NO SURPRISE IN 2020: in all sorts of organisations, colleagues as far apart as polar bears and penguins at their separate poles are talking to each other in virtual meetings through services like Zoom that almost make them feel as if they are in the same room. Thanks to lockdowns, technology originally referred to as picturephones or videotelephony — waiting for take-off since a World Fair in New York in 1964 — has finally come into its own.
A VERY BIG SURPRISE IN 2020: almost everywhere, the people in charge have been shown up as incompetent by their inability to supply straightforward physical barriers — clothing and equipment referred to as PPE — to protect doctors, nurses, and others falling ill and dying while trying to save lives on the frontline of the Covid-19 pandemic. This makes no sense. Human beings are estimated to have started wearing clothes somewhere between 200,000 and 50,000 years ago, and clothing made of highly adaptable synthetic materials dates back to the 1930s and ‘40s, when chemists invented nylon and polyester.
As our days on earth are being reshaped by the all-pervading digital revolution, it has been natural to look to California’s equivalent of Aladdin’s Cave for ingenious technological solutions and magicians, since the pandemic began. But that has so far been pointless. The Silicon Valley investor Marc Andreessen has cast the blame for his country’s disastrous lack of physical virus-blockers and medical equipment elsewhere, on what he calls a collective failure to ‘build’ in America — in a recent post on the site of his venture capital firm. In that diagnosis being widely discussed, he says, ‘I think building is how we reboot the American dream.’
Andreessen has had nothing more specific to offer than evidence of his heart being in the right place. He certainly did not happen to mention or explain why we have no convenient, one-piece, coverall garment capable of blocking and slowing down the transmission of the virus — such as the tentatively-named flusuit sketched here on pG, a suggestion for a streamlined, not necessarily unattractive version of a biohazard suit with both immediately feasible and futuristic elements. That has turned out to have interesting precedents. A post-publication search on ‘flusuit’ produced links for, for instance, a flu-and-radiation suit modelled by a German family in a wintry Hamburg in a 1969 Reuters-British Pathé video clip.
A month after pG’s flusuit post, finding some way of making a garment like that — a pandemic- or pando-onesie? — a permanent part of our wardrobes is even more urgent. Hardly anyone appears to be discussing any remedy like it — which is odd for these reasons:
• The uncertainty about vaccines and cures Most experts do not expect a vaccine or vaccines (for different strains of the virus) to be ready and available in sufficient quantities before a year from now, even with clever genetic engineering, according to the latest information on the subject, from Scientific American. No old or new medicine or therapy has so far been confirmed as fully effective and available as a cure for the range of symptoms caused by the new coronavirus — as promising as this week’s news about remdesivir looks.
• The contraception parallel For blocking the most commonly cherished form of new life — children — physical barriers, however crude and imperfect, have proved useful for centuries. There was a 400-year wait for sophisticated chemical forms of contraception, starting with the birth control pill (in 1951), after the first documented use of a condom in Europe (in 1564).
Certain religions frown on birth control, but who is likely to object to physical protection from the virus as a first defence? We are already gaping at the range of improvisations being devised by desperate people. Last week The New York Times interviewed reluctant air travellers wearing anything ‘from plastic ponchos to laboratory goggles to biohazard suits,’ for insulation, and worrying about the possibility that the virus would attach itself to their hair. One woman in the report flew from New York to Beijing in a ‘a rain jacket, hairnet, a mask and goggles,’ accompanied by a mother carrying plastic shower curtains for possible use as shields from aeroplane seats. A man dressed in ‘a disposable protective suit and goggles’ twice changed the N-95 mask he was also wearing for his 13-hour flight from London to Hong Kong last month, and told the newspaper that he felt glad about going to such extremes when he was notified about five fellow-passengers testing positive for the virus two days after his journey.
Why talk about whole bodysuits when the world is struggling to make enough coverings for faces? Because no expert has any idea of when the pandemic will end — and the gap between having enough masks but still no vaccines could feel interminable. There are experts predicting second waves of infection, and evidence from Germany that their anxiety is warranted.
The millions of people pushed by the unavoidable lockdowns into dire economic straits and unemployment deserve a range of innovations capable of letting them get back to work and feel secure, there.
So Marc Andreessen could do worse than concentrate on finding ways to ‘build’ — mass-produce — an anti-coronavirus suit that many of us must now want as permanent additions to our clothes cupboards, like rain gear, for possible use in the future, even in far less deadly epidemics. A protective garment with a replaceable respiratory mask that is, ideally, biodegradable.
Will he or anyone else in Silicon Valley actually give us one?
Although nothing is less welcome than pessimism about the pandemic, it has to be said that this seems unlikely. The clue is in the thought-capsule in the top left-hand corner of the Andreessen Horowitz web site, which reads: ‘Software Is Eating The World.’ In a text posted there in 2011, Andreessen explained the reasoning behind it: ‘More and more major businesses and industries are being run on software and delivered as online services.’ His list of examples included this one: ‘Today’s largest direct marketing platform is a software company — Google … joined by Groupon, Living Social, Foursquare and others … using software to eat the retail marketing industry.’
For decades, software has stolen sharp minds from projects related strictly to people and physical objects. It has devoured investment capital disproportionately, and been a gateway into the super-rich club for many more hundreds of thousands than old-fashioned businesses have. The technology superstars — Alphabet (Google), Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft and Netflix — are all actual or virtual software companies. Speculation about their future evolution has consistently centred on their plans for artificial intelligence — and what is that if not more complex software?
None of these companies have so far shown any sign of replicating their success in that ethereal, immaterial realm on the physical plane — the domain of things. But how wonderful it would be if they could.