Update: This episode has ended.
In the second episode of Radio Corona, Gideon Lichfield, the editor-in-chief of MIT Technology Review, hosted a Q&A with Azeem Azhar, the writer of Exponential View. They discussed the long-term effects of COVID-19 and how we got here.
Recorded on March 19, 2020. You can watch the video here.
Gideon: Hello everybody. Welcome to the second edition of Radio Corona, which is the show from MIT Technology Review on the coronavirus and its implications. I'm Gideon Lichfield. I'm the editor-in-chief of MIT Technology Review. Thank you for joining us and I am very, very pleased to welcome our guest today Azeem Azhar. Hi Azeem.
Azeem: Hi Gideon. How are you doing? Can you all see me? Are we ready to go?
Gideon: We can see you. I have to stop sharing my screen. There we are. Now I think everyone should be able to see you.
Azeem: Right, exactly right. So I can see you. You can see me. And can they see me? There's the question.
Gideon: I think people can see you and if anyone can't see you, if anyone's having technical problems, please drop a note in the chat. There is a little chat bubble. If you look at the bottom of your zoom screen, you can also drop in questions for Azeem there. And I will endeavor to ask him as many of them as possible. If you are not muted can please mute yourselves. And we will proceed. Azeem, what is that in the background behind you? Is that a coronavirus?
Azeem: This is a, yeah, it's a 3-D model of the coronavirus just rotating slowly on my green screen.
Gideon: That's rather nice. Where did you get it?
Azeem: You know, the internet is bountiful. The internet provides, if you ask. One of my friends got one of his friends to produce the model and to animate it slowly in this way.
Gideon: Super. All right. So Azeem, you have been a journalist, a media executive, an advisor to start ups, even a startup founder yourself, you've been an investor and for the last 12 years you've written the Exponential View, which is a newsletter about the long-term trends and technology and how they're affecting the world. And actually when I said to one of my colleagues, we were bringing you on the call, he said, well, there's not much more exponential than this, than coronavirus. Seems very fitting. You wrote something about, what now seems years ago, but it was on February 5th and you said you wrote a newsletter called, "Six ways the coronavirus will change our world." And actually, I want to start by asking you what, you know, back on February 5th, I think most of us were not even really thinking that it was going to be that big a deal. What was it that, when in your exponential view of the world, that made you see that this really was going to be a big deal?
Azeem: Well, it's a great, great question. It seems like it was an eternity ago, 20,679 cases in Wuhan. It was really this, the sense that the growth rate was as fast as it was. The daily growth rate, the daily new cases, the rise of the number of deaths, the fact that a few days, a couple of days earlier, a few days earlier, the Chinese had put a lockdown on Wuhan, meaning their epidemiologists and their public health systems had identified something that was pretty significant.
And I think that the context for all of this being that for the last five years, but really for the whole of my career, I have worked in an environment where rapid compounding that leads to exponential curves has been very, very present. That compounding was originally Moore's Law which was positively lackadaisical at only 60% compounded annually compared to a SARS-CoV-2 or nCoV as it was when I wrote that essay and just seeing the regular growth rates tick, tick, tick every single day. And then spotting that there were a few in Japan, in Thailand, in Hong Kong, in South Korea, in Australia, in Germany. And thinking, well, the very best of those countries might be able to do something about that, but surely not everyone can. And that gave me a sense that something was going to happen. But to be honest, we're only six weeks on. And if you'd asked me to paint the picture of March the 19th back in February the 5th, this is not the picture I would have painted.
Gideon: And what was the picture you would have pained?
Azeem: Well, I just, I don't think I could have imagined the scale of lockdown panic, incendiary activity in Europe that I have, we have witnessed. I really, I mean, I think the governments have acted with very, you know, by bringing out their biggest guns in a sense, but you would've hoped, I would've thought that as we did with SARS and with other things, there would've been an opportunity to control this as it came in. But it turns out that this particular virus, as I speak to epidemiologists and public health officials, has characteristics that make it nastier than your average nasty virus.
