Ebola is the future


It took a virus from the 1970's to show us what the future looks like. All the talk about informationalism seems now to have been focused on the wrong kind of bits, blinded by the hype of all things connected. The internet of blood is upon us. Health is the killer app. We can't seem to shake the dystopia.

As of this writing, early September 2014, Ebola is spreading rapidly across West Africa and even faster across the global mediascape. Images of diseased black people and daily news about an emerging epidemic mix flawlessly with the turmoil in the Middle East, Ukraine, the Brazilian recession: as if we didn't have enough to worry about. Who can cast the first stone, this stuff comes straight out of the movies and into the century, camera-ready with doctors in pressure suits and portable fever detectors at road checkpoints. This is not the first time we've had an outbreak, it has even happend outside the mother continent, but like an old classic tune that gets sampled back into the mainstream, all chopped-up and recombined for the digital crowd, this will be the one we remember.

There is a roadmap to get out of this mess. The World Health Organization estimates that it will cost US$490m to stop Ebola transmission over the next 6 months. "This indicative budget does not include the costs of broader support for essential services in the countries worst affected, nor the costs of health systems recovery and strengthening in these areas." The roadmap uses the word "vaccine" a total of 3 times and "cure" doesn't even make the cut. Real talk: for now, this is only about accurate mapping of the epidemic and ensuring basic levels of preparedness as soon as exposure is detected.




Relax. It's not airborne. Suspected cases in Europe and elsewhere haven't so far been confirmed and are being treated with the utmost care available. There are a few known cases of recovery and experimental drugs are being developed and tested as the drama unfolds. The best thing is that we know how the virus works: so far, once detected, it follows a clear and predictable if unfortunately deadly trajectory. 

The fear remains, nonetheless. That's why you get so many good medical thriller movie scripts and that's why you start seeing things like this, clever and devious xenophobia disguised as street warnings. In such a rapidly-changing situation it's hard to bet on an outcome that is definitive and stable, but even if Ebola never actually hits Europe or anywhere else outside of Africa, the stigma has been cut into popular culture and therein lies the proverbial rub. Nothing beats a medical emergency when it comes to global anxiety, not even terrorism. The vocabulary and the metaphors have been lying dormant (yes) waiting for the right crisis to hit us in the head with some futurity: quarentine, border-control, risk areas. Whatever the reality on the ground, biology has now made its grand entrance onto the contemporary global psyche and it has brought with it the most basic of antagonisms, the contrast between the sick and the healthy, that which cannot survive any rational debate for it bears the mark of the incomprehensible and the interconnected.

Globalization and urbanization have conspired to deliver us from isolation.

"New emerging infections are a far bigger threat than any deliberate infection. HIV was emerging infection. We mostly have wiped out smallpox, but there are probably 50 different poxviruses in monkeys and other species, got a few changes in the genetic code and they will naturally hop over to the human population. That's what we saw with H5N1. It was a combination of different species, flu viruses that recombined to all of a sudden work in humans. The more you increase the population density, the more you increase the dangers of new emerging infections." 



The way forward in a populous planet with a changing climate must include the genomic understanding of viral diversity. Something like the Ebola outbreak has the potential to steer research agendas and funding priorities, to move the spotlight away from the spread of memes on social media and onto the intersection of the digital and the organic. This is the real news, what has so far been obfuscated by the enthusiasm with consumer electronics: biology will be "coming out of your computer or your telephone wire", because it must in order to regulate events like sudden epidemics, because only the speed of software can match the speed of our mutation, because nature is on the side of the machines.

Most of us have not yet been confronted with this ancient and renewed intimacy between flesh and light. Government regulation in the healthcare sector has largely kept the disruptive forces of Silicon Valley away from our bloodwork, our medical data, our genetic profiles. The Quantified Self movement is still looked at from afar while digital technology has already gone beyond wearables, under the skin, but mainly within the controlled environment of hospitals and big pharma labs. What is about to be experienced is something else entirely: the quotidian banality of biological monitoring and profiling. That awkward moment when we learn to take off our shoes in the name of security.

The women and men fighting the 2014 Ebola outbreak are desolate symbols of what will be faced by the rest of us, regardless if this goes truly global or it becomes one more latent menace in the heart of Africa. Depending on the circumstances, the pressurized suits might be waiting at the boarding gate, rushing through the door unannounced or staring down at us as we awaken from an unexpected seizure.

Space exploration has been turned inside out. We are the new aliens, feverishly moving around in a pestilent and microbiotic planet, visited upon by these foreign explorers in biohazard yellow jumpsuits. They are the new pioneers, cleansed and observant, risking their lives in a hostile environment in the name of humanity and science.


"Real life is much better than science fiction. We can now make a new flu vaccine in less than twelve hours using synthetic DNA. Instead of having to deal with a major pandemic where you can't travel out of your home or your city, imagine that you had a little box next to your computer, and you got an e-mail, and that gave you a chance to actually make a vaccine instantly, sort of like 3D printers. What we do with information now, we will be doing with information and biology together."