A.I. and Our Current Rugged Landscape

In evolution, there’s something called the adaptive landscape. It’s a complex concept, but in the smallest nutshell possible, it refers to how fit species are for a particular environment. In a relatively static landscape, status quos tend to be maintained. It’s business as usual. 

But a rugged adaptive landscape —-one beset by disruption and adversity — drives evolutionary change through speciation, the introduction of new and distinct species. 

The concept is not unique to evolution. Adapting to adversity is a feature in all complex, dynamic systems. Our economy has its own version. Economist Joseph Schumpeter called them Gales of Creative Destruction.

The same is true for cultural evolution. When shit gets real, the status quo crumbles like a sandcastle at high tide. When it comes to life today and everything we know about it, we are definitely in a rugged landscape. COVID-19 might be driving us to our new future faster than we ever suspected. The question is, what does that future look like?

Homo Deus

In his follow up to his best-seller “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind,” author Yuval Noah Harari takes a shot at predicting just that. “Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow” looks at what our future might be. Written well before the pandemic (in 2015) the book deals frankly with the impending irrelevance of humanity. 

The issue, according to Harari, is the decoupling of intelligence and consciousness. Once we break the link between the two, the human vessels that have traditionally carried intelligence become superfluous. 

In his book, Harari foresees two possible paths: techno-humanism and Dataism. 

Techno-humanism

In this version of our future, we humans remain essential, but not in our current form. Thanks to technology, we get an upgrade and become “super-human.”

Dataism

Alternatively, why do we need humans at all? Once intelligence becomes decoupled from human consciousness, will it simply decide that our corporeal forms are a charming but antiquated oddity and just start with a clean slate?

Our Current Landscape

Speaking of clean slates, many have been talking about the opportunity COVID-19 has presented to us to start anew. As I was writing this column, I received a press release from MIT promoting a new book “Building the New Economy,” edited by Alex Pentland. I haven’t read it yet, but based on the first two lines in the release, it certainly seems to be following this type of thinking:“With each major crisis, be it war, pandemic, or major new technology, there has been a need to reinvent the relationships between individuals, businesses, and governments. Today’s pandemic, joined with the tsunami of data, crypto and AI technologies, is such a crisis.”

We are intrigued by the idea of using the technologies we have available to us to build a societal framework less susceptible to inevitable Black Swans. But is this just an invitation to pry open Pandora’s Box and allow the future Yuval Noah Harari is warning us about?

The Debate 

Harari isn’t the only one seeing the impending doom of the human race. Elon Musk has been warning us about it for years. As we race to embrace artificial intelligence, Musk sees the biggest threat to human existence we have ever faced. 

“I am really quite close, I am very close, to the cutting edge in AI and it scares the hell out of me,” warns Musk. “It’s capable of vastly more than almost anyone knows and the rate of improvement is exponential.”

There are those that pooh-pooh Musk’s alarmism, calling it much ado about nothing. Noted Harvard cognitive psychologist and author Steven Pinker, whose rose-colored vision of humanity’s future reliably trends up and to the right, dismissed Musk’s warnings with this: “If Elon Musk was really serious about the AI threat, he’d stop building those self-driving cars, which are the first kind of advanced AI that we’re going to see.”

In turn, Musk puts Pinker’s Pollyanna perspective down to human hubris: “This tends to plague smart people. They define themselves by their intelligence and they don’t like the idea that a machine could be way smarter than them, so they discount the idea — which is fundamentally flawed.”

From Today Forward

This brings us back to our current adaptive landscape. It’s rugged. The peaks and valleys of our day-to-day reality are more rugged then they have ever been — at least in our lifetimes. 

We need help. And when you’re dealing with a massive threat that involves probability modeling and statistical inference, more advanced artificial intelligence is a natural place to look. 

Would we trade more invasive monitoring of our own bio-status and aggregation of that data to prevent more deaths? In a heartbeat.

Would we put our trust in algorithms that can instantly crunch vast amounts of data our own brains couldn’t possibly comprehend? We already have.

Will we even adopt connected devices constantly streaming the bits of data that define our existence to some corporate third party or government agency in return for a promise of better odds that we can extend that existence? Sign us up.

We are willingly tossing the keys to our future to the Googles, Apples, Amazons and Facebooks of the world. As much as the present may be frightening, we should consider the steps we’re taking carefully.

If we continue rushing down the path towards Yuval Noah Harari’s Dataism, we should be prepared for what we find there: “This cosmic data-processing system would be like God. It will be everywhere and will control everything, and humans are destined to merge into it.”

The Mother of all Mood Swings

How are you doing? 

Yes, you. 

I know how I’m doing — today, anyway. It varies day to day. It depends on the news. It depends on the weather. It depends on Trump’s Twitter stream.

Generally, I’m trying to process the abnormal with the tools I have. I don’t know precisely how you’re doing, but I suspect you’re going through your own processing with your own tools.

I do know one thing. The tools I have are pretty much the same tools you have, at least when we look at them in the broad strokes. It’s one of the surprising things about humans. We all go through some variation of the same process when we deal with life’s big events. 

Take grief and other traumatic life changes. We’re pretty predictable in how we deal with it. So predictable, in fact, that there’s a psychological model with its own acronym for it: DABDA. It’s known as the five stages of grief:  denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. It was first introduced in 1969 by Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross.  