Gideon: Right. So, one of the things I think that is, you know, I suppose takes us by surprise is just how much it has taken policymakers by surprise. I mean epidemiologists and public health officials were raising the alarm, but it's astonishing that as country after country has fallen to this, even now, I feel like politicians are still not taking the urgency seriously enough and still locking down fast enough, particularly in places like the United States and in some of Europe. I mean, and with all respect to you, you're just a guy with a laptop. How is it that if you can see this stuff coming, nobody else can? Well, how the politicians are not seeing it with the urgency that they should.
Azeem: So really, it's a really, really interesting question. You know, I've spent a lot of time wondering about these very fast growth curves and getting excited about things before other people get excited about them. So, whether it was podcasting, which I own the domain name "World of Pod" back in 2003 because I wanted to create a podcast directory and I started blogging in 99 because you start- I've been able to recognize that very big things often start small and I have only internalized my thinking about that in the last couple of years. And you know, just the day I wrote that piece, I actually went out and I bought a bunch of these which are N-95 or ffp2 masks for the family and a few other things. And I think the reason for this is that if you don't live in a world with this rapid exponential change and most people don't, you don't recognize that the number you need to look at is the percentage compounded growth rate over any period of time, whether it's a day, a week or a year. And that's the thing that you end up looking for that drives your decisions.
Now, most of us have lived for most of the last N hundred years in a world that from where we stand looks very linear. We look at a 1 or 2 percent growth each year which actually you can kind of feel and manage and it doesn't get out of hand. Since we entered what I call the exponential age in 1971 with the arrival of the Intel 4004 processor, we have all of these things that improve exponential rates. And so we have Facebook that didn't exist in 2003 and then it's suddenly everywhere in 2007. All those green and red scooters that appeared all over towns and cities across the United States which one month weren't there and the next month were everywhere. And so when you're attuned to those sorts of things, you spot them.
And governments and politicians just their age cohort and the fact that they have worked in social places, organizations with social complexity rather than technological complexity don't tend to see those sorts of changes because social organizations in general, slow things down because of the amount of coordination that's required.
But I think, can I just give you the second reason? It's that, we're on the MIT Tech Review radio show and so you're all great statisticians and you're familiar with the idea of the Gaussian, the Gaussian bell curve distribution. I even printed one out to show on screen. I can't find it. The Gaussian bell curve distribution, the normal distribution as it's called, in a world of exponentials, you actually see these distributions of your population that follow a power law. They have a long, long, long, long tail and a tiny, tiny fat head.
And that means that the way you have to manage a power law is you have to take a risk management mentality, which is there are some really, really terrible or great outcomes that might happen. They're quite unlikely, but when they do, they're pretty terrifying. And I think governments struggle to take a risk management approach, which is why we under invest in pandemic awareness systems. We under invest in cybersecurity, we under invest in early warning systems for asteroids. So I think those two things come together and may create this rather unpleasant intersection, which we see the consequence of which is sweeping the United States and it's sweeping Europe.
Gideon: Right. Let's talk about some of the six ways in which you think this is going to change our world, which you wrote about back in February. And by the way, so for everyone, anyone who's just joined or anyone who's joining from Facebook, I'm Gideon Litchfield at MIT Technology Review. This is Azeem Azhar writer of the Exponential View and we're talking about the longterm impacts of coronavirus. And if you have questions for Azeem, you can drop them into the chat on Facebook or here on Zoom and they will funnel the questions to me.
All right, so I'm going to run down the six ways in which this is going to change our world and we'll talk about a couple of them. So you wrote, and again, it's sort of, it's interesting to think about the fact that this was written back in early February. And it feels to me like these things are still quite relevant now or possibly even more so than they felt then. So the six ways it'll change the world: reinforce the power of scientific collaboration and the open sourcing of global threats, and we've seen a bunch of collaborative efforts happening recently. You know, there are databases where all of the research papers on coronavirus are being put together so one can look at them. Digital quarantines through better information and social credit systems. Certainly seeing a lot of that in China.
Azeem: And actually in Taiwan in quite a positive way in Taiwan as well, which we can chat about.
Gideon: Okay. Reinforce the importance of genomic technologies. I mean, that's a fairly obvious one. This is an RNA virus. We're looking at how to identify it and how to treat it using genetic technologies. Remote, everything. This radio show being the case in point. The number five: encouraged self-sufficiency, especially around food, energy and products. That's certainly something that we want, I think I want to talk about. And then finally the sixth, the political aspect, this will lend support to the nativists, populists, statists and wall builders. So now six weeks after you wrote that, does that still all feel on track to you or have you thought of other things, other big changes that you think are coming that didn't occur to you then, or does any of this thing wrong?
