ON BIOLOGICAL AND INFORMATIONAL PANDEMIAS


Rafael Capurro


 



Contribution to the International Conference on Access to Information in Time of Crisis - The UNESCO Information For All Programme Priorities and The COVID-19 Pandemic,  26-28 August, 2020 organized by India Centre of Excellence for Information Ethics (ICEIE), Centre for Digital Learning, Training and Resources (CDLTR), University of Hyderabad (India); African Centre of Excellence for Information Ethics (ACEIE), University of Pretoria (South Africa); Russian National IFAP Committee, Interregional Library Cooperation Centre (Russian Federation); UNESCO Chair on Language Policies for Multilingualism, University of Santa Catarina (Brazil).


A modified version of this text is included in the paper presented by Coetzee Bester, former Director of the African Centre of Excellence for Information Ethics, University of Pretoria (South Africa) at this conference.

Modified English translation of the paper in Spanish: De mensajes y mensajeros en tiempos de pandemias biológicas e informacionales presented at the
 Tercer Seminário: Ética em informação em tempos de pandemia. Coordinador Arthur Coelho Bezerra, IBICT (Brasil), 14 de mayo de 2020 http://escritos.ibict.br/ Traducción al portugués. (Video).

 



 
[DRAFT]

The concept of pandemia can be understood in a biological and an informational sense also called infodemia. There is a correlation between the harm viruses can do and digital misinformation or incorrect information and disinformation or deliberate misleading information. What happens at a biological level has informational effects and vice versa. People have access or are exposed to different forms of harmful disinformation. This has an impact on the way they deal or not with biological pandemias. A vaccine is part of an immune system of organic causes and effects. Legal and ethical norms are part of social immune systems (Sloterdijk 2009). Both are complex and ambivalent. This is the reason why sustainable scientific research and ethical reflection dealing also with their interaction is needed. The coronavirus has lead to a situation in which the state of emergency in many countries has become the rule leading in some cases to the support of totalitarian politics. The relation between both phenomena, the biological and the informational, should not be misunderstood as just an analogy but as a form of interaction.

This interaction can be analysed by reflecting on them as different forms of messaging systems (Capurro & Holgate 2011). When Dr Li Wenliang of Wuhan (China) became aware of the coronavirus his discovery did not become accessible soon. Dr Li died from an infection with this virus on April 30, 2020. The coronavirus caused the death of the messenger and of many thousands of people world wide who did not got the information in due time also due to the political non-action in China and elsewhere. The coronavirus knew nothing, of course, about the harm it would cause. As society in China and worldwide reacted, it was too late. What does 'too late' mean? In a globalized world in which systems of production and exchange of goods as well as all kinds of human interconnected relations, particularly mass tourism but also the globalization of industry and business, the virus expanded vertiginously. But, in fact, it is not the virus that expanded by itself but through human and technical messengers who at the beginning knew nothing about being such. It became soon apparent that the process of concealment and un-concealment or what was known and unknown, was not only an issue of social access to information but concerned the way of being of the virus itself as something that does what it conceals to the organism leading in many cases its death. The media system, on the other hand, gives rise an many cases to informational tsunamis of all kinds in which it becomes more and more difficult to distinguish between truth and falsity including also the question about the trustworthiness of the (digital) messengers.

All this shows the negative forms of local and global life of society today, biologically and informationally. We must learn to understand this crisis in such a way that looking at such negative forms we can see what positive forms of living they hinder. One lesson we can learn is that biological and informational globalization interact with each other. An organism does not exist separated from other organisms. This is also true about digital disinformation and misinformation. We must learn that not only biological but also moral and legal norms and values seen as symbolic immune systems need a critical review when a new situation arises in order to avoid that they become tools of oppression instead of liberation. This is evident in the case of biological immune systems but less evident when it comes to social processes and particularly to the access to trustworthy information based particularly on the political and economic ambitions of the ones who put such ambitions on the top of their agendas.

What is the message of the coronavirus? No more and no less that we can become aware of the fact that we live in a globalized and interdependent social and biological world. But didn't we know this already? Yes and no. Yes, because this happened already in human history if we think, for instance, about other technical revolutions such as the printing press that helped societies to have universal access to information once the political and social changes necessary for it were provided. But there is a difference between the kind of informational globalization based on the printing press and the one based on the internet. One difference concerns the kind of time regime that is proper to each technology. In the case of the digital network the access to information goes beyond their physical accessibility for instance in libraries making possible a potential accessibility every time, everywhere and for everybody provided that people have the media and the education needed for it. This basic change concerning time and accessibility concerns also physical goods and service transformed by their digital form of existence and also the mobility of human beings: we all want to go everywhere and to have access to everything and to everyone all the time. This can turn into a dystopia with different forms of destruction of oneself and of others including the digital pollution of the environment (e-waste).

But digital technology per se is not the cause of all evil as an anti-technological and often also anti-scientific critique suggests. It is because we have forgotten our capacity to question forms of life with their specific traditional immune systems that turn, also biologically, into deadly ones at the very moment in which we are not able to see what kind of life they hinder or what possibilities of death they make possible and even protect. The history of medicine and psychology is full of positive and negative examples about this.

The coronavirus discloses the ecological crisis at the very moment in which it is almost too late. The message of the coronavirus is that we have to create new forms of living together sharing a common world beyond the belief that we are the masters of nature as well as of ourselves and of others. The coronavirus has a message of life if we are able to interpret it in this way. Viruses belong to the world in which we live and die. We have to learn to live and die with them. They are not an enemy with which we are in war but a fundament of life and death. According to German virologist Karin Mölling the number of viruses in the world is something like 10 to the power of 32. The number of bacteria is about 10 to the power or 31. Human beings are about 10 to the power of 10 (Karin Mölling apud Berndt 2020). Viruses and bacteria are basic for human comfort and discomfort. War rhetorics against coronavirus is part of the problem not of the solution. The challenge is to create biological and informational immunological systems in such a way that they do not cause the opposite of what they intend to protect, namely the health of a living organism and the biological and informational well being of people. Critical thinking on this issue is a main challenge of information ethics nowadays.

 

References

Berndt, Christina (2020). Die heimlichen Herrscher der Welt. In: Süddeutsche Zeitung, May 2-3, 2020, Nr. 101, 30-31

Capurro, Rafael & Holgate, John (Eds.) (2011). Messages and Messengers - Angeletics as an Approach to the Phenomenology of Communication. Munich 2011.

Sloterdijk, Peter (2009). You must change your life. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

 

Policy recommendations

Promote local and global research in Information Ethics dealing with the relation between informational and biological pandemias.

Develop an international monitoring system on this issue.


Last update: July 29, 2020


   

Copyright © 2020 by Rafael Capurro, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. and international copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the author is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the author.
 

 
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