Monday, 4 May 2020

Failing at every turn

Twitter is not so much a website as a state of mind. When you're plugged into it, it is all consuming. It can be used productively to inform the debate if you have the time and the energy but it can suck you into the distorted Twitter brain state whereby you end up being distracted and absorbed by trivia. In respect of that this lockdown has been a welcome diversion. I've taken to my modelling bench in a big way, scarcely concerned with the outside world.

Now that I'm outside the Twitter bubble looking in, I do wonder how it ever managed to consume so much of my time. Scarcely anything I scroll past is worth a nanosecond of my time. It tends to gravitate toward petty partisan bickering, neglecting the central issues almost entirely, to the point where its denizens have lost sight of what is actually important.

Part of the problem with the national debate is that we are a nation of news junkies, always waiting for the next big thing which begets a media always trying to engineer the next big thing. Reality, though, is much less interesting. Things seldom happen in rapid succession. The Brexit saga was weeks of inactivity, speculation and churn, only periodically punctuated by something of actual consequence. That's partly why this blog has drifted away from the subject. I keep an eye on it, but there's nothing especially new that's worth a post.

As it happens, Corona is unfolding in much the same way. There are milestone events with a cacophony of noise in between. More causal consumers of news rely on mainstream outlets such as the BBC trusting their judgement as to what is actually important. Consequently there is little hope of any kind of informed debate. The BBC is readily distracted by soap opera and lacks the capacity to do thorough and far reaching journalism. The important news stories will drift by unnoticed.

As to the online debate, very few are actually interested in what's really going on, consuming media as ammunition for their own agendas. In aid of that people tend to prefer filtered narratives even if they have only a passing relationship with reality. Primarily it's about media consumers abusing news for personal entertainment.

This is where Corona and Brexit have yet more interesting parallels. Whether or not the lockdown was the right thing to do, the more important debate is how we get out of it now that we are in it. Like the Brexit debate, people will churn over the former question for years on end rather than address themselves to the mechanics of the situation, largely because it requires a level of greater understanding and a much more objective outlook.

In these such situations you have to understand all of the moving parts - their history and function, and how we got where we are. The adjacent debates, though, are far more accessible, more popular, and more profitable if you're in the business of harvesting clicks and likes. The more I see of that dynamic, the less I want anything at all to do with it - especially since it isn't remotely productive in any sense. Twitter influence is not influence. If you are influential on there then chances are you are part of the problem.

With Corona I've been less able to analyse events not having any prior knowledge but my experience on the Brexit front lines has taught me that if there are answers out there, or at least better questions, then the media and their favoured prestige experts are of zero value and the people who rate them can't be persuaded of anything because they're wedded to a tribal narrative construct.

One such example is the trading of graphs on Twitter. Every single national epidemic curve graph on the internet is fiction. No exceptions. Every national epidemic curve chart is based on ropey data, but more importantly an aggregate curve gives you no clue as to what is happening in the country as a whole, or what will happen when the lockdown is relaxed. They have no epidemiological value in terms of trying to control the disease. A declining aggregate curve may simply represent one large area in decline while concealing a number of other areas with small outbreaks which are rapidly increasing.

We have to control this epidemic one infection at a time, one outbreak at a time. We are looking at several peaks so the notion we are "through the peak" of a fictional political construct is PR spin and should be disregarded as irrelevant. The decline we see is really only the result of the lockdown but the virus is still out there and there is no indication the government has understood or implemented the necessary toolset to avoid a second spike. There is simply no evidence that current government activity other than the lockdown has been in any way successful at controlling outbreaks - and it may even be counter-productive. 

Then on a deeper examination of the issues, we find that there is a major missing element to our understanding of the virus where exposure alone is not enough to cause illness. If that turns out to be true then it will be used as a vindication by all those who said the lockdown was never necessary whether they too the time to understand or examine the issues or not. That's the other part of the problem. Media consumers seek vindication for their predispositions and validation. Information and understanding is optional. This is why much of the corporate media has abandoned its obligation to inform.

If there is indeed another dimension to the virus we have not yet understood then a great deal of the current controls are unnecessary, and most of the necessary controls are not being applied or applied incorrectly. The contact tracing system crucial to hopes of easing lockdown will be outsourced to private call centre operators including Serco, The Times reports. This ought to be the sole domain of local authorities based on local knowledge and conducted by trained field operatives. This is just going through the motions. This should be the main story of the week but that's unlikely with our trivia addicted media.

As I understand it strategies do exist to control outbreaks based on high quality intelligence gathering, focussing resource where it is most likely to occur but instead the government is pegging its hopes on gimmicky contact tracing app for the general population - which from a technical perspective is problematic but highly questionable also in epidemiological terms. Standing back from the media noise, there is no apparent signal that anyone in the government has really grasped what we are dealing with or has any real idea what to do. Much like Brexit. 

It seems the Downing Street machine is adept at spin, mobilising its supporters to cement narratives in the general population but it doesn't have the ability or institutional knowledge to handle anything of complexity and importance. That's something of a problem when the entire business of government deals with matters of complexity and importance. Our system simply isn't fit for purpose. and it's costing us a hefty price in blood and treasures. 

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