Azeem: No, you know what? It does feel on track. It also a lot of it feels as you kind of, you know, humbly pointed out, some of it seems quite obvious now three weeks later. There are a few extra things that we ought to sort of throw in there. That are the way I would characterize this is that experimentation is expensive and so species, general organisms, organisms like societies don't experiment and explore very often. It's extremely costly. Once you get to what you think is an energy maximum, a really happy place, you may as well stay there and exploit it because you've got a guaranteed payout, right? You have a guaranteed payout that you can eat, you can feed, the things that kind of costs you resources. So we tend to get into a stage where we want to stay where we are because we think we're quite comfortable and therefore we don't experiment very often.
And when you look at the Bass Diffusion curve of products, only about 1.2% of people consider themselves innovators, where they'll go out and try something just because it's new. What has happened with coronavirus is that it's come in and the impact has been a giant shock to our system. It has shaken that local maximum that we were on and forced us to explore. And so there was a giant experiment that is going on in lots and lots of different directions, which I think is a sort of a general theme that we can then apply as a lens to things that we are seeing happen now. And we can say, well, the question I think that's interesting is, which of these will stick? And which of these are just being used in order to get us out of the hole that we find ourselves in?
Gideon: Right. The quarantines, the digital quarantines, that's a really interesting one. So I wrote a thing, a pretty bleak thing a few days ago in which I said that according to this study by Imperial College that was published on Monday, we could be seeing periodic quarantines, effectively mass scale social distancing, being enforced for periods of a couple of months at a time for the next year and a half, essentially until we find a vaccine, which would be incredibly disruptive. But I also observed that in places like China, they are, and you just mentioned Taiwan, they're using people's data as a way to help identify who is essentially who's at more risk and essentially, and therefore, who has the right to freedom of travel. And I speculated that we would be quite quick to adopt those kinds of systems in the West because that will be the price to pay for communities to return some semblance of normality. So what do you think about that and what do you think about the way these are being used elsewhere?
Azeem: Yeah. So let's talk a little bit about the Taiwan experience. I was lucky to speak to some people involved recently over there and they've done really well considering their proximity to China and considering the number of flights that go back and forth to the mainland. And they were very early on in December, their early warning system started to flag up some weird pneumonias showing up in China. And so they started putting measures in a double eternity ago, right before Christmas, our time.
And what they've done is they've established three levels of quarantine, which are kind of self care, self isolation, and quarantine quarantine based on your risk. And that mechanism is delivered through a mobile phone. If you don't have a mobile phone, they'll supply you with one and it sends you regular text messages or other instructions reminding you of your obligations under this system and what you're allowed to do and what you're not, which could include going to the supermarket, wearing a mask, and not getting on the public transit system. They also take the cell phone location data because some of these phones are not smartphones, so they get a sense of where you are. So in a way you've geo-fenced, you've kind of constructed a geographical perimeter around the individual that allows you to constantly check in and allows them to have some sort of semblance of a real life.
So when we think about quarantine, it's quite a difficult and strong word. And the word digital quarantine in the context of China I think evokes a lot of emotions because people have been reading a lot of the excellent work that's been published in a MIT Tech Review. So I think there are ways of designing a system like this which don't impinge too far on people's liberties and freedoms. Now I think there are some issues that we face in the Western tradition. I can talk about the UK and the US which are the countries that I know best, where there are some cultural and historical precedents that make it difficult for us to do that.
So in the case of Taiwan and Singapore and Hong Kong, they all went through SARS and they remember the horrible experience of SARS and today they've worked through that. The other thing is that there is more of a collectivism in the culture that dates back many hundreds or thousands of years. And I think it's one of the hardest things in the US where collective goods and social goods are not, have not been invested in very heavily. And the very foundation of so many parts of the nation are about the capabilities and the rights of the individuals. And so those almost seem at odd in terms of the kind of cultural attributes that you require to kick off a successful digital quarantine.
