Future Tense

Future Tense Newsletter: Teenage Mutant Ninja … Virus?

A Spider-Man jumps high while holding a sign, in front of a backdrop of city buildings.
This picture taken on April 17 shows a man in Indonesia in a Spider-Man costume holding a placard reading “Dear corona, go home, you’ve gone too far.” DAENG MANSUR/Getty Images

Hi Future Tensers,

From here on Earth to up in space, the next two weeks of our Social-Distancing Socials are covering it all. Join the conversation on Zoom every Tuesday and Thursday at 4 p.m. Eastern:

Tuesday, May 12: Business in a Time of Crisis

Thursday, May 14: Free Speech Project: Symptoms May Include Censorship

Tuesday, May 19: Social Distancing, Meet Space Exploration

Thursday, May 21: Will We Ever Fly Again?

This pandemic is making armchair epidemiologists out of us all. Every morning we roll out of bed to yet another science-adjacent article shared by everyone and their great-aunt. But premature reporting on scientific studies can threaten public health. In the first article in Viral Studies, a Slate series that breaks down widely shared articles about the pandemic, Jane C. Hu explains “What That Study About the ‘Mutant Coronavirus’ Actually Says.” Hu writes that the findings of the study are much more complex than the splashy “Mutant Coronavirus” headlines: “Yes, the coronavirus has mutated—and it will continue to mutate, as all viruses and animal species do. But those mutations are not fundamentally scary or bad and don’t necessarily change how a virus functions.”

Best of Future Tense

Wish We’d Published This

How My Boss Monitors Me While I Work From Home,” by Adam Satariano, New York Times.

Three Questions for a Smart Person

Samm Sacks is a cyber policy fellow at New America and a senior fellow at Yale Law School’s Paul Tsai China Center. I spoke with her about China, surveillance, and coronavirus. Our phone conversation has been condensed and lightly edited.

Margaret: While there’s a lot of interest in heightened surveillance in China due to the coronavirus, much of that infrastructure was already in place. What shifts in surveillance do you imagine there will be in China after the coronavirus?
Samm: There’s a perception that it’s a data free-for-all, and that’s just not accurate. In the first few weeks of the virus, the government began working on protecting personal information when using digital technologies to slow the spread of the virus. It put up guard rails around what government agencies were allowed to access the information, retention of data, and limiting the use of the data to epidemiological purposes. A lot of Chinese mobile apps have been cracked down on for excessive collection of information through the Mobile App Campaign. The government has expanded tools to access data, but companies are under increasing scrutiny about the way they’re using information.

There’s a bit of a misperception that all surveillance is done without consent, when plenty of geolocation tracking services and others require voluntary participation. How would you characterize the balance between voluntary participation and more heavy-handed data collection from which citizens can’t opt out?
The Health Code Program was a system of hundreds of different apps used for contact tracing, where people voluntarily answered questions about their contacts, travel, and exposure. The question about the extent to which this is mandatory comes into play as the economy flickers back to life, and a lot of places require a green signal on your app to enter. It’s very unevenly enforced, and it’s more enforced in places like Beijing than Shanghai, where it’s not much of a part of life. There’s a perception that it’s mandatory, widespread, and centralized, and the reality on the ground is so much messier.

What characterizes viral disinformation in China versus what we see in the U.S.?
There’s a much stronger effort by the Chinese government to control the narrative, from the early days of the virus when doctors and hospitals trying to sound the alarm were censored. For weeks after, the government tried to really clamp down on the way people were talking about the virus, even in private WeChat accounts. In the U.S., it’s the private sector that does content moderation to filter what platforms consider misinformation. When the stakes are so high, the question for the United States is how we control misinformation when it’s in the public interest in a way that doesn’t look like authoritarianism.

For more, watch Samm in a recent Social-Distancing Social: How Will COVID-19 Alter Our Relationship With China? 

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When I discovered Imaginary Worlds, the podcast by former NPR producer Erik Molinsky, it was as if I’d found a new quadrant of my brain that revealed hidden meanings and connections between beloved works of science fiction and fantasy that I thought already knew well. Molinsky explores both the familiar and the unexpected sides of imagination, from religion in Harry Potter to pandemics in World of Warcraft. He interviews creators, fans, and scholars in conversations that reveal the profound impact of alternate universes on our own.—Ed Finn, director of the Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University and academic director of Future Tense

What Next: TBD

On Friday on Slate’s technology podcast, Lizzie O’Leary spoke with Shannon Palus, staff writer for Slate, and Natalie E. Dean, assistant professor of biostatistics at the University of Florida, about whether you should get one of those new antibody tests. . And last week, Lizzie spoke with Elizabeth Dwoskin, Silicon Valley correspondent at the Washington Post, about how tech giants are seeing the crisis as an opportunity.

—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.