Future Tense

Future Tense Newsletter: Declaring a Cease-Fire to Allow for Vaccination

A woman wearing a face cover cycles past a poster reading: "Let's be together at home."
Berlin, April 10. John Macdougall/Getty Images

Hi Future Tensers,

Even though we can’t meet up together in person these days, connecting with each other about how technology and science can disrupt and enhance our lives is more vital than ever. Join us on Zoom for our Social Distancing Socials every Tuesday and Thursday at 4 p.m. Eastern:

Tuesday, April 14: Thinking About Climate Change in the Wake of the Coronavirus
Featuring: Henry Grabar (staff writer, Slate); Bina Venkataraman (Boston Globe editorial page editor, Future Tense fellow, and former White House senior adviser for climate change innovation)

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Thursday, April 16: Will the Coronavirus Claim Privacy Among Its Victims?
Featuring: Jennifer Daskal (professor and faculty director, Tech, Law, & Security Program at American University Washington College of Law); Kathryn Waldron (resident fellow, national security & cybersecurity, R Street Institute); Al Gidari (consulting director of privacy at the Stanford Center for Internet and Society)

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Tuesday, April 21: How Will COVID-19 Alter Our Relationship With China?
Featuring: Samm Sacks (cybersecurity policy and China digital economy fellow, New America); Susan A. Thornton (visiting lecturer in law at Yale Law School and senior fellow at the Paul Tsai China Center; former deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs)

Thursday, April 23: Does a Monthly Check to All Americans Make Sense Even Without a Pandemic?
Featuring: Annie Lowrey (staff writer, the Atlantic, author of Give People Money); Sebastian Johnson (writer and philanthropic strategist)

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Now for our editorial update. Zoom out for a moment from the dreary news updates, the homebound boredom, and the creeping suspicion that it’s time to start making your own bread. We are living through a major historic event, and it’s worth considering how future generations will look upon the history of coronavirus. But before you do that, while you wait for your sourdough to proof, we recommend that you read “Nationalism Can’t Beat a Global Problem,” Charles Kenny’s look at the history of the global effort to create the first vaccine—for smallpox. In 1803 physician Francisco Javier de Balmis led the “Royal Philanthropic Expedition of the Vaccine” to South America, starting a new era for global health: “Balmis provided vaccines to Spanish and Portuguese colonies and China alike,” Kenny writes. “During the wars for independence in South America in the decades that followed, the two sides even declared ceasefires to allow for vaccination.” Kenny argues this history provides a more compelling model than an “America first” response to a pandemic.

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Wish We’d Published This
The Coronavirus Lockdown Is a Threat for Many Animals, Not a Blessing” by Matt Simon, Wired.

Three Questions for a Smart Person
Kathryn Bowers is co-author of Zoobiquity: The Astonishing Connection Between Human and Animal Health and a Future Tense fellow at New America. I spoke with her about how animal behavior can help us respond to the coronavirus.

Margaret: There have been several striking images of animals coming into emptied-out cities, like coyotes prowling in San Francisco, that have been accompanied by claims that “humans are the virus.” What should we make of these unexpected animal appearances?
Kathryn: There are a couple things going on here. More people are at home observing animals that they might not normally notice. There’s been reports of more birdsong, and that’s probably because freeways aren’t as loud, but also because people are at home listening to the birds. There’s also evidence that with people out of the way, urbanized animals are getting bolder. Of course, the bigger trend is that humans have been moving more into animal habitats and natural areas.

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The line goes that humans are social creatures. How can social creatures make it through a period of prolonged isolation?
We’re not the only creatures that are social—lots of mammals are, and there’s social birds, fish, and even social reptiles and insects. The neural circuits that shape how creatures act around others have been evolving for hundreds of millions of years. There are rules of groups that hardwires social hierarchies into groups, which can take a toll because some get sorted to the top and some get sorted to the bottom. A break from the normal sorting we do in our daily lives might allow these hierarchies to rearrange themselves.

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A lot of people are using this time to “get back to nature” while social distancing. What advice do you have for people entering into the wild and possibly encountering wild animals?
Whether or not there’s a pandemic, you never want to approach an animal in the wild.
You might want to rethink hiking at dusk and dawn, when a lot of predators are hunting. Also, this virus can spread from animal to animal, not just into humans but to other animals. It’s important to remember that viruses are not unique to wild populations. Also, don’t feed squirrels.

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Future Tense Recommends
This may not prove to be our “finest hour,” but I highly recommend reading Erik Larson’s new book The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz. Winston Churchill’s first year in office—when he mobilized the power and beauty of the English language to keep his nation in the fight against Hitler despite the collapse of France, the terror of incessant German bombings, and stubborn American neutrality—is an oft-told tale of Western civilization’s harrowing survival. But it’s one that is rarely told as intimately and engagingly as Larson does, and it feels timelier than ever as we find ourselves besieged by a very different threat that also calls for a mobilization of society and inspiring leadership (sigh). Future Tensers will appreciate how Larson highlights Churchill’s fascination and admiration of tinkerers and technologists, whom he empowered in ways that caused a fair amount of eye-rolling among contemporaries, but paid our cause tremendous dividends.—Andrés Martinez, Future Tense editorial director

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What Next: TBD
On Friday on Slate’s technology podcast, Lizzie O’Leary spoke with Jordan Ellenberg, mathematics professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, about whether mathematical models can chart the course of this pandemic. And last week, Lizzie interviewed Heidi Carrico, founding member of the Gig Workers Collective, and Johana Bhuiyan, tech accountability reporter at the Los Angeles Times, about the Instacart workers risking their lives and demanding better treatment.

One Last Plug: Introducing Us in Flux
Us in Flux is a new series of flash fiction stories and virtual events about community, collaboration, and collective imagination in the face of transformative change, presented by our partners at the Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University. Every Thursday they’ll publish a story followed by a conversation with the author and an expert in a related field on the following Monday at 4 p.m. Eastern. The first story is “The Parable of the Tares” by Christopher Rowe—a tale of food, monoculture, and communities. On April 13, Christopher will be in conversation with Michael Bell, professor in the Department of Community and Environmental Sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Register today.

—Margaret from Future Tense

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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