Gideon: Right. There's a certain kind of optimism that you hear from some people, which is a contrast of the pessimism from other people. And the optimism says, you know, there will be good things that come out of this because we're remote working more, we'll realize that we don't need to travel as much and that will help reduce our climate footprint, we'll become more local, we'll become more localvore, we will, you know, focus on the things that matter, which I feel is possibly true, but is also very nice to say for those of us who actually are not going to have our entire incomes and livelihoods wiped out in the next few months. But where do you place yourself on this scale? Are you a pessimist, an optimist, some mix of the two?
Azeem: You know, I think my role, what I can do is in the short term is support and alleviate, locally and facilitate a good conversation, more broadly. So the local steps I've taken, I'm happy to share with the audience are, I've been pretty clear. So with the, you know, with our home help, domestic help, with my personal trainer, with my assistant, I've said to all of them that as far as I'm able, as long as I'm able, I will continue to pay them whether or not services are delivered, as much as possible. That has been a personal decision to just ease what is happening locally because I think local conditions matter a great deal. So one can do what one can do. What I think we need to think about is- shocks to these systems can go in one of two different ways. And I'm just going to use the example, and please don't write about this because this is my essay for this week.
Gideon: Alright, and nobody else on the call write about it either.
Azeem: Exactly. That's right. So it's at the end of really horrible things, you can come up with a compact that leads to good things or you can come up with a compact that leads to bad things. So the end of the World War II which led to the Marshall Plan and the reconstruction of Japan and the reconstruction of Europe and a whole bunch of amazing multilateral institutions that did a great job for 60 years. Lots of issues right around Soviet Union and blocks and containment. It was generally a good compact at the end of what had been a really difficult time for humanity.
The end of World War I and the Treaty of Versailles is a different type of compact. It ends a similar type of horrible experience, but the agreement that came up was one sided, inequitable and in a sense unfair and led to a set of problems that ultimately gave us World War II.
So we're going to go through a horrible period over next 12 to 18 months, most likely, maybe longer. And in that time we can take steps to make it better. We can take steps to make it worse. Those are the steps we take on the way. But ultimately when we drive to the final compact, the final agreement about how we reconcile this and move forward, we still have a choice about whether we want it to look more like the Treaty of Versailles or the "Treaty of Virus-eye" or the end of World War II and the creation of the Marshall Plan and multilateral institutions and essentially 60 odd years without a great power war.
Gideon: What do you think will drive which way that choice goes? I mean, two world wars, one went in one way. At the end of one, the compact went one way. At the end of the other compact went another way. What's going to determine whether we end up with a solution this time that is going to be beneficial for most people or it's just going to be one sided?
Azeem: Yeah. You know I have been thinking about this, I think for me, in all of the positivity that is going on, the sharing, the collective spirit, that is actually a collective spirit of fractality. So there is collective spirit in our neighborhoods. There is collective spirit in our towns. There's collective spirit in a national level. There's a collective spirit between scientists and technologists. People are trying to get together to solve this problem and all of that suggests we could get somewhere pretty solid.
But then there are those dark forces you are seeing from the CCP, the Chinese Communist Party, more and more of a misinformation campaign about the origin of the virus and about how those early weeks played out. I think the US and I'm not a political expert, but I think it feels it's particularly under-prepared for a moonshot that is led by the kind of current sort of government and people around it. That might be something that is fixable because all of those people clearly have talents and capabilities. But I would say that the political, you still need to have political leadership to get something like this together. We have time to evaluate, to build that. Frankly, I mean, as anyone who studied World War II knows the political leadership that brought together the settlement that certainly worked in the West, in Western Europe and in Japan didn't really emerge until later on in the war.
Gideon: Right. I want to bring together a couple of the questions that people have been asking in the chat and together I want to bring those together with something that you've written in your newsletter. So I want to see how I can spin this together. So somebody asked, essentially is this a problem of, is the kind of unpreparedness that we have, is that a consequence of capitalism? Is there something in the way that we're set up that causes us to basically neglect this sort of preparedness.
Now in your newsletter you talk about resilience, you said that one of the trends that we'll see in the next few years after coronavirus is a tendency towards more self-sufficiency, especially around food, energy and products. But then there's another thing that you wrote, which I think I'll just read out. You said, "Since the 1970s, but starting well before that, our guiding socioeconomic design principle has been to focus on exactly what we need to do and no more. Companies do profits; people do themselves. Efficiency requires focus. No more, no less. This Monomania delivering within strict guardrails became the guiding light of the boardroom."
And then later when you talk about pollution and climate change, you say, "We didn't care about the waste at the trash. Perhaps somebody else would deal with it." So what am I pulling together here? There's, on the one hand, there's the results driven, profit driven, push of capitalism. On the other hand, there is that kind of sense of efficiency. Efficiency means that you do what you're best at and leave everything else to everybody else. Does this altogether create a society that is not resilient, is incapable of dealing with shocks?
Azeem: Yes. So it's, I mean in short, it does. And I'm talking about a very particular type of capitalism, which is the type of capitalism that emerged in the early 1970s with the what was called the Friedman Doctrine which ended up being a sort of supply side doctrine, which then essentially said companies who just worry about profits that stakeholders like communities and trades unions were getting in the way and they certainly were sort of governance complications there. And that if you focus on profits and profits alone, you can run everything by a spreadsheet. It's kind of Henry Ford's production system and Alfred Sloan's management system taken to its extreme and you don't put those other, those things that are longterm thinking into the mix.
And then we created a whole set of dubious faux science, management science and economic science around it, that led people, companies to outsourcing and supply chains and service level agreements rather than ever - so you had a throat to choke through the contract, but there was never any real significant buy-in. And so that I think has led to a situation where we've under-invested in these tail risks and managing these tail risks. And it's very, very similar to what we've done in climate change.
The reason why self-sufficiency I think will end up growing is not because it's a sort of top down edict, but rather because it's bottom up and it makes a ton of sense for people locally. So vertical farms that sit in your city that are powered by renewable solar energy, that are incredibly effective in their resource use, make a ton of sense. And so they come from the bottom up. But the overarching kind of political economy has been articulated by this very, very much efficiency-driven capitalism. And the problem is Gideon, that that efficiency mindset has wormed its way into government. So your people who are over the age of 40, I think I'm a couple of weeks older than you, so older than me, but not necessarily as old as you will remember that Ronald Reagan said government isn't the problem, government is the solution. And the tremendous spanking that,
Gideon: Hard to imagine that coming from a Republican right?
Azeem: Well, the tremendous spanking that he and Margaret Thatcher gave to government suddenly made it focus essentially on efficiency, particularly with the delivery of services where actually what we look for services from government, we don't necessarily just want efficiency. We might want security, we might want reliability, we might want authenticity. And so government fundamentally has had this mode where it's been under investing in all of these things. And I'll just say one thing that happened in Britain. So in Britain in the last couple of years, we've had this very technology-oriented, health minister who knows his onions and he's quite a- he's a convivial articulate chap.
Gideon: I have to explain for the Americans on the call, but knowing your onions means knowing your...
Azeem: He understands technology. And he sort of understood the potential of AI. But it's interesting that he talks a lot about efficiency and better services at lower cost, which is basically efficiency. He didn't really talk that much, I think, about resilience and the kind of warmth and the community dimension of things, which is what we're craving right now. So I think we have to tackle that value and say, look, at what point do we start to worry about things that don't give us an instant payback? And it's all of those things that we are calling for now, like spare ventilators and critical care intensive care unit capacity.
Gideon: Right. Oh, just a reminder to everybody. I'm talking to a Azeem Azhar, the writer of Exponential View. And if you have questions you can drop them into the chat window on Zoom or if you're on Facebook, you can drop them in there as well. And they will come to us. So, I want to take a couple of the questions that are coming from the audience because both of them are about how life changes now, especially in the coming few months.
One question was, let me just find it. One question was many public services for the most vulnerable in society depend on human interaction. What does that kind of public service delivery look like in the time of social distancing. And then another question was, where was it? Another question was about online learning and education. Obviously students and our school children are being locked away from school for months on end. How do you think this is going to accelerate the tendency towards online learning? Do you think it works? Essentially how our lives are going to look in these contexts?
