If we look back about one hundred years, we see the Spanish Flu sweep a world riven by political turmoil, the second industrial revolution, and a cataclysmic war. That pandemic brought a fatality rate many times that of the coronavirus, taking the lives of mostly teenagers and young adults with its cytokine storms. Even by the metrics of the near past, it’s safe to say that 2020 wasn’t the worst year for humankind, anywhere.
Yet, we don’t experience life as statistics. As Author Will Self noted, “doctors say in medicine there are no such things as statistics, only individuals,” and individually, 2020 was a terrible year. For many, personal losses made it their worst. For all, it was a march of crises. Some—those connected to the climate crisis in particular—are ongoing. Others, like the Black Lives Matter movement, are crises of flux in MLK’s ‘long arc…toward justice.’ Still others, the pandemic and the violent attack on the Capitol following Trump’s defeat, are more immediate. But was accident-prone 2020 really a matter of bad luck?
It’s worth wondering, where these crises aren’t linked by kind, how they might nonetheless be connected, and arguably worsened, by the new environment in which they unfolded. I do not mean the natural landscapes or the local communities where they lived, but rather our new digital society, which, though only a few decades old, encroaches year by year on those physical societies and has begun not only to reflect our lived experiences but to shape and drive them. So is it making our real world worse?