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Nikola Plejić

Living and Coding In Times of Crises

2020-03-28 in journal

...wherein I try to convince myself that everything will be alright.

Note: These are a few slightly melodramatic thoughts written in the aftermath of several somewhat traumatic weeks involving a pandemic, an earthquake, and a substantial change in the everyday. The few links that are scattered around I find interesting and important; the rest is here as a permanent reminder to myself. Hope everyone's well. Wash your hands.

I had hoped I would be able to write the word "crisis" in singular in the title of this post, but life tends to be a prescriptivist bastard. Writing this in the middle of a pandemic, after a non-catastrophic, yet devastating earthquake in Zagreb on Sunday, feels surreal. The apartment I just recently moved into roughed up, parts of it possibly significantly damaged, unable to socialize even in the most mundane of ways, exams canceled. Two events tearing into the fabric of what one considers the most social and the most personal, at the same time... and I'm lucky to be healthy, safe, and sound.

It's interesting how disruptive events quickly redefine the "normal". Just a few weeks ago, no one could imagine being quarantined indefinitely, yet here we are in week one of being unable to leave our place of residence. Redefining normal also tends to give way to malice, as we witness more and more calls to increase surveillance and invade people's privacy in order to (at least formally) keep track of the spread and unwanted public gatherings. Once again the political emerges as inseparable from the technological to the detriment of the techno-elite. Go figure.

Science, with all of its problems, gives us hope. Both of these events have been properly assessed: epidemiologists and infectious disease experts have been warning us of the possible consequences of SARS-CoV-2 weeks before the situation got out of control outside of China, and seismologists have been fairly clear that a strong earthquake around Zagreb is imminent. The problem with complex systems is that they're hard to grasp even for experts, and our intuition for statistics is slim to none. Even when we do manage to become aware of some aspects of the risks involved, this tends to fall apart as quickly as it materializes. Coupled with the fear of "collapsing markets" and their existential consequences, this often means we're more comfortable with the status quo than with taking action. Informed apathy can be as dangerous as uninformed sympathy.

As an aside, existential terror is a powerful weapon, and it was interesting to observe its effects on one's thoughts and approaches to life. I am well-aware that there are no reliable methods of predicting earthquakes to any precise extent, yet when on the day of the earthquake someone blurted out a hoax that "there's a stronger one coming at 8:45am", for a few moments it seemed like the most inevitable and obvious thing in the world. I think I've revisited that highly instructive moment more often than the earthquake itself.

Even though it's impossible not to be affected by this, people in IT, and primarily in software, seem to be in a unique position to handle this situation better than the average worker. There will be consequences, but the vast amount of money in tech means there's less chance of being fired, especially in times of enormous reliance on the tech infrastructure. The level of technological literacy gives us an enormous advantage in navigating the inevitable mess during the initial period of adjustment. A lot of us have been able to seamlessly switch to working from home, if we haven't already been doing so.

I believe this gives us a fair deal of responsibility, too: it's increasingly important to use our skills to help the ones in need. Large-scale tragedies take a psychological and organizational toll, and we have tools to help. This means being aware of the fact that the technology we produce is not as obvious as it might seem, and that people often need assistance and support which isn't a sign of weakness or lack of competence, but rather a natural consequence of using a new tool in an unfamiliar setting. It also means using the free time that isolation gives us to help people and organizations by providing them with necessary technological infrastructure and assistance.

More in-depth political analyses have been written by more eloquent and better-read comrades over at Pirate Care, focused on COVID-19 in particular, and by Tomislav, focused on the pandemic in combination with the earthquake. I can just echo that I find it important not to let our imagination atrophy and our empathy to subside, and that I hope the lessons we learn here will be the ones of solidarity and care. ☭