Azeem: That's a great question. So tackle, tackle those two separately. So on students and distancing and on-line learning. I mean my kids have been doing this for the last few days... he's nine years old, sits there like organizing her zoom calls. It's hilarious. We will find the tools of pedagogy that allow us to deliver learning through mixed environments where we will meet in classrooms but perhaps not in the same way that we used to. And we'll get it wrong and it will take us time to figure it out. But we will start to figure it out. I have to say that having had kids and started to get to know teachers over the last decade, I'm so impressed with how thoughtful frontline teachers are. And I think given the tools and forced into this mechanism and reshared of the terrible administrative burden that they have to bear, certainly in the UK, I think they will come up with new and innovative ways to deliver great learning experiences for kids. It'll be a mess for the first six months. It always is.
Talking about public services in general you know, I think the challenge is that we will need to manage the contagion risk, not to the public servant or the healthcare person, but actually to the vulnerable person, the older person. And so some of that I think will be quite difficult to manage. I do think this will create a boost to some of the new companies trying to figure out how to use technology to improve social care. So there's a company called Honor, which uses a lot of MIT technology, not Honor, pardon me Cherish. Cherish Health use a lot of MIT technology to build a digital or physical digital assistant that's very privacy safe for people who are elders and in elder care so that they can get constant contact without having to have an expensive nurse there. You can imagine technologies like this and a far better than an Alexa, maturing and developing to becoming part of the mix. But again, those things will take, you know, months and years. I'm sure there'll be part of the mix in a few years, how we navigate the next six to seven or eight difficult months, I'm not sure.
Gideon: Right. There's a question also that's come in about whether or not, you know this is coming a little bit from the earlier one, whether or not we're moving towards the less globalized world. And actually, one thing that occurred to me in that connection is we're now seeing companies and countries trying to ramp up production of things like ventilators. We published a story on MIT Technology Review's website today about precisely that. And there's a company that has a ventilator design that they tried to take to market a while ago, didn't take it to market and now trying to revive it.
But what they're finding is that to get the components and then also to get the approvals to build this thing and ramp up production, it'll be about 11 months before they can make one. So one of the vulnerabilities that we're seeing now, I think, I mean aside from government bureaucracies one of the vulnerabilities we see now is that with every country needing suddenly all of these supplies, to ramp up its manufacturing to improve its facilities, it's dependent on other countries that are all going through the same crisis. So do you think that is, do you think we're going to head towards a time of less inter-dependence, less globalization, more self-sufficiency at the national level because of this?
Azeem: Yeah. You know, so I've been writing that about that for nearly three years. Kind of this theme of decoupling and de-globalization and increased independence and all the coronavirus has done is increased that, catalyzed it. The many reasons for that, so I'm just gonna explain why there's some hope in all of this, is that as technology became more and more strategic, the value in technology resides in the intellectual property. It doesn't reside in the tank or the combine harvester. It's in the design. And so you end up being incredibly dependent on something that you can't inspect. So if you're an American, you can't inspect what's going on inside the Huawei 5g component. And if you're Chinese, you don't know what backdoor has been put into an American chip. And so you have lots of reasons why you need to develop independence. And that trend has been going on.
And then every, almost every other trend suggested that we didn't need to shift things around. Like sustainability means you don't really want to be moving things around from sort of China to Brazil, with renewable energy locally and 3D printers and so on. So what the coronavirus does is it just reinforces that trend and accelerates it. But here's the single moment where I think it starts to create what could be quite optimistic, which is that we are so dependent on manufacturing capacity. That's easily dealt with. Right? You just build factories. It takes time. But we know how to do them.
But the thing that then becomes the monopoly is the ownership of the intellectual property. And that you can't replicate without going off and saying, listen, we don't think our patent system works very well because these exclusive patents don't give us societal resilience in times like this. And I have for many years, I mean, going back 20 years questioned the current framing of the patent system in a world where there was so much invention, where intellectual property sort of drives all the value. And I hope that we can have an open discussion about where the boundaries of the current intellectual property systems should lie because we don't want to get to a stage where there are 3D printers everywhere, but they are DMCA locked and prevented from printing this essential component until we pay some hedge funder who owns the IP.
Gideon: Who's responsible for changing that? How do you think we bring about that kind of change? Breaking down the patent system?
Azeem: I mean lots of institutions changed after World War I and World War II. I don't think you get to it overnight.
Gideon: So you're saying we need the big crisis?
Azeem: Well, I mean I'd rather - you know, one would always- I mean, I'm not a Maoist. I mean, if there is one, then let's make sure that we get the sort of World War II class of settlement, not the World War I class.
