The path down the rabbit hole is, I’m here to report, greased, and it takes absolutely minimal effort to find oneself on the edge, inadvertently slipping in.
It is true that this case has been something of a perfect storm for just such a state of affairs: an encounter with a novel, deadly phenomenon, emerging within a less than transparent social milieu. That could have described any number of previous moments in human history, of course. The difference is that digital media has added another critical dimension: digital patterns of communication accelerated, augmented, diffused, refracted the experience of crisis. Digital virality compounded the consequences of biological virality. Problems endemic to our information ecosystem have exacerbated the risks posed by a novel viral threat.
It is true, however, that as we gain a better understanding of the disease over time, it seems the acute nature of the specifically epistemic crisis wanes. And it does appear that this is beginning to happen, although there is still much that is contested and uncertain.
Unfortunately, this moment of pronounced anxiety was just one case of a more pervasive problem: we are increasingly moving into territory for which we have no map, and our use of digital media amounts to pushing hard on the accelerator rather than covering the break.
I am not generally a big fan of newsletters, but one to which I do subscribe and recommend is L.M. Sacasas’s The Convivial Society. Here’s a good example of why from the latest installment, in which he talks about trying to about trying to make sense of online commentary regarding the coronavirus: