Monday 27 April 2020

Of Devs, Other Universes, And China’s Covid Choices.

Looking Backwards - And Forwards? The writer and director of the TV mini-series, Devs, Alex Garland, clearly anticipates that quantum computing and quantum mechanics are going to be inextricably entwined. This allows him to play with the weird paradoxes of quantum physics – like matter being in, and not in, our universe at the same time. These raise the possibility of there being more than one universe. Or many. Or even an infinite number of universes! If that’s the way it is, however, then wouldn’t it mean that an infinite number of pasts – and futures – are also possible?

DEVS is a fantastic futuristic television mini-series – which ends next week on Soho. Now, don’t worry, there will be no spoilers in this post, so please feel free to read on. It’s certainly not giving too much away to say that in addition to serving up a riveting plotline and a first rate cast, Devs also offers master classes in both the future of information technology and philosophy.

Driving the drama forward is the age-old debate between those who believe that human-beings possess free will and those who insist that, since every effect must have a cause, our “choices” are entirely predetermined. Devise a computer of sufficient capability, Devs’ determinists insist, and not only will it allow you to see back into the past, but also forward into the future.

Mind-bending stuff.

Once you enter this territory, however, the question inevitably arises: “Which past and which future?” The writer and director of Devs, Alex Garland, clearly anticipates that quantum computing and quantum mechanics are going to be inextricably entwined. This allows him to play with the weird paradoxes of quantum physics – like matter being in, and not in, our universe at the same time. These raise the possibility of there being more than one universe. Or many. Or even an infinite number of universes! If that’s the way it is, however, then wouldn’t it mean that an infinite number of pasts – and futures – are also possible? And wouldn’t it then follow, logically, that in this “multiverse” anything you can imagine happening either will happen, or, has happened already?

Here then, in the spirit of Devs, is one of the infinite number of histories of the Covid-19 virus and the global pandemic which it spawned.

In a biological research facility on the outskirts of Wuhan, in China’s Hubei province, scientists create a new, highly infectious and potentially deadly coronavirus. Unfortunately, lax handling protocols result in a number of the research facility’s staff becoming infected. With terrifying speed the virus spreads through Wuhan’s 11 million inhabitants. Alerted to its unchecked community transmission by a conscientious physician, the Chinese authorities are faced with a daunting series of choices.

The most noble choice is, obviously, to contain the disease within China’s borders and do everything possible to prevent it from infecting the rest of humanity. This option, however, is fraught with risk. What if the virus mutates into something even deadlier? What if it cannot be contained? What would such an outbreak do to China’s already faltering economy? How could the Chinese Communist Party preserve its power in the face of tens-of-thousands – perhaps millions – of fatalities? And what would China’s enemies do? Would they help? Or, would they stand back and watch the regime of Xi Jinping go under?

In the very large subset of worlds in the multiverse where this most ruthless sort of political calculation prevails, such questions tend to lead political leaders away from noble choices. This case was no exception. The government of Xi Jinping adopted a policy of strategic inaction. It delayed informing the World Health Organisation of the virus’s extraordinary infectiousness. More crucially, it delayed shutting down Wuhan, Hubei, and China itself, until the virus was safely aboard the world’s airlines and winging its way unheralded across the planet.

If humanity suddenly had to contend with a new coronavirus, then, from the perspective of Beijing, it was far preferable to have the whole of humanity contending with “Covid-19” (as it would soon be called) than only that fraction of humanity residing within the borders of the People’s Republic of China. To have protected the rest of the world – particularly its most powerful nations – from the virus’s devastating economic side-effects would have been indistinguishable from allowing China to be defeated in a major war. Sharing Covid-19 with the rest of the world made much more sense in geopolitical and economic terms than heroically bearing its burdens alone. Receiving the world’s praise is one thing; giving the rest of the world the whip hand over your country’s future is something else altogether.

Having allowed the virus to escape, it then behoved the Chinese Government to do all within its power to mitigate its effects and, if at all possible, stamp it out. Obviously, the first country to come out the other side of what was now a global pandemic would enjoy a tremendous advantage over all those other nations still stricken and locked down by the presence of Covid-19 in their populations. Certainly, China did not lack the totalitarian apparatus necessary to contain and eliminate the virus among its own people.