Gideon: I'm going to wrap up soon. So if you have any last questions for Azeem, please drop them into the chat. I'm going to ask one more, which this is a thing that I've seen a lot on Twitter and in the media, people have gotten politicized around the coronavirus and around certain axis. So there was a debate about whether or not authoritarian governments like China are just inherently better at fighting a threat like this. So do you want to be an authoritarian or a democratic government when coronavirus hits? Actually a friend of mine just went back to the United Arab Emirates yesterday and I asked him why he wants to go and he was like, I like my autocracy. The government tells you what to do. Everybody does it. It's all sorted. It's all fine.
Azeem: I'm pretty certain I know that guy. And I recognize those words, but go on.
Gideon: Well, I'll ask you later. Anyway, so authoritarian or democratic? That's one. Another debate that's come up. Government healthcare versus a private healthcare system. The European system versus the US system? Is one of those better? Is there a thing there? Is it ideological? Is it about the structure or is it just that some places will better prepared than others?
Azeem: Okay, so the framing is wrong. I'm going to split those two apart. First question- authoritarian versus democratic. I think the thing that you most need in society is trust and trust in each other. And in high trust societies, there will be mechanisms for dealing with this more effectively than the low trust societies. And I think one of the biggest challenges we may have faced in the UK is that the existing government spent a lot of time attacking every institution that garner trust. The funny thing that I think may be a trump card, forgive me for using the word "trump" with Boris Johnson, is that he's been such a naughty rapscallion, which for Americans means he told lots of fibs for many, many years.
Gideon: Fibs are lies. You also have to translate that.
Azeem: All right. When he stands up and gives his press conference and says, very seriously, "look guys, I'm being serious now, but this is a really terrible situation." We genuinely kind of believe him. And so in a way he's kind of sparked a little bit of trust but I think trust is a critical thing that societies need to build in order to establish this resilience so that we all know were are in the boat together. So to the second question, which was about socialism versus...
Gideon: Was it about socialized versus private healthcare?
Azeem: So, the thing is if you had gone back to the 1930s. It's 1935 in America; John Steinbeck is writing his wonderful books. And you said to anybody alive then who's really, really, had a terrible time as a result of the depression and the dust bowl and so on, "do you know that your children, will drive two cars, their kids will go to college; they'll live in a detached house with running water, air conditioning, televisions; they'll have a job, a pension, weekends and holidays?", they would not have believed you. And they might have considered the way in which those settlements would have come about to be anathema politically. And yet we can do that. We can make those radical changes and I'm not sure it becomes about socialism and capitalism at that time, at that point.
Gideon: Coming back to the thing you said just before that. Trust, you said high trust societies versus low trust societies. I thought that was a really interesting line. So how do you measure the level of trust in a society?
Azeem: Well I'm afraid we go into, I'm well aware that I'm talking to the MIT Technology Review, the oldest continuously published science magazine in the world from the most august technology and science university in the world. You kind of use social science, thus far, right? And you ask surveys and you try to measure social capital that way round. You ask people through longitudinal surveys, how much do you trust your church, your government, your local politician, your school, your doctors, and you just measure that over time. It's not the, you know, five standard deviations of the Large Hadron Collider. But it's something.
Gideon: There's always something. All right, I'm going to wrap it up now. Do you have any last messages for us, for our audience?
Azeem: You know, I think the fact that people have tuned in to this is a great sign of people being interested in science and interested in debate and interested in convening. Be part of a convened discussion. I think that's really, really important because while a lot of changes get pulled at the leaves at the top, in the age of the internet and the age of kind of flattening, pre-print servers, information flowing, we can make a really big difference. If we're sitting at the end points, the capillaries can, in some sense, drive the major arteries. And so I'm glad that people are listening. I hope they also take an opportunity to say, "how can I go out and do more?" We're in a moment of decisive divisiveness and fear. How can we turn that into a moment of benison and collective action?
Gideon: Right. Well, thank you Azeem, thank you for joining us. That was Azeem Azhar from Exponential View. If you have any other questions for us, for Tech Review about coronavirus, please look in the chat. There is a link to a Google form where you can ask them and we are going to be writing stories that try to answer some of those questions. Take care of yourselves, wash your hands, don't touch your face, and we will see you on the next episode of Radio Corona. Bye bye.