Noah Brier | March 18, 2020

Why is this interesting? - The Viral Time Edition

On COVID-19, information, and the quickening pace of life

Noah here. Three-and-a-half weeks ago I got a text from my parents, who were on vacation in Italy. They were in the southern part of the country at the time, but in the north, there were alarming reports of COVID-19 spreading and they were nervous about what to do. They still had more than a week left on their trip, but they are over sixty and were rightly concerned about the news. Here was the message:

I had seen some reports and read some articles, but I wasn’t tracking the coronavirus closely. After about an hour of research, I suggested they leave immediately and avoid flying through Rome. I wasn’t sure what was going to happen and was reasonably confident they weren’t at risk of infection, as the number of cases was still quite low at that point, but it seemed a certainty that at some point restrictions would start and it was best to get back home as soon as possible. They got a flight out of a local airport the next day, flew through Portugal, and were back home by 10 pm10pm.

They self-quarantined for the next 2 weeks out of an abundance of caution.

This gave me a tiny bit of a head start in thinking about COVID-19. Obviously, there were lots of folks thinking about it before me, and I’m still kicking myself for not taking it seriously earlier, but as of late February, I was on high-alert and started going deep into research. I began tracking experts on Twitter, eventually putting together this Twitter list that now includes over 100 doctors, researchers, academics, and journalists who are focused on the pandemic. I read everything I could find (and understand) and attempted to synthesize it in this Google Doc I’ve been updating

Why is this interesting?

In my time spent grappling with the devastation and response to this thing, there’s been one piece that’s been most confounding: the passage of time. It seems impossible that so much is happening so quickly and that decisions that were made just hours ago are being reversed hours later. There’s been no shortage of talk about the exponential nature of the virus, but I think in a lot of ways that’s an oversimplification when it comes to the feeling. Obviously that is a piece of the puzzle—as Ernest Hemingway wrote about bankruptcy, it happens “gradually, then suddenly”—but it doesn’t explain the entirety of the weird movement of time we seem to all be experiencing.

I’ve settled on the idea that we’re currently living in what I’ve been thinking of as “viral time,” where 1 day = 1 week and 1 hour = 7 hours. Beyond the exponential nature of the virus itself (the current estimate when it’s on the rise is doubling roughly every five days) and the increasing fidelity of the data as testing continues to spread and researchers delve deeper into the biology and medicine, you have the general shock of everything that’s happening. I don’t think any of us—at least those of who aren’t epidemiologists—were prepared for this experience and with each press conference or city order, we try to process something we had never spent any time considering before.

On that last point, Claude Shannon and information theory tell us that the quantity of information is a function of how unexpected that information is. “We should begin by grasping that information is a measure of the uncertainty we overcome, Shannon said – which we might also call surprise,” wrote Rob Goodman and Jimmy Soni in their amazing Aeon article about Shannon. In other words, each unexpected announcement actually does carry more information than the more mundane speeches of day-to-day political life (even in an election year). 

When you put all three of these factors together—an exponential virus, ever-increasing data fidelity, and a completely unexpected set of events—you get a distinct feeling that time is moving faster than you’ve ever experienced it. And it makes sense: there’s an obvious relationship between the information we’re consuming and the way we experience minutes, hours, and days. The more we’re doing, the faster time passes. 

But what makes this particularly hard to comprehend right now is that, for many of us, the hyper-speed of the outside world is met by the monotony of in-home quarantine. So while we are being flooded by information about new cases, government actions, or the markets, it’s also easy to feel a bit bored. Boredom, itself, is a kind of time-warp, where time moves more slowly precisely because so little is changing. It's like the virus world is spinning out of control and the non-virus world has slowed to a crawl, interrupted only by anxiety-producing news and questions.

While the earth may continue to rotate at normal speed, there’s no question we are processing events in a different way than they were a week or a month ago. As I’ve gotten more comfortable with this idea, I’ve also found it much easier to make decisions and grasp the enormity of what’s happening around the world. I hope it’s helpful for you as well. (NRB)

Chart of the Day:
Thankfully it seems like most of the country has bought into social distancing at this point. This chart, from Georgia Tech professor Joshua Weitz, tells a pretty compelling story for why it’s so important to cut out large gatherings. (NRB)

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Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN)

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