Welcome to Galaxy Brain -- a newsletter from Charlie Warzel about technology and culture and big ideas. You can read what this is all about here. If you like what you see, consider forwarding it to a friend or two. We're still figuring things out in our new home so let me know what you think: firstname.lastname@example.org
Quick Fun Thing: I created a Twitter bot that will tweet out links to pieces I'm reading after I've finished reading them. You can follow it here.
The news about the Omicron COVID variant last week reminded me of March 11, 2020—the day when it felt like the United States truly entered the pandemic. In a span of less than three hours we learned that Tom Hanks had gotten COVID; that an NBA game had been canceled just before tip-off, prompting the NBA to shut down its whole season; and that in a national address, the president had announced a European travel ban. Despite being used to fast-paced news cycles, watching it all unfold on my Twitter feed that day made it feel like the fabric of reality was fraying a bit.
We know now that the virus already had its hooks in every aspect of our lives by the time professional sports shut down. What felt like a violent stoppage of life was actually the result of a failure to behave proactively. But I can still feel the whiplash from that evening. A retrospective piece about March 11 on ESPN described it aptly as “a day that started in one reality and ended in a new one.”
COVID news travels fast, but over the last year, I’ve felt as if I’ve acclimated as much as possible to the dynamic. The epidemiology crowd I follow on Twitter begins chattering—often sharing early, tentative reports of a change in virus behavior (case counts or hospitalizations) or a new potential variant of concern on the horizon. I listlessly click through genome-sequencing charts I’m not qualified to read and I log everything I’ve seen, filing it away in the back of my mind for later, when there is more information. Over time, more information always comes. And if the data in question shift from “future concern” to “actionable concern,” my feeds change. The news filters from the epidemiology crowd to the “COVID journalist” crowd to the “high-follower-count COVID watchers” crowd to the “COVID pundits” crowd to the “COVID skeptics/panickers” crowd. That process usually takes some time—days, even weeks. Once my feed indicates that people have incorporated the new data into their culture-war arguments, I take it as a sign that the news cycle has reached the maturation stage.
The Omicron variant news traveled differently. When I woke up Thanksgiving morning on the West Coast, my feed was full of epidemiologists firing off tweets expressing genuine concern about the nature of a new, highly mutated COVID strain, and the conversation’s volume had reached a point where the COVID journalists and the COVID watchers had started to weigh in. (I define the latter as people with a lot of followers who aren’t health/science reporters or domain-level experts, but who avidly follow and share pandemic-related news.) It felt like being dropped into a conversation that had been going on for days, despite the fact that I’d heard little to nothing about it. It being a holiday, I tweeted and closed my phone.
By Friday morning, the news was everywhere. The variant had been officially named by the World Health Organization, European nations had enacted a travel ban from certain African countries, planes from South Africa were stuck on the tarmac in quarantine mode, and my Twitter feed was engaged in a deep debate over whether the Biden administration should enact its own travel ban. Before the conversation could reach a fever pitch, the administration enacted a ban. Less than 24 hours after I’d heard rumblings about a new variant, news of Omicron led every major news outlet’s front page. News cycles that usually take days to play out (the morality and efficacy of travel bans, conversations about how to treat the countries that identify new variants) came and went in hours.
In a way, it's as if information about Omicron has mirrored some properties of the virus itself. Genuine (though still speculative) worries about the variant’s contagiousness and mutations have increased the virality of the information about the variant. And like the virus itself, the way COVID information travels is also evolving and, in some cases, becoming more efficient at spreading.Part of the reason Omicron’s news cycle matured so fast is because, as many epidemiologists have noted, South Africa has a sophisticated disease-surveillance apparatus and the country, quite admirably, shared information publicly as soon as it had it. Essentially, the scientific community has an abundance of good information quickly because of amazing technology and dedicated experts in South Africa and around the world. But while they’ve identified a potentially serious problem and all the reasons for concern, that information is only half of the picture. Even good information about a virus’s makeup cannot tell us all we want to know, which is how the virus will respond to different environments and segments of the global population.
And so here we are: Stuck in a super-weird moment where we know a thing is happening, but we don’t know exactly what that thing is. We’re living in an information vacuum (a similar phenomenon to a data void, which you can learn about here). It’s a bit like hearing news of a tropical depression out on the ocean that has all the makings of turning into a vicious, land-bound hurricane. The conditions are right for that eventuality, but even advanced modeling can only tell us so much in the early days. Ultimately, we have to wait for nature.