Even in another universe, far, far away, it would not have taken long for those well-schooled in the realities of ruthless political calculation to grasp what China had done. Could they prove it? No. But proof is not always required when the logic of a particular course of action is so compelling. If every effect has a cause, then it is no great matter to work one’s way back through each successive stage of a crisis to locate the first move, the first “choice”, that set it in motion.

Small wonder that China’s principal rival, the United States is so agitated by the bind in which it now finds itself. It simply cannot afford to be locked down, but it lacks the totalitarian apparatus needed to drive its population through the slaughter associated with acquiring “herd immunity” in the shortest possible time. Even if it did (and astutely exploited the Patriot Act offers a sufficiently ruthless American government tremendous scope) the United States has chosen, democratically, to afflict itself with its worst President ever. To look upon an America more riven with sectarian hatred and social division one would have to travel back in time to the Civil War of 1861-65.

If the Chinese Government operating in this alternative universe had been in possession of the time-mastering super-quantum-computer at the heart of the action in Devs, it could not have played its hand with more far-sighted political acuity. China took an “accident” (if you believe in such dubious concepts) and turned it into an opportunity to take over the world.

Not to worry, though. There are plenty of other universes where this didn’t happen. We might even be living in one.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 24 April 2020.


Trev1 said...

Let's throw a couple of additional facts into your (plausible) scenario. In January the Lancet reported that of the first 41 cases of the novel coronavirus, 13 had no connection to the Wuhan wet market including the first case which was recorded on 1 December 2019. Of course the fact that there is an Institute of Virology, where animal viruses including those from bats are studied, only just up the road is entirely coincidental. Secondly the New York Times reported in February that some 430,000 people had travelled by air from China including Wuhan to cities across the United States between when the first case was recorded in Wuhan and Trump's closure of the US border to China at the end of January. Travel from Wuhan to Beijing and Shanghai however had been closed off much earlier by the Chinese authorities and those two key cities appear to have been largely unaffected by the pandemic. Of course this may also have been entirely coincidental. One recalls for example how the Chinese Ambassador protested New Zealand's travel ban when it was imposed on China in February. Madame Wu reminded us that China would know who its friends were from their conduct towards China not only in good times but particularly in the hard times.

petes new write said...

A great yarn.

David George said...

The CCP are intent on turning this crisis to their advantage; buying up beleaguered resources and businesses on the cheap and convincing the gullible of their altruistic intentions. The decision to continue flights out of the country and the affected area itself leaves little doubt, concerns also for it's endorsement by a corrupt/incompetent WHO.

We (NZ) are in a very vulnerable position; the GFC lead directly to the loss to China of core Kiwi assets - the manufacturing capability and substantial intellectual property of F&P appliances to name one. We need to take a good hard look at the implications of our China trade agreement, our moral obligations to our near neighbours (Tonga is now, effectively, a vassal state of China) and the real prospect of domination by a powerful, imperialist, inhumane, totalitarian regime.

The politicians on both sides are disturbingly, hopelessly, naive or cowardly or self serving. It is somewhat reassuring to see other countries are not so easily cowed and are willing to realistically confront the issues.

You can't negotiate from a position of weakness and international law is completely ignored by the CCP but do we have what it takes; does Jacinda or Simon? The best time to have confronted this undeniable reality, to draw a line defending our prosperity, security and sovereignty was twenty years ago.
The second best time is now.

greywarbler said...

Really clear and incisive summary of our position in world economy and politics. +100

You were up early and it would be good to say it was one of six impossible things before breakfast, but no. I think I'll have a cup of tea, a sit down and some soothing music to help me to recover the unpleasant taste of truth confronted.

aj said...

Doesn't it occur to anyone that any country could have stopped incoming flights from China at anytime they wanted?
So lets be honest about where the responsibility for this mess lies. It lies all over the place, as most countries place money, tourism and trade way above the risk of a developing epidemic, which was becoming an obvious issue to anyone with their eyes open from mid-January. The smoke was visible above the horizon and this uneducated citizen cancelled his travel arrangements to SE Asia because of this.
China cannot be blamed if most western countries waited for the fire to come over the hill and set their coat tails on fire before doing anything.

