Viral Hope

Written Saturday, March 21, 2020

It's currently just after noon on a Saturday, but I have barely left the house in any meaningful sense in over two weeks. My area is currently facing severe restrictions on movement and daily life due to the global pandemic situation, and I've been fortunate enough to have a head-start on the physical isolation aspects because my employer was proactive and cautious even ahead of the (admirably responsive) local government.

I also have experience with life in less-than-convenient circumstances. Going weeks between opportunities to obtain groceries or supplies is not unfamiliar to me. It's been many years since I needed to draw on these skills, but after a little bit of dusting-off, they're still sharp and effective.

So I have avoided the panic buying sprees, the crowds, the unrest. It's brutally hard, as an extrovert, to not be able to see people right now, but video chats and phone calls help immensely.

I recognize both the financial and life-history privileges that make it possible for me to sit here, in the midst of an urban area being essentially locked down, and feel optimistic. I also recognize that optimism is inaccessible for most people right now. Hell, treading water feels out of reach for many.

So here's what I want to do: I want you to see what I see.

Human Interaction

The depth, reach, sincerity, and responsiveness of human compassion in the past few weeks has been breathtaking. You won't see news segments that really capture it. You won't read about it in articles. Because people are too busy being out there making a difference. And besides, hope doesn't sell advertisements.

Physical isolation does not need to imply social separation. If anything, this is the time for as many of us as possible to lean on the technology we have access to and benefit from, and make our social connections as deep, rich, and extensive as we possibly can.

I have my toes in a number of different online communities, and through each of them, I see a steady stream of people rallying to action. We may not be able to gather in large numbers, but we cannot be stopped from talking. And the conversations are fascinating.


There are many kinds of response necessary to endure a crisis. All of us will need emotional and social support, as much as we can get, in the coming months. Now is the time to be cultivating those relationships in any ways we can.

But support is not enough. There must also be perspective. Support can keep a group of people alive and managing - and it can last a long time, through incredible strain, if the relationships are strong. Eventually, though, hope begins to dwindle, energy is exhausted, and support is no longer enough. It may be days, or it may be years, but support cannot sustain hope indefinitely.

Perspective is what allows people to see the possibility of the crisis ending. If nobody thinks we're going to make it, we end up in despair: the belief that action is not worth attempting. Perspective allows those who see the possibility of hope to encourage those who do not. This is a crucial fuel for support.

Even that, though, is not sufficient. Perspective without factual backing becomes false hope. False hope quickly turns to poison and undermines support. Cheerily looking for the bright side, when the positive outcomes continually do not occur, is a recipe for quickly losing credibility in a dark time.

So perspective must latch on to real positive events. Hard data. Facts. This thing happened and it was good.

Because of this, we all need to take a part in reinforcing perspective. Signal boost and relay every ounce of positivity you can muster. It may be huge or it may be a funny picture or it may just be talking about watching birds through your window. Talk (or think) about something good as frequently as you can. If you cannot, find someone who can support you and offer perspective.


Even positivity will run out eventually. The crisis does not solve itself. Someone has to act. This is where trust becomes an essential question.

In modern life - for the people who are most likely to be able to read these words - we trust the wrong things (and people) far too much.

We trusted the infrastructure of the world to keep people safe and healthy. It has failed us.

We trust governments and law enforcement to solve the problem. In many ways, they are doing heroic amounts of good. In others, we are at a critical juncture. Not that long ago, it was popular to talk about anti-fascism and the importance of stemming the tide of repressive authoritarianism. Many used to talk about being in Germany in the 1920's and what they would do.

I had family in Germany in the 1920's. Some became fascists. Others became resistance fighters.

This is no longer a thought experiment. Police-enforced lockdowns are already reality in many places and that will only continue as the efforts to curtail the pandemic ramp up.

You are not in 1920's Germany, but you are on Earth in 2020. Make your choices, and take your actions.

There is no such thing as too small of an action. If all you do is read this, agree that the world needs help, and talk about it in your own way in your own social circles, you are taking action. That action will add up.

But there is so much more that can be done. If you are able, I encourage you to do what you can. If you are not, you are still valuable, you are still important, and you are still loved. We will fight for you - who need it most.


I want to shift gears for a moment and talk about social, economic, and political systems.

I am a computer engineer. I work on some highly advanced software technology and among some truly brilliant programmers, network architects, and tech leaders. I have been unstoppably curious and mischievous my entire life, and I work on a product that is a mildly appealing target for information-security attacks.

If there is one thing I know from that experience, it is this: every system can be broken. Most systems, especially complex ones, contain the very keys to destroying themselves. (Fascinating side note: formal logic itself contains the tools to dismantle the idea that logic can be used to explain/understand most of reality. Research the work of Kurt Gödel and the "incompleteness theorems" for more.)

Societies are often thought of as systems. So are economies and governments.

Given sufficient stressors, all systems break. This is an inescapable truth of life.

When a system breaks, the natural response is to replace it. Strengthening a failing system can suffice for many things, but in a global crisis, we cannot make the systems strong enough fast enough. Things are already breaking down - jobs are at risk, livelihoods are in danger. The economy of the planet is taking a serious beating and the political responses are verging on dictatorial already.

So how am I sitting here being optimistic?

