Harris studs the narrative with references to those now familiar bogeys, ‘quants’ and ‘credit-default swaps’. Stripped of financial jargon, however, the principle behind VIXAL-4 is simple: it is a machine that shorts stocks when fear and anxiety are on the up. In a pitch to investors, Hoffman explains that with fear ‘driving the world as never before’, VIXAL-4 is a licence to print money. But why should there be more fear about today than during the Cold War when the world lived with the threat of mutually assured nuclear destruction? Hoffman, or rather Harris’s explanation, is intriguing: ‘The rise in market volatility, in our opinion, is a function of digitalisation, which is exaggerating human mood swings by the unprecedented dissemination of information via the internet’. In other words, writes Harris, ‘digitalisation itself is creating an epidemic of fear’. This notion that digitalisation and the growth of informatics networks tend to propagate fear and other forms of emotional contagion also informs Contagion. As Jude Law, playing a conspiracy-minded blogger, races to uncover the truth about a deadly flu-like virus while officials at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta agonise over how much to tell the public, Soderbergh suggests that in our technologised, network-dependent world, fear and hysteria are impossible to contain. Instead, amplified by social media and bloggers packaging and re-packing rumours and half-truths, disinformation takes on a life of its own. The result is that just as viruses co-opt our DNA to make numerous copies of themselves, so fear ‘goes viral’, endlessly replicating itself and sowing doubt and distrust wherever it lands. But should we employ biomedical metaphors in the context of informatics and social epidemiology? After all contagion is not the same as transmission. Nor is contamination with a living virus—which  presupposes the materiality and mess of actual bodies—the same as a ‘virtual’ infection with an aberrant piece of computer code, which is what Harris is surely talking about when he reduces fear to an algorithm that can ‘infect’ financial markets. Accustomed as we are to thinking of contagion as an epidemiological term that can be metamorphised into non-biological contexts, perhaps this is an abstraction too far and all this talk of computer ‘viruses’ and ‘digital epidemics’ is obscuring what is really going on in informatics networks. There is also another side to the equation. Just as in the world of ‘information security’ biological tropes are used to understand computer ‘viruses’ and design computer ‘immune systems’, so in mathematical epidemiology statistical and probabilistic methods are used to study the dynamics of populations and disease distributions. Thanks to the World Health Organization’s Global Outbreak Alert And Response Network (GOARN) and electronic disease reporting systems such as ProMED, search engines now routinely trawl the internet for unusual disease outbreaks at the same time as other computers simulate epidemics and forecast patterns of morbidity and mortality. The result is what the philosopher and media theorist Eugene Thacker calls a‘real-time battle between networks’, one biological, the other informational. Thacker’s argument is that just as particular types of computer behaviour can be understood through the lens of biology, so infectious disease can be understood through the paradigm of mathematics and informatics. But while internet-based disease surveillance systems and statisical modelling can be highly effective—witness, for instance, the WHO’s just-in-time response to SARS in 2003—they can also backfire. Interestingly, this is not only a matter of having accurate data. Although material and biological processes can be abstracted by epidemiology into statistical processes, at the end of their day they are about real, material things. And real viruses, unlike their immaterial, metaphorical counterparts, are messy; no matter how ‘good’ the data there is no guarantee they will behave in the way the mathematical models predict—hence the wildly inaccurate forecasts about the projected deaths from swine flu in 2009.

Jude Law as Alam Krumwiede in Contagion

It is such premature and often erroneous prognostications that explain the public’s growing distrust of science and the popularity of the sort of conspiracy theories expressed by Alan Krunwiede, the character portrayed by Jude Law in Contagion, who spends much of the film obsessively blogging that the CDC is in cahoots with Big Pharma while promoting a dubious homeopathic remedy. The irony, or course, is that in social epidemiological terms this distrust is itself contagious. With the help of Twitter, Facebook and other social media, conspiracy theories now spread as rapidly as any virus, sparking skepticism, fear and, sometimes, hatred of the ‘authorities’, whether they be health officials sitting in Whitehall or police chiefs with a hotline to News of the World. In this respect we should not have been shocked by the response to the shooting of Mark Duggan in Tottenham in August. After all, as many commentators pointed out, the Arab world had just given us an object lesson in the power of social media to spread contagious ideas. That the London rioters did not appear to share the lofty political ideals of the protestors in Tahrir Square was beside the point. It was the network that enabled the looters to organize and infect others with their criminal intent. For many, this was proof that BBM, Facebook, and Twitter were forces for evil and that the authorities should block social media in times of trouble. But to blame the internet for propagating contagious ideas is a little like blaming trucks, planes and birds for spreading infectious viruses. Without trucks and planes there would be no oranges on British breakfast tables in winter and no summer holidays in Tuscany. Those criss-crossing lines at the end of Rise are what make global trade and travel possible. It is not the fault of the network that it also facilitates the spread of bird and swine flu. But if contagion is not equivalent to transmission in the virtual world of the internet, nor should we conflate viruses with transmission networks in the material world of biology. That is the trap epidemiologists fall into when they try to use mathematical models to make sense of real-life contagions. Just because the CDC was able to trace a pattern of sexual contacts between Gaetan Dugas and men infected with HIV in San Francisco, Los Angeles and other north America cities in the early 1980s, that does not make Dugas ‘patient zero’ any more than it makes the pilot jetting off at the end of Rise the progenitor of the downfall of the human race (for all we know there may well be other ‘patient zeros’ and other pilots). It simply makes them so many nodes in a network. Nor does the frequent recourse to metaphors of ‘financial contagion’ explain the present volatility of world stock markets. While it is tempting to see such volatility as a function of digitalisation, Harris is surely wrong to blame it on the internet’s tendency to exacerbate ‘human mood swings’. Rather, as the Bank of England pointed out in a recent report such volatility flows directly from the increasing complexity of such networks and the interconnectedness of modern financial institutions. By spreading defaults across the system, the bank argues, such linkages reduce the likelihood that the losses of a large institution like Lehman Brothers will trigger similar defaults by other bank and brokerage houses. At the same time, however, such linkages increase ‘the potential for contagion to spread more widely’. The result is what the bank call ‘a robust-yet-fragile tendency’ that makes the probability of contagion low, but the effects extremely widespread when problems arise.

European leaders dither while the Euro burns. Image courtesy of Patrick Blower.

This is the contagious moment we find ourselves in today and explains why, as European leaders dither over the scale of the Greek bail out, every day brings further plunges in the FTSE, Dow and Nikkei. Moreover, while it is true that these plunges may be exacerbated by hedge funds trading on fear much like Hoffman’s VIXAL-4 algorithm, it is the linkages between institutions—not the individual investors themselves—that spread that fear more widely. That is why restoring confidence is so much more of a challenge today that it was in 1932 when Franklin D. Roosevelt issued his famous peroration to the America people that they had ‘nothing to fear but fear itself’. Today, it is our very connectedness that makes us vulnerable to emotional and other forms of contagion, and the networks themselves that are the real source of instability and dread. – Mark Honigsbaum

One thought on “The Contagious Moment

  1. Have you read World War Z, by Max Brooks? Best zombie outbreak book I’ve read. (OK, also the only zombie outbreak book Ive read). It talks a lot about how the plague and fear spread through global networks. Worth a read.

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