When we have been so enormously successful in analyzing the virus and developing a vaccine during 2020, why do we still struggle with the pandemic? The answer is politics and our current social organization.
In the FT article Lessons from a year of Covid Yuval Harari argues that the increased technical capabilities to master our world simply shift problems into the political realm. And Covid-19 and how we handle the pandemic is just another example of this.
The industrial revolution meant a transformation of our relationship to nature. An obvious example is that science and technology revolutionized food production. E g here in Sweden well under 2% of the workforce is engaged in the food industry.
As a consequence, the global food production capacity is so great that starvation is no longer a food availability problem, which it has been since the dawn of man. So why do some people still starve? A side effect of that we technically have solved the problem of food production is that we turned it into a problem of politics and social organization.
The extremely successful scientific efforts around Covid-19 in 2020 have shown that the area of contagious diseases follows the same path.
Epidemics are no longer uncontrollable forces of nature. Science has turned them into a manageable challenge.
The unprecedented scientific and technological successes of 2020 didn’t solve the Covid-19 crisis. They turned the epidemic from a natural calamity into a political dilemma.
The political dilemma here is the need for global cooperation and informed political decisions to manage the crisis while we are seeing competing nation-states and political cultures based on opinion polls and four-year terms. So far this has lead to both bad political decisions and competing national strategies.
Science cannot replace politics. When we come to decide on policy, we have to take into account many interests and values, and since there is no scientific way to determine which interests and values are more important, there is no scientific way to decide what we should do.
While we already know that
- we technically have the knowledge to manage the virus
- a virus doesn’t acknowledge borders
the decisions about how to tackle Covid-19 are taken in the failing political arenas of nation-states. This is now the real problem. According to Harari, this is exactly what is happening when science and technology succeed:
Scientific and technological development that solves human problems transforms them into political or ethical problems.
To me this points to the important and more general corollary:
Accelerating scientific och technological development leads to an acceleratingly more politicized society.
If this is true we will see an accelerating politicization of everything and it will congest every decision-making process and make the political institutions of our society grind to a complete standstill.
To those who are afraid of the singularity, this standstill will most likely happen long before any kind of technological singularity takes place.
Another insight I get when thinking about this is that most engineers and scientists probably don’t understand that they themselves drive the transformation of everything into politics. Whenever they achieve a result or solve an engineering problem they participate in the accelerated transformation of scientific or technical problems into political issues.
For the time being, most of the people working in our political institutions don’t understand or ignore that there are scientific or technical solutions to many politically debated issues. And maybe that is a good thing. Because if every political debate looks anything like the Covid-19 discussions going on right now, very few political decisions would be taken. And very few real-world problems would be solved by our political institutions.
I have not seen the connection between Harari and increasing the cost of complexity in societies which Joseph Tainter explains in his book The Collapse of Complex Societies so clear before.
Or is it something I am missing here?
Read the article: Yuval Noah Harari: Lessons from a year of Covid | Free to read | Financial Times