Techno-Mythology on the Border: The Pandemic Risk Society
A person entirely covered in a white suit blocks the way of a man wearing a face mask. The latter slightly bows his head, after which a white device is aimed at his forehead by the person in the protective outfit. A few seconds later he walks on and the next person presents themselves to the device operator. At a placid pace, this process repeats itself, while a seemingly endless stream of people pass by.
This could well be a scene in a dystopian sci-fi movie where enslaved workers are registered upon entry into a factory. Or might it be a model for a futuristic religious ritual, where the believer bows their head to an electronic relic that funnels the Holy Spirit? At the same time, the seemingly disinterested, yet focused way in which the operator aims the device at people's foreheads is somewhat reminiscent of the use of cattle guns in slaughterhouses (plapurdue 2008).
Of course, the reality of the procedure described here is much more mundane, albeit nonetheless troubling. The device is a digital infrared thermometer operated by a border guard on the Polish-German border between Słubice and Frankfurt Oder on a Monday evening in the spring of 2020. The suit worn by the border guard is complemented by a facial mask, plastic gloves and transparent eye cover so their body seems all but sealed off from the outside world. The thermometer enables to accurately determine a person's body temperature by aiming a laser beam at their forehead, without touching them. When the registered temperature is above 37.7 degrees celcius, the person is considered likely to be infected with the SARS-CoV-2 virus, one of the symptoms of which is fever. In this case, the person will immediately be taken to a mobile medical station that has been erected next to the border crossing, subjected to medical tests and subsequently put into quarantine. Amidst a situation of feelings of insecurity and unknown threats, the operator appears as a beacon of reassurance and safety. While their protective suit gives the impression of a near absolute barrier from infection, their digital instrument produces empirical data on the basis of which a clear decision process is managed.
In the early 1990s, sociologist Ulrich Beck suggested that, since the start of industrialization, threats to human existence like 'famines, epidemics and natural catastrophes have been continually reduced' (Beck 1992, p. 97) to a point where these no longer form a significant hazard in people's everyday lives in post-industrial society. In their place, 'new risks' have emerged, which are the offspring of technological development, such as nuclear power, chemical and bio-technology. While the chances of occurrence may be smaller than with earlier, natural threats, the magnitude and longevity of destruction from hazards associated with these technologies is far greater; humankind has created technologies that are powerful enough to destroy its entire habitat.
For Beck, 'risks' are a distinctive subset of hazards that are based on 'decisions that focus on techo-economic advantages' (p. 98). In pre-industrial eras, hazards appeared as a 'stroke of fate' (ibid.) that came to society from outside. These hazards were perceived as apolitical and often associated with religious motives, e.g. a famine might have been considered a divine punishment. Since industrialization, however, the most prominent hazards have become those that are rooted in decision making processes, connected with responsibility and accountability. These risks are dealt with through a combination of observations and calculations on the basis of which precautions are taken and responsibility is attributed. For example, the hazards posed by a nuclear power plant are the offspring of human technology and are approached on the basis of calculations of probability, rather than merely accepted as 'the dark side of progress' (ibid.) as would have been customary in a pre-industrial approach. Likewise, the risk of traffic accidents is determined on the basis of statistical data on past road accidents and vehicle and infrastructure design. In contemporary 'risk society', decisions on acceptable risks are then made based on a cost-benefit analysis, often expressed in monetary value. Beck argues that this principle becomes problematic in the case of risks where the hazard is total ecological destruction, as may be the case with a nuclear accident, because in such event there is no possible 'benefit' that could compensate for the 'cost.'
