Back in the day, when the internet was a place of hope, upbeat phrases abounded such as: Information SuperHighway and Web Surfing. The Coronavirus has illuminated the fruition and implications of one of these classic West Coast style phrases, The Global Village.
To explore this idea I’m not going to claim any solid evidence or analysis but would like to pose a question: “How has access to the Web influenced the UK population’s response to the Coronavirus?”
I suggest that without access to an abundance of information on the spread of the virus and national responses beyond the UK we would not be ahead of Public Health England’s timings on social distancing and the closing of institutions. I also suspect we would be seeing less panic buying and less anxiety about a ‘lack of action’.
To be clear, I’m not commenting on the rights and wrongs of any course of action. I only wish to explore the influence of the Web as a global network.
It’s a big heap of everything – like a village.
One of the aspects of the Web which makes it so difficult to make sense of is that it’s always operating in multiple, intersecting modes. For example, what we see on a daily basis online is a chaotic mix of official announcements and total speculation. We see complex data next to pure antidote – published ‘fact’ interwoven with conversation and gossip. The traditional demarcation of ‘information’ and ‘speculation’ by notions of public and private has dissolved. Just like a village, word travels fast and the community decides how to respond whatever the leaders might be saying.
If we wind back around 20 years then we would be receiving news of the virus mainly through broadcast and print media.There were news websites back then but they tended to operate in a broadcast mode. In 2000 around 26% of the UK had a connection compared to over 96% today and, of course, there was no Social Media to speak of. The information environment was largely as it had been for the preceding 60 years or so with institutions we trusted conveying the ‘truth’ of events.
While broadcast media would have given us a sense of what was happening ‘abroad’ it would have seemed more remote and any scare mongering would have been done by outlets which were known to do this as a matter of course. Even as the virus appeared in the UK it’s difficult to imagine mass panic buying of toilet paper before any state of emergency had been called.
It’s a two-way street
One of the main factors in the ‘it’s a big heap of everything’ effect is that anyone with a connection can publish. This means that the Web is a powerful communication network for ‘us’ as well as ‘them’ – however you want to ascribe that distinction. As such, if an institution wants to cancel events ahead of official advice then it can, and at negligible cost in terms of communication.
We have access to an abundance of hybrid, village-like information. We also have the means to take mass action – a shout from the village green which can reach tens of thousands. There is no need to go through official channels, so we can both decide and respond without the nod from the institutions which used to control-the-message.
What is Rome? – Whatever it is, it has blurrier edges now.
My hope is that we will respond to the effects of the The Global Village coming to pass by collectively admitting that the biggest challenges we face do not respect national borders. So far, on a national level, our membership of this Global Village and the complex world it reveals has amplified our desire to run back to simple, often negatively defined, forms of identity. When the virus is past its peak and we have done all we can to keep people safe will we better understand that our planet is now more of a village than a collection of nations?