Social Distancing

Monday, 16 March 2020 — An astronomer's voice is winning the battle against the scratch of static on the old clock radio that long ago lost its job on the nightstand in your bedroom to a smartphone that itself has now been retired four devices ago. It's shortly after 11 a.m. in Southeast London, and other times elsewhere. You're in your kitchen having decided more coffee is necessary. You're pleased with what's on the radio, now enjoying its later years next to potted plants in various stages of decline on a window sill. For a few minutes it's not about the virus.

Not everyone is working from home, but more people you work with are. Youre connected to them all with the screens, large and small. You lived this way before for the most part, just at an office. Then there was the virus. Now everyone's in someone else's screen. Now you're all remote. Elsewhere, some people you're waiting to talk to are still sleeping. Others are sending little electric alerts to your phone from other parts of the planet, experiencing parts of the day you've not yet witnessed and they're hoping to get a response before they experience 5 p.m. Social distancing they call it, but you've been used to it for some time.

You mentally acknowledge the aural montage of mobile phone sounds: The “Order's Up” ding indicates colleagues pleading for attention on the corporate collaborationware. The “Duet” tone for one social app, and a “Mallet” sound signalling attention on another. These are from people you used to experience in multisensory 3D, and are now condensed into curved-edge digital images about a quarter in size to postage stamps re-issuing successions of animated gifs and emojis. You avoid commuting. You avoid trains and crowds that separated you from the screens you kept at home and the ones you used in an office. Now they're the same.

You scroll a social feed of people you don't know as the radio voice hits your brain. The feed is people expressing fear. Expressing their wish to hide their fear. Expressing bald-faced fear. Fear of the current death, and the mathmatically projected death. The jobs lost and money worries. You're scrolling through fear while awaiting a meeting and water that's destined for the second cafetiere of store brand Colombian pre-ground to boil.

The astronomer's voice is making the statistical argument that extraterrestrials won't be that terribly exciting. Mathmatically aliens will not be what Star-Trek promised: Hyper-smart humanoids with various ear shapes and forehead alternatives zipping around space at beyond-light speeds. Probability speaking, they will likely be from less happy places than our own, conditions harder on the creatures there, with gravities lower than our own. A more likely “smart” alien somewhere out there in space will be larger, thicker, lacking technology, struggling to keep hydrated, fed. Busy. And not that smart.

You think of hypotomous-sized fluffy neanderthals but perhaps with six legs and pincers, foraging for moisture captured in some foul tasting plants and maybe scrawling memes on the walls of their catacombs. It's not likely you or your descendents will ever meet them, you learn. The same radio show voice cooly transitions to the theory that, according to the same statistical model about aliens, we have 700 and some years left as a species on Earth. Statistically, in the time left, we won't find anyone else in all of space. In effect: we are alone.

You plunge the cafetiere, appreciate the eternal inner child's thrill at watching the clouds of coffee grounds swirl around boiling water, topped with escaping steam, and then wander back to the next room, considering the glad news you've just heard, passing the sleeping dog in the hall, hearing the Android mobile's default ring tone invite you to the next work gathering, calling you to look presentable, with appropriate backlight and possibly the book case or at least not the drying rack behind you.

Outside, the virus looms. People coughing on buses and crowding themselves behind one another in shop qeues and the people have adapted to the new work-from-home regime through the local cafe's Wifi.

You tell yourself it's outside. In another time zone, one before your own, The virus has infected 80,000. In some others still far less. Staticstically, they haven't yet arrived. Like how it's still not yet 11 a.m. for some people on the upcoming work call. It will be, eventually.

The virus deaths are already high, but what people really mourn and fear is what's mathmatically predicted to come. Maybe it's only probable, like the chances of dumb aliens existing somewhere in the universe, or our own species’ supposed expiration date, but in terms of predictable models, it's far more likely than those. In your own country for example, if no one does anything spectacularly different than what they're up to at present, the statistical model would suggest around 250,000 people need to die.

You try not to worry. You know things.

People will do things differently. There's a pandemic, catastrophic climate change, a world war in all but name due to not bieng centered in Europe, and a growing selection of technological catastrophes from which to choose. But the model says 700 and something years are left on our clock. Nothing will happen in the time span that gets you out of anything that's due by next Monday. There will be mandatory testing and isolation of the infected. We will institute curfews, rations, martial law, close borders, and greenlight the electronic surveillance capabilities that our law enforcement has long been gagging for. We will protect concentrated wealth and supply chains. There will be a vaccine. You will be safe. You will because of the statistical model says you're not that special. You're from a medium-sized country on a medium sized planet with medium sized chances. Currently, that's the glad news.

You will survive this, and the next calamity, you safely conclude as you, in front of the suitable backdrop of a bookshelf in your sitting room join the work meeting populated by people in your own city and your time, kept separate by the virus, and with others from other cities and times, also sequestered in their own houses. The gambling odds, steaper than what they were not long ago, are still in favour of all of you. It's the world that comes after as a result of surviving. The post-virus one, where the laws, standards and expectations are something else. It's easy to picture the ways we could live out the next 700+ being not how we'd want to. Statistically, the world often leans these ways.

As you turn on your computer's video cam and click unmute for your meeting and trade updates on the lastest things the virus has been up to, your reflect on the glad news one last time before it's replaced with task lists and budget lines; It isn't for us. The glad news is for the technologically backward aliens, slowly lumbering under a hot and slightly smaller sun than our own, ignorant of even the statistical possibility that we might exist, sheilded from learning otherwise by an impassible distance.

“But who’s afraid of war? That’s to say, who’s afraid of the bombs and the machine-guns? ‘You are’, you say. Yes, I am, and so’s anybody who’s ever seen them. But it isn’t the war that matters, it’s the after-war. The world we’re going down into, the kind of hate-world, slogan-world. The coloured shirts, the barbed wire, the rubber truncheons. The secret cells where the electric light burns night and day, and the detectives watching you while you sleep. And the processions and the posters with enormous faces, and the crowds of a million people all cheering for the Leader till they deafen themselves into thinking that they really worship him, and all the time, underneath, they hate him so that they want to puke. It’s all going to happen.”

— George Orwell, Coming Up For Air

Footnotes

“Out of the Ordinary - Series 7 - Aliens Are the Size of Polar Bears (Probably) - BBC Sounds.” BBC News. BBC. Accessed March 16, 2020. https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m000gcvs.

Poundstone, William. “‘Doomsday’ Math Says Humanity May Have Just 760 Years Left.” The Wall Street Journal. Dow Jones & Company, June 27, 2019. https://www.wsj.com/articles/doomsday-math-says-humanity-may-have-just-760-years-left-11561655839.

Heffer, Greg. “Coronavirus: PM Shifts towards ‘Suppression’ after New Analysis of Coronavirus Death Rate.” Sky News. Sky, March 17, 2020. https://news.sky.com/story/coronavirus-govt-ramped-up-measures-after-new-prediction-of-250-000-deaths-11958680.

Ackerman, Gwen, and Yaacov Benmeleh. “Israeli Spyware Firm Wants to Track Data to Stop Coronavirus Spreading.” Bloomberg.com. Bloomberg, March 17, 2020. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-03-17/surveillance-company-nso-supplying-data-analysis-to-stop-virus.

Orwell, George. “Coming up for Air.” Project Gutenberg Australia. Project Gutenberg Australia. Accessed March 18, 2020. http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks02/0200031.txt.