I have just been reading Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. At one point she points out how an unprecedented phenomenon is difficult to deal with because we misrepresent it by trying to find a precedent in our existing knowledge. Or, as she puts it: “The unprecedented is necessarily unrecognizable. When we encounter something unprecedented, we automatically interpret it through the lenses of familiar categories, thereby rendering invisible precisely that which is unprecedented.” (p. 12)
I often feel this way when engaging with local oil lobby people here in Newfoundland and Labrador. They recognize that an energy transition is underway in response to global heating, yet will then blithely go on to talk about how the Province’s fossil fuel industry will be pumping out oil well after 2050. They just can’t grasp the reality of an unprecedented change.
Zuboff’s quote got me thinking about the COVID-19 pandemic. In a way it is unprecedented, but it is not easy to see it that way because we are used to past pandemics (not least of which was the Spanish Flue of 1918-20). The unprecedented nature of this pandemic is doubly hard to see; both because of our natural tendency to render the unprecedented in familiar categories, and because it does look like many pandemics we have experienced in the past.
What is unprecedented is not the pandemic per se, but rather the context. First we have never experienced a global pandemic on this scale since the start of the unprecedented Great Acceleration in 1950. In this sense Asian and Hong Kong flu of the late 1950s and 1960s do not compare. The pandemic is existing in the unusual milieu of hyper-globalization and unprecedented growth and ecological stress. Second, the pandemic hit as we faced off against a series of game-changing crises, ranging from global heating, biodiversity loss, financial crisis (and, between 2007-8: meltdown), debt (at many levels), new global tensions, and, a new automation revolution, and rampant inequality.
In this sense, the unprecedented lies in the context of the pandemic (not in the pandemic as a thing in itself), and this could be good or bad. It could be good to the extent that the pandemic forces us to finally grasp the unprecedented scale of the other problems we face. Alternatively, it could be bad if we fail to recognize how unprecedented the mix of COVID-19 with these other crises is.
At this stage it is not certain if we have finally grasped the unprecedented, or whether (like the oil lobbyists in Newfoundland and Labrador), we still naively think there is a status quo to return to.