Dancing with Coronavirus

Why war is the wrong metaphor

It’s a war, a battle, a conflict, with weapons and front lines, strategies and tactics. We have to defeat the enemy, “kick its ass” even. We hear these metaphors every day—from political leaders, medical professionals, the mass media. They are not specific to Coronavirus—we’ve had declared wars on cancer, drugs, terror, and more, and war metaphors in medicine go back centuries. It’s true we haven’t seen a global crisis like this since World War II, so in that sense the war metaphor is understandable.

Infection game for Epidemic exhibition, American Museum of Natural History. 3D modelling by Jim Stoop, design & programming by me.
Screenshot from the game Journey by Thatgamecompany/Sony Computer Entertainment

Systems thinking

Thinking in terms of systems means looking at phenomena at different scales, from the microbial to the human, social, technological, political, ecological, and so on. Going back to the virus as a metaphor, this might mean, for example, looking at humans as a kind of virus in relation to the planet, and comparing the human immune system to a global one.

1. Get the beat

Any dance has a rhythm—not only literally in terms of music and movement, but life itself as a dance has certain rhythms. The philosopher Franco Berardi calls it “the vibration of the world”. With regard to a system like a disease outbreak, Meadows advises us to first observe what’s happening. This sounds obvious, but too many authorities rush in with policies and preconceptions without understanding what’s actually going on. “Starting with the behavior of the system,” she says, “forces you to focus on facts, not theories. It keeps you from falling too quickly into your own beliefs or misconceptions, or those of others.”

2. Listen to the wisdom of the system

Listen to your body—it’s not just you speaking. The human body contains more nonhuman cells than human ones. You are a system—indeed one composed of sub-systems for circulation, digestion, etc. Your immune system is closely tied to your identity, constantly figuring out what is part of you and what is not [3]. What happens if we apply this to social systems, countries, the global climate? “Don’t be an unthinking intervener and destroy the system’s own self-maintenance capacities,” says Meadows. “Before you charge in to make things better, pay attention to the value of what’s already there.”

3. Expose your mental models to the open air

There’s lots of talk about computer models during this crisis, but no talk of mental models. Remember, Meadows tells us, that “everything you know, and everything everyone knows, is only a model.”

4. Stay humble. Stay a learner.

Relatedly, Meadows tells us, “The thing to do, when you don’t know, is not to bluff and not to freeze, but to learn.” Note to political leaders! She continues:

5. Honor and protect information.

This one particularly resonates with me because I’ve been writing about information (see my other recent articles on Medium), and until recently I ran a design programme with “information” in the name.

6. Locate responsibility in the system.

This is the one place I disagree with Meadows. She refers to events outside the system being observed: “Sometimes those outside events can be controlled (as in reducing the pathogens in drinking water to keep down incidences of infectious disease.) But sometimes they can’t.”

7. Make feedback policies for feedback systems

Speaking of feedback and decision-makers: “It’s easier, more effective, and usually much cheaper to design policies that change depending on the state of the system,” writes Meadows. “Especially where there are great uncertainties, the best policies not only contain feedback loops, but meta-feedback loops – loops that alter, correct, and expand loops.”

8. Pay attention to what is important, not just what is quantifiable

Again, quality, not just quantity. One of my mentors told me, “If you start off defining research as only what is measurable you will miss a lot.” Validity is just as important as reliability or generalisability: Can we learn from it? Is there a good reason for doing it?

Screenshot from the trailer for the game Everything by David O’Reilly

9. Go for the good of the whole

Another philosopher, Alan Watts, beautifully articulates a systems perspective as a dance in this video —it’s well worth nine minutes to watch it. “Don’t maximize parts of systems or subsystems while ignoring the whole,” says Meadows. “Aim to enhance total systems properties, such as creativity, stability, diversity, resilience, and sustainability–whether they are easily measured or not.”

COVID-19 microbe in glass by artist Luke Jerram. Used with permission, image courtesy the artist.

10. Expand time horizons

Relatedly, “The official time horizon of industrial society doesn’t extend beyond what will happen after the next election or beyond the payback period of current investments,” writes Meadows. I view this similarly as zooming and out – not only at different size scales but time scales. Viruses mutate and replicate at a much shorter time scale than humans. Look in general at natural rhythms – from heart rate and breathing to the day and night cycles: certain medical treatments, and the perception of pain, differ depending on time of day, for example.

11. Expand thought horizons

“Defy the disciplines,” advises Meadows. “In spite of what you majored in, or what the textbooks say, or what you think you’re an expert at, follow a system wherever it leads. It will be sure to lead across traditional disciplinary lines.” If you’re reading this, I suspect you’re likely to ignore disciplinary boundaries. This is also why cooperation and collaboration are vital at this time – I would add, not only across disciplines but across local and national borders. Viruses don’t respect them.

12. Expand the boundary of caring

By this point, you might think of Meadows as a leftie or a hippie. But she was also a scientist at MIT. And we all know by now that not only were the hippies right; they also went on to start Silicon Valley.

13. Celebrate complexity

Nothing is static, everything is in motion, heading towards entropy, and all we can do is try and hold things together as long as we can – our individual bodies and minds, the social body, the political and global climate. Coronavirus shows how the universe is messy, turbulent and chaotic, as Meadows writes.

Trær som vokser seg skakke by Espen Tollefsen, 2017

14. Hold fast to the goal of goodness.

Good news is often not news, Meadows points out, but I see hope: this crisis is so extreme, so disruptive, that both the media and the public are hungry for bright spots amidst all the bad news. “Don’t weigh the bad news more heavily than the good,” she concludes. “And keep standards absolute.”

In conclusion

I hope a perspective from design is useful during this crisis. “Systems can’t be controlled,” says Meadows, “but they can be designed and redesigned.” The key here is in how we define design – I don’t subscribe to the view of design as problem solving, a magic way of thinking involving sticky notes. Design over the past century has had as many negative consequences as it has improved health, productivity or “experience”.

Notes & further reading

  1. For more on observation in social science, see Colin Robson’s Real World Research—it’s a kind of bible of research methods for me.
  2. For more on bias in data visualisation, see Critical Visualisation by Peter Hall.
  3. Neuroscientist Leah Kelly provides a very eloquent and clear explanation of the human immune system in a chapter of this book.
  4. For a good introduction to activity theory, see this book by my colleague Victor Kaptelinin.

More on systems thinking

Here’s a good introduction to cybernetics.



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