Information vacuums are common in breaking-news events in the social-media era. In the early moments after a mass shooting or a natural disaster, or in the unknown moments after the polls close but before votes are tabulated in an election, there is a higher demand for definitive information than there is supply. These moments offer propagandists, trolls, pundits, politicians, journalists, and anyone else with an internet connection the opportunity to fill that vacuum with … something. It’s a treacherous situation, where rumor, speculation, and disinformation have the power to outpace verified information. Traditional breaking-news events tend to have a short half-life but, as we’ve found with COVID coverage, information gaps can last weeks or months. Sometimes, the definitive information we want (when will the pandemic end?) is basically unknowable, or too hard to pin down.
Information vacuums aren’t new to the internet, but their dynamics have intensified as we have become more connected and constantly generate information. Some of that information is sound and profoundly helpful (genomic sequencing/mapping). Some of it is potentially helpful and given in good faith, but might not correspond with our eventual reality (the virus might not behave as some suggest it will). Some information is well intentioned and helpful in one setting (sober, hedged reports about Omicron that list concerns but note it is too early to tell), but can become oversaturated and veer into unhelpful territory. And, of course, some of the information out there is poorly intentioned and extremely unhelpful (reckless speculation, fearmongering).
All of it, though, is data that gets fed into the system, creating a whole mess of noise in an attempt to fill the vacuum. Further complicating matters is how the platforms incentivize us all to fill the vacuum in our own ways. That might mean posting our anxieties, however rational or irrational, for others to see and respond to.
This dynamic can lead people with seemingly excellent credentials on a subject to communicate poorly, given the information environment. With COVID news, I’ve watched science professionals share in-the-weeds information or studies using language for their intended audiences (other scientists/medical professionals) without seeming to realize that other audiences will see it. Those unintended audiences then interpret the data or the language differently or incorrectly—it’s called context collapse, and I’ve written about it here and here—and all hell breaks loose. And then, of course, there’s the age-old addiction to online engagement, which causes all manner of people who should know better (including the media!) to issue ominous warnings and sensationalize information. Perhaps worst yet, the demand for engagement can provoke experts to performatively contradict each other about developing news on platforms like Twitter, creating further confusion and potentially eroding trust.
There are very few good ways for most of us to engage during these kinds of information-vacuum events. After a good 19 months of this news, I’ll admit to feeling frustrated as health and science professionals shared genuinely worrying information while, in the same breath, preaching calm and patience. I feel for them, as most are trying to thread an impossible needle: prepare people for potentially terrible news while also conveying uncertainty.
But uncertainty is one thing that humans—and the internet we’ve built—don’t do very well. Uncertainty is anxiety-producing and doesn’t lend itself to sharing; it is easily weaponized by shameless, reckless people to undermine those who are trying to exercise caution. But more than anything else, uncertainty is uncomfortable. It is psychologically painful to be made to anticipate something, but not know exactly what.
Living in an environment with more information and more uncertainty seems to be a defining characteristic of being alive in the 2020s. What we know and the speed with which we know it is a blessing—a miracle of technology—and often a horrendous curse, forcing us into situations where we have ample time to ruminate but little control over what we’re experiencing. We’ll soon know so much more about Omicron and the contours of the coming weeks of the pandemic. There are some things we can do (advocate for equitable vaccine distribution globally, get vaccinated, and get boosters where available). But right now we have to wait in the purgatory of the information vacuum.
This, it should be said, sucks. But right now I’m trying to take solace in something Kate Sweeny, a professor of psychology at UC Riverside who studies the psychology of waiting, told me a few days before the 2020 presidential election, when we were all anxious: “If you’re feeling like crap, you’re not alone.”
I admit it’s a hollow consolation. But right now, I’ll take what I can get.
That's it for today. I realize this was a heavy topic so I'd like to direct you to some dog content (yes, occasionally I write purple prose about my dogs and their quiet, blissfully ignorant lives). If you all enjoy it, let me know and I'll include some updates in this newsletter for you all as well. You can also follow me on Instagram if you are into lots of pictures of dogs lounging around.