DESIGN WITH VIRAL EVENTS 2020:
A How To Guide For Whats Popping in America
What is Going on In America?
A How-To Guide
To Design bio-psycho-social change in an era of designed information systems.
Since the onset of COVID-19, viral media has resonated with far-reaching consequences in the USA. We have watched videos of patients and doctors suffering from this horrifying disease, videos of people who broke quarantine admitting the guilt and responsibility of contracting and spreading the virus, and videos of violent use of force on innocent people: the murder of George Floyd, the manic threatened arrest of a black birder in a park, the public beating of an old man by police and enforcers, and attacks by masked weapon wielding “federal agents” on the young and old. These viral videos are moments in which the dynamics in our society are forced into the open, and embodied in physical confrontation. They become viral events – place based phenomena that resonate across social media.
These dynamics have long existed, epidemiologically embodied in marginalized populations.1 Relationships between the state and marginalized populations create a psychosocial setting in which we are often “set up to fail,” “problematized,” and “damned if we do and damned if we don’t.”2 In this context, simply going about daily life puts us at risk of becoming subjects of abuse. Equanimity of mind is cultivated here to allow us the mental and physical space to persevere and flourish in this context.
The infrastructure of social media plays out on the bodies of vulnerable populations within these power relationships, and is quickly becoming a tool of national political agenda.3 Forces of integration and exclusion flash in each powerful happening and resonate as viral events with implications at a national scale. Agencies are designing political outcomes by choreographing these viral events. Designers should consider how to create settings and viral events that minimize exclusion and maximize integration.
Infrastructure of Viral events
Viral events follow a pattern that leads to particular outcomes at scale:
Public awareness of real structural risks, such as the actual SARS-CoV-2 virus are “virally” heightened by social media.
As individuals and communities fail to heed dictates they become the site of vulnerability and embodied health risk.
As people fall victim to these health risks, their stories of infringement, failure, and comeuppance are amplified by viral social media and the result is intensified public awareness of risk and need to follow dictates.
As victims are framed as perpetrators they increasingly lose their ability to choose where they go or how they live and their rights are increasingly surrendered to overseers.
In the confusion that follows, agencies implement designs of new social and material order by drawing boundaries of biopolitical risk and stigma.
The events play out in spaces by way of simultaneous forces of integration and exclusion, vertical and horizontal. Vertical forces bring about greater integration into existing hierarchy in places such as hospitals, police stations, and government buildings. Here there are arrests, but also peaceful protest for legislative change. Vertical forces create change within the existing system.
Horizontal forces push people to either stay put or leave, creating centripetal/ centrifugal forces around viral events. Horizontal forces can best be described as quarantine: closing borders, preventing travel, and increasing deportations. Migrant concentration camps are perhaps clear examples of both vertical and horizontal forces. The context of COVID-19 has triggered increases in these forces in countries around the world.
The murder of George Floyd was both vertical and horizontal in the most ultimate way, resulting in his abduction and continued restraint until complete exclusion – murder – by Chauvin, a man operating as an ostenisble arm of the state.
The feedback loop between the “viral” nature of an event in social media and the contextual power of the state is materialized in “real time:” “Viral” resonance further affects the context, intensifying the potential for similar happenings to occur, spawning more and more viral events. The chain reaction continues until it passes – creating a trajectory of “positive cases” of stigmatized events.
COVID cases appear to reflect this trajectory. As positive cases are identified, more people come forward to be tested, driving up cases, especially in a liberal democracy. Likewise, as more cases of police brutality are highlighted, more people come forward to protest, bringing to light more cases of police brutality.
This is in contrast to a record of total mortality rate over time, which traces the path of the actual SARS CoV-2 virus after the psychosocial viral events. The path of the biological virus is affected by the ability of agencies to actively prevent its spread by way or psychosocial design. See the graph below of actual mortality data in cities around the world.
With greater fluidity and porousness of borders, “viral” events are less likely to be “controlled.” In a more government information dictated economy, the reverse pattern may be found. As more positive cases are identified, people may avoid repercussions, stay inside, and if people seek help at all, their voices may be silenced. This may explain the extremely low or quickly falling trajectory of positive cases of the virus in some countries. With the defunding of the WHO and Trump’s rerouting of information away from the CDC, the United States may be following suit.
If progressives and conservatives demand strong leadership, we may be sowing seeds of potential fascism. The stronger the “fasces,” the greater the control, the quicker the results of containment or elimination of “viral” elements. Ultimately, a regime of this sort controls official data and can claim to have addressed issues of “viral” spread, whether or not the actual structural problem is solved or amplified.
Sites of viral destabilization like Hong Kong, Seattle’s CHAZ/CHOP, Minneapolis, Washington DC, and downtown Portland are experiencing both integration and exclusion, with protest, random abductions, detainment, and violent beatings. The purpose of the protest is vertical integration and the creation of structural change.
The concentration camps at the US/Mexico border are sites of vertical and horizontal forces at work; as families are torn apart and adults and children are wrongfully incarcerated. We can expect to see vulnerable populations continue to play pivotal roles subject to both integration or exclusion.
We should be particularly privy to how movements of integration can become exclusion. If a movement for reparations were to become, for instance, a movement for Black equity paid for by a banking and corporate housing subsidy, it may lead to greater exclusion rather than integration as suburbs become increasingly isolated and left behind. There are great cases for reparations, but if we seek financial equity in the currency of a deeply unjust system, we should note the words of Audre Lorde, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”
Corporations are buying foreclosed homes in the suburbs faster than anytime in recent history; this buoys the market, and results in vast stretches of largely unoccupied housing. If there was a government stipulated incentive to sell these homes to Black people, say if African Americans in urban centers were given some kind of voucher for home ownership in the suburbs, the result could be a huge exclusionary movement of the Black community that may ultimately lead to a net financial loss.
Even if there is no reparations and simply a well intentioned movement to increase Black ownership, the result may be a loss. Rates of the virus in urban areas will soon be surpassed by rates of the virus in suburban and rural backwaters. Meanwhile, suburbs have been losing value compared to urban cores.
Home ownership has been less and less a percentage of total wealth compared to civic access, education, all of which can be maintained by living in a vertically integrated virus free urban center. This can be measured by the extremes of wealth inequality in America. 65.1% of Americans own their own home, with, in 2018, a median home value of $217,600. However, the bottom 50% of Americans own only 1.6% of total American’s net worth in 2019.
The fragile commodity character of suburban urban design, its nimby’ist inclination, the movement to create tiny houses to house “the homeless,” the rising cost of government upkeep for suburban areas, and the rise of home sharing apps in the suburbs for cheap home rentals; all work together to create a perfect storm for some suburban collapse. In the coming years, urban core areas may be largely accountable zones where contact tracing and “in real life” person to person interaction are the norm, while the suburbs may be increasingly limited to isolation and app facilitated digital work and play.
Selling unoccupied glut housing stock en masse in the suburbs would likely lower value over all, as more housing would suddenly be on the market. Not to mention it may instigate “white flight” from these areas. The result would almost certainly be a scheme of the likes of “block busting” in the 1960s, when banks bought houses in urban ghettos and re-sold a high priced “American Dream” to African Americans. After a few years of outsourcing and massive loss of jobs in these areas (already it sounds familiar); the result was foreclosures, with more houses than buyers available in local markets.
The result was a decrease in already low home values, more foreclosures, greater polarization of races as incoming African Americans were blamed with nation-wide trends, and the infamous “urban blight” of the 70s, 80s began. In the 1960s, the group to benefit most from these sales were the banks; history stands to repeat.
Choreography of Viral Events
The material design of urban spaces affects the outcome of viral events; but also increasingly, the choreography of elements within urban spaces is affecting viral events. The placement of inflammatory objects, the creation of barriers and non-access zones, and the deployment of participating parties tactically affect the outcomes of viral events. Designing with viral events is a “user experience” design process complete with measurable online tallies – clicks, views, etc.
This user experience design is beyond the screen, however, and fully embodied in physical spaces. It’s a terrifying convergence of conspiracy-esque theories of America-as-simulated-hyper-real world; online “multiplayer user dungeons,” the likes of which the military has been involved in since the 1970s; online gaming worlds like “World of Warcraft” and actual urban spaces used by a diversity of people in day to day life.
All of this adjacent to inflammatory statues or sites
Giving a green light to particular bands of looters justifies the presence of law enforcement, which intensifies the chance of violent exchange with people who would otherwise be peaceful. As has been documented at Black Lives Matter protests, masked white men have come to peaceful gatherings, break open a door or window to a store, and leave. In many cases it has been barricades of young women of all colors who have been defending local businesses from looters of this kind. Peaceful protesters have gone out of their way to defend police vehicles from being trashed.
The list in the “toolkit” above are all polarizing and inflammatory elements designed to create disarray and lead to martial law. They present the use of force, or threaten force to “overcome” an apparent conflict, and in the process they catalyze violence.
Equanimity in design: Integration without Exclusion
The opposite effect requires a fluid and open field-condition4, something that might be likened to a forest. A forest condition has innumerable small glades, openings for peaceful exchange, as well as vertical and horizontal flow between all parts. The forest-field is not only fairly rhizomatic, it is cryptographic. But we should we wary that when data flow is entirely encrypted in the body, the result may be silencing.
We cannot impose this forest condition; it must grow over the course of generations. With the current end-of-days aesthetic there is a constant push for immediate solutions at hand. To allow the forest condition to flourish requires, by contrast, accepting what we have, looking at the intergenerational structures around us and caring for our context in full complexity. Acceptance means having the courage to respect without the need to justify through use.
Let’s begin at the intersection of the biopolitical and the bioregional: Where are the areas of our cities and countries where people are most at risk for deportation? For illness? Police brutality? Addiction? Abduction? Removal? Incarceration? Murder? Where are areas most at risk for environmental exploitation? Clearcuts? Poisoning air and water? Mining? Fracking? Pipelines? Oil spills? Nuclear waste?
These are often the locations of our most stigmatized neighborhoods, our tent cities and self built housing; our indigenous, out-of-work-migrant, and displaced communities. Acceptance and incremental improvement of life here is far from radical – because these are, in fact, our cultural and spiritual centers. Already in our viral theaters, we have seen millions march on behalf of Black Lives Matter and we are beginning to see a “wall of veterans,” “wall of moms,” and many others stand up against masked, violent, “federal agents.”
Now, more than ever, the social and environmental almost entirely converge. The age of the anthropocene is upon us; we are the environment: the site of our viral events is where we call into being new national and global narratives. These hotspots are the places where it is most courageous to say Water is Life and Black Lives Matter.
1. Krieger, N. ‘Theories for social epidemiology in the 21st century: an ecosocial perspective.’ International Journal of Epidemiology; 30.4, 2001: 668-677.
2. Bateson, G. Steps to an ecology of mind: collected essays in anthropology, psychiatry, evolution, and epistemology. University of Chicago Press, 2000.
3. Waxman, A. ‘Viral Destabilisation: psychosocial design in the era of COVID-19” Salus 2020
4. Allen, Stan. 1999. Points + Lines: Diagrams and Projects for the City. Princeton Architectural Press.