There are two kinds of approaches to replacing a failing system: we can try something that is basically equivalent but a little better ("upgrading") and then there is revolution.

Humanity is not unfamiliar with revolutions. We see them frequently in technology and culture these days. Not so long ago, a revolution was something that happened every few lifetimes. Now they happen every few years.

We are on the cusp of a revolution - not necessarily a violent, dark, unpleasant one. A hopeful one. Here's what I see.


We've all been given a tremendous gift: the opportunity to question our assumptions en masse. All of us, at once, are facing the same kinds of questions: how does the world work when we cannot leave our homes as much as we are used to? How do we take care of each other in this kind of situation? How do we deal with the dreadful projections that this mess might last over a year before it gets better?

The assumptions here are interesting in their own right.

The first question assumes that leaving our homes, or being in large groups, is vital to life. Is that really true? It may be vital to a certain way of life, but that way of life is (at least temporarily) not an option. Life can, in fact, be rich and enjoyable and worth living even with these restrictions.

The next question assumes that we can only use the existing means of social interaction (minus physical gathering) to offer care to each other. But since people can invent new things, find new ways to thrive socially with this strange new constraint, is it really useful at all to assume that we won't adapt?

The third question assumes that the experts modeling the pandemic and human behavior are correct in their timeframes and predictions. But here's the thing: a model is just a mathematical system. Describing what people do is fundamentally important, but predicting what people do is fundamentally useless.

People have free will. We have autonomy. We can take action. And we can be unpredictable.

Predicting human behavior requires mathematical systems. Every system can be broken. Break the predictions: we can make this turn out better than anyone could predict right now. And that includes exceeding the predictions from people like me, optimistically envisioning a hopeful future.

Incentive Structure

Systems are fragile. Making a system resilient in the face of stress is incredibly difficult to do from an engineering perspective.

And yet, we see millions of different forms of life all around us - life that can survive incredible natural disasters, incredible abuse at the hands of human conquest and greed. Life that can exist for unfathomable eons and somehow just get stronger and better the whole time.

All systems can be broken. The antidote to a system is an organism. Organisms are not isolated, contained in simple rules or processes. Organisms interact. They intermingle. They spread and affect the world around them. The most resilient technology does not resemble a set of rules and processes so much as it resembles something living, breathing, adapting.

Humans may face a temporary difficulty in physical interaction, but you're here reading this, which is a monumental testament to our ability to continue interacting and being alive even if we are given a harsh set of constraints.

Creativity always blooms brightest when there are uncomfortable constraints. The most brilliant, passionate works of human art and genius have come from some kind of awkward (if not outright awful) limitation of circumstance.

So here's what I see: it is time to change the incentive structure of people as a whole. If you're not sure that we need this, keep in mind the Ebola virus - and the fact that it was considered incurable until recently - now has an effective vaccine, which was developed in defiance of capitalist incentive structures.

Capitalism has thrived for far too long on the ideas that the economy is important. If we can't spend money and buy stuff, our life ends! I remember this rhetoric hitting fever-pitch just after 9/11 - not quite nineteen years ago. The assumption still deserves to be challenged.

Buying stuff is a way of life that many of us have never seen an alternative to; but in the human scale of history, consumer capitalism is a footnote. Other modes of life were all there was until around two hundred years ago, when industrialization kicked off - you guessed it - a revolution.

Capitalism controls our incentives. Do well at work, get more money! Why do you need more money? To spend it on things, of course!

If there is a severe inability to work, then there is no way to get money. And if money is necessary to have shelter, food, and health care, then of course anything that risks the success of the economy seems dire.

The economy is a system. It has already been broken - for a very long time. The only thing that this viral pandemic changes is that now we have no choice but to confront how broken it really is - and that frees us to begin building alternatives.

Collective action has been recognized for decades as an immensely powerful means to effect change - so much so that the entrenched wealthy power-holders of the world go to massive lengths to stigmatize it. "Unions are bad" and such propaganda has been effective (in the United States at least) at preventing people from taking collective action for longer than I have been alive.

Nothing can possibly stop humanity from collective action now. The only question is, what will our actions be, and what changes are we trying to accomplish?


If we didn't need to spend money to get basic food, shelter, and medical needs addressed, capitalism would erode overnight. The only reason it "works" is because of the stranglehold on human necessities.

So fight it.

Sharing food and shelter is a serious risk right now, and most people are not equipped to provide medical care. But that doesn't mean we are powerless. Organisms that are weak in one area shift the burden to some other, stronger parts to get through stress, injury, and crisis.

Think about how you can lessen your impact on the strained organism of human life right now. As the saying goes, flatten the curve.

We can do more than just that, though. We can share ideas, provide support, offer perspective. And most of us, as hard as it may seem, can still act - on behalf of those who cannot.

And many of us will act.

When the virus settles down again, I intend to live in a country where people have embraced the collective understanding that doing nothing but fueling the economy is a waste of human life. I intend to exist in a world where the value of being alive and being able to interact with each other are no longer concealed by the ever-present need to make a paycheck and then spend it again on things we cannot live without.

Change the incentive structure in your own world. Tweak what you can control. The enemy of hope is despair; despair is the belief that action cannot effect change. Defy the predictions, and replace the systems - not with upgrades, but with revolutions.

May the human organism thrive after all this is said and done.