David George said...

Thank you greywarbler. Yes, I've been getting up at five, having an afternoon nap and early to bed. The body clock's a mess.

It's true that countries could/should have acted sooner aj; no excuses but a few salient points, some already covered by Trev above:

*The WHO (and the usual suspects within the US) condemned President Trump's early and prudent decision to ban (US citizens excepted) flights from China as "racist" or some other nonsense.
*The WHO downplaying the threats early on; they are now in a desperate arse covering exercise but there looks to be valid claims of collusion with China and that the WHO head himself is culpable. He has some dodgy history with the CCP.
*Blatant Chinese embassy threats regarding our (much later) cancellation measures.
*No attempt to stop flights pre the Chinese new year (including from out of Wuhan itself). They were the main vector of the disease into Italy and Iran and had been heavily promoted to coincide with Chinese related events planned there.
*False information from China via WHO regarding human to human transmission when they had clearly found that this was occurring.
*Some very good evidence of wildly inaccurate or fraudulent death and case number statistics.
*Chinese persecution of doctors reporting the real picture; this continues.

I'm sure the conspiracy theorist types will be saying "connect the dots", I don't know about that but it's pretty clear there needs to be a high level international inquiry - preferably outside of UN influence. I understand our government, to their credit, have voiced support; let's hope they have genuine courage as I'm sure the CCP will be exerting, overtly and covertly, strong pressure.

aj said...

"*Some very good evidence of wildly inaccurate or fraudulent death and case number statistics.
*Persecution of doctors reporting the real picture; this continues"

Both these points equally apply to the USA, UK, and probably other countries.

Your other points will no doubt be explored widely over coming months and years.

Trev1 said...

I agree. The NZ-China FTA was a pathetic capitulation. We opened our doors to Chinese ownership of our best land and companies and an influx of migrant labour while China was allowed to keep quotas on our dairy exports. MFAT should hang its head in shame. Time to rip it up.

Trev1 said...

The UN is now a busted flush, exposed for the scelerotic and deeply corrupt organisation it has become.

greywarbler said...

We can't ignore the economy. We are not self-sufficent individually and as a country we stopped bottling our own fruit to last us for the winter some time ago, if you get my drift. Labour and the Treasury thought it would be a good idea to teach the stopwork ferry workers and boilermakers that money doesn't grow on trees and let in world trade to teach us a lesson. We just tick along with workers doing a lot of borrowing to fill the gaps.

We are in austerity mode for much of the country (even in the great Depression not everyone was hard up), and we can't afford to concentrate
on keeping healthy and let the economy die. It's walking AND chewing gum time.

The Guardian explains what we need to keep remembering:
When unemployment goes down, wages are supposed to go up. That’s just supply and demand. Quite puzzlingly, though, this mechanism seems not to be working today. Unemployment stands at a modest 4%, but paychecks aren’t growing. Although today’s is the best-educated workforce in history, employers just insist that workers need more training.

In other words, they’re gaslighting us. Meanwhile, over decades, employers have built and maintained a massive collective political apparatus to hold down wages. To call it a conspiracy would be only slight embellishment.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

1.The WHO warned against excessive use of travel bans. The WHO does not have the power to barge into a country and see what's going on, therefore it lacked information, and was being cautious.They never said it was "racist or some such nonsense."
2. The rumour that Trump was called racist because of the travel ban is actually unfounded. The comment was made in the context of Trump being xenophobic, incompetent, and a bad person to be leading the country in time of emergency. And with his constant labelling of the virus the "Chinese" virus.
3.Airlines has generally stopped flights from China to the US before Trump instituted a ban anyway.
4.Trump's travel ban did not in fact include American citizens returning from China. So it was by no means perfect.
5.The National Security Council of the US suggested an aggressive travel ban but it took at least a week for Trump's administration to agree, because many of them are worried about the economic fallout. Particularly from Steve Mnuchin the Treasury Secretary.
6.While this infighting was going on, 14,000 people per day were arriving in the US from China, and Trump was saying "we have it under control."
5.The travel ban was not "Trump's travel ban" but a result of him finally taking advice from “the uniform recommendations of the career public health officials here at HHS.”