When we look at the hazards posed by the coronavirus pandemic, a different realm of complications emerges though. The virus doesn't quite seem to fit within the division Beck draws. Its global spread, and thus its transformation into a serious threat, is facilitated by a technological infrastructure: airplanes and other means of transport that allow people to easily move far beyond their immediate surroundings. Thus, it seems to sit in the category of risk, decisions and precautions. However, the virus itself more closely resembles Beck's accounts of pre-industrial hazards posed by natural disaster, the kind of hazard that until recently appeared obsolete in the Global North. For time being, little is known about how the virus spreads exactly, how contagious it is, what environments it thrives in, how many people have been infected and to what percentage of people it is dangerous. Also, in terms of its biological characteristics, the virus is - as far as we know - not the offspring of human technological development, and as such appears to be the kind of 'outside' threat, disconnected from the direct responsibility of specific people or organizations, which Beck associates with pre-industrial hazards.
This ambivalent characteristic is also reflected in the rather uncanny realm of political manoeuvring in connection with the corona pandemic. On one hand, the virus is framed within the paradigm of risk, at times with a determination that seems on the edge of desperation. Vast amounts of data, calculations and probabilities are published uninterruptedly, while expert interpretations and prognoses saturate media outlets. On the other hand, due to the vast amount of unknown parameters, the pandemic often also appears as a natural disaster that is beyond politics or even reason. In day to day life, these two sides operate hand in hand. Government counter measures are introduced as careful decisions based on empirical data and calculation of probabilities, seemingly offering a considerate balance between public health care and civil liberties. However, as soon as any doubt emerges about the basis of the calculated risk or the proportionality of measures introduced, the sentiment is shifted into the domain of the pre-industrial natural disaster, where regulations and restrictions are presented as commandments disconnected from politics that should be observed in a near-religious fashion (e.g. hikers on 'non-essential' solitary nature walks are sin shamed by UK police drones; Metro 2020). Thus, a worrying web of justification and accountability emerges where pretty much any decree that is associated to the pandemic can be introduced as simultaneously a carefully considered political decision and an inevitable and unquestionable threat response.
In this context, the wrapped-up border guard with infrared thermometer becomes a significant figure. The protective suit suggests an impenetrable precautionary measure where the chance of infection is all but eradicated. The thermometer collects empirical data, represented as a single number on its display, on the basis of which it is determined whether a subject forms an immediate threat: a near perfect instantiation of hazard management in the risk society. However, at the same time, the thermometer operator appears like a surreal being, an embodiment of hazard as mythological creature. It is this latter aspect that gives us some hints at what the realm of power and threat operating just beneath the narrative of calculation and control might encompass.
In the dystopian sci-fi movie scenario which the setup recalls, the hazard is oftentimes posed by autonomous technologies that have transformed from utilitarian support systems into a threat to humankind (The Terminator is a classic example). The technological aspect of the current pandemic threat follows a similar path: in a dialectical shift, global mobility seems to have transformed from a universal ideal of freedom to a technological threat that is beyond control. At the same time, the ritual-like gesture of the procedure brings to the fore the thermometer's double role as a quasi-religious object. In the current state of affairs that is dominated by uncertainty and the unknown, measuring technologies - especially those that provide one-dimensional, digital information - become objects of hope, the scientific appearance of which suggests a lot more certainty than they actually offer. But what might the thermometer's close aim at the foreheads of the passing testing subjects and its eerie reminiscence of cattle gun slaughter suggest? Maybe we should read this as a warning for another disquieting potential: in our desperation to find ways to control the virus amidst widespread uncertainty we can easily slip into the role of a complacent herd moving along the pathway of unquestioned state control.
Warsaw, 29 March 2020
Beck, U., 1992. From Industrial Society to the Risk Society: Questions of Survival, Social Structure and Ecological Enlightenment. Theory, Culture & Society, 9: 97-123.
Mills, J., 2020. Police use drone to shame people for breaking coronavirus lockdown rules. Metro, 26 March. Accessible online: https://metro.co.uk/2020/03/26/police-use-drone-shame-people-breaking-coronavirus-lockdown-rules-12461712/ [accessed 29 March 2020]
plapurdue, 2008. Captive Penetrating Bolt Gun Cattle Stunner. Available online: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nr00arV2XIw [accessed 29 March 2020].