Noted American neurobiologist and author Robert Sapolsky marvels on the universality of our processing of grief in his book  “The Trouble with Testosterone”:  “Poems, paintings, symphonies by the most creative artists who ever lived, have been born out of mourning… We cry, we rage, we demand that the oceans’ waves stop, that the planets halt their movements in the sky, all because the earth will no longer be graced by the one who sang lullabies as no one else could; yet that, too, is reducible to DABDA. Why should grief be so stereotypical?”

But it’s not just bad stuff we process this way. If you look at how we process any big change, you’ll find there are pretty predictable stages we humans go through.

So why are we so predictable in how we deal with change? In general, these are all variations of the sensemaking cycle, which is how we parse the world around us. We start with a frame — an understanding of what we believe to be true — and we constantly compare this to new information we get from our environment. 

Because we are cognitively energy-efficient, we are reluctant to throw out old frames and adopt new ones, especially when those new ones are being forced upon us. It’s just the way we’re wired. 

But life change is usually a solo journey, and we rely on anchors to help us along the way. We rely on our psychoscapes, the cognitive environments in which our minds typically operate. Friends, families, favorite activities, social diversions: these are the things that we can rely on for an emotional boost, even if only temporarily.

But what if everyone is experiencing trauma at the same time? What if our normal psychoscape is no longer there? What then?

Then we enter the SNAFU zone.

SNAFU is an acronym coined in World War II:  “situation normal, all f*cked up.”  It was used to refer to a situation that is bad, but is also a normal state of affairs. 

We are talking a lot about the new normal. But here’s the thing: The new situation normal is going to be a shit show, guaranteed to be all f*cked up. And it’s going to be that way because everyone  — and I mean everyone — is going to be going through the Mother of all Mood Swings. 

First of all, although the stages of managing change may be somewhat universal, the path we take through them is anything but. Some will get stuck at the denial and anger stage and storm the state legislature with assault weapons demanding a haircut. Some are already at acceptance, trying to navigate through a world that is officially SNAFU. We are all processing the same catalyst of change, but we’re at different places in that process. 

Secondly, the psychological anchors we depend on may not be there for us. When we are going through collective stress, we tend to rely on community. We revert to our evolutionary roots of being natural herders. Without exception, the way humans have always dealt with massive waves of change is to come together with others. And this is where a pandemic that requires social distancing throws a king-sized wrench in the works. We can’t even get a hug to help us through a bad day.

As the levels of our collective stress climb, there are bound to be a lot of WTF moments. Nerves will fray and tempers will flare. We will be walking on eggshells. There will be little patience for perspectives that differ from our own. Societal divides will deepen and widen. The whole world will become moodier than a hormonal teenager. 

Finally, we have all of the above playing out in a media landscape that was already fractured to an unprecedented level going into this. All the many things that are FU in this particular SNAFU will be posted, tweeted, shared and reshared. There will be no escape from it. 

Unlike the hormonal teenager, we can’t send COVID-19 to its room.

Media’s Mea Culpa Moment

It’s hard to see when you’re stuck inside. And I’m not talking about self-isolating during a pandemic. I’m talking about our perspective of the media landscape.

The Problem with Politics

Currently, the concept of “Us vs Them” is embedded into our modern idea of politics. Populist politics, by its very nature, needs an enemy to blame. It forces you to pick sides. It creates a culture of antagonism, eroding social capital and dismantling any bipartisan trust. We are far down this path. Perhaps too far to turn back. But we have to realize that no nation or region in modern history has ever prospered in the long term by wantonly destroying social capital. There are many examples of how regionalism, xenophobia and populism have caused nations to regress. There is no example of these things leading to prosperity and long-term success. Not one. Yet this is the path we seem to have chosen.

If you look at the media, it’s politicians that are to blame for all our problems, whether they’re on the right or left. Based on most mainstream media, with its inherent, left wing bias, there is a personification of the problem, primarily in the President. “If Trump wasn’t there, things would be better.” But the problem would still persist. Much as we left leaning individuals found Obama a more palatable choice for president, the problem was here then as well. That’s how we got to where we are today.

The sad truth is, Trump didn’t cause the problem. He just capitalized on it. So we have to look elsewhere for where the problem originated. And that leads us to an uncomfortable reality. We are the problem – meaning we – the media, particularly in the U.S. But it’s hard to see that when you’re looking from the inside. So last week I changed my perspective.

Because of COVID-19, we should all be focused on the same story, perhaps for the first time in our lives. This gives us an unprecedented opportunity to compare the media landscapes against what should be a fairly objective baseline.

The Canadian Litmus Test

I’m Canadian — and for Americans, I know that living next to Canada is like having “The Simpsons'” Ned Flanders for a neighbor. We seem nice and polite, but you can’t help feeling that we’re constantly judging you. 

But Canada does offers Americans the chance to compare cultures that have much in common but with some key critical differences. It was this comparison that geographer, historian and anthropologist Jared Diamond employed in his latest book, “UpheavalTurning Points for Nations in Crisis.”

“Many of Canada’s social and political practices are drastically different from those of the U.S., such as with regards to national health plans, immigration, education, prisons, and balance between community and individual interests,” he writes. ”Some problems that Americans regard as frustratingly insoluble are solved by Canadians in ways that earn widespread public support.”

As a case in point, Canada has handled COVID-19 in a notably different way. Our pandemic response has been remarkably non-partisan. For example, we have the unusual spectacle of our most Trump-like politician, Ontario Conservative Premier Doug Ford, stepping up as a compassionate leader who is working effectively with Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his own opposition.

The Myth of Impartial Reporting

This is not the case in the U.S. Because of America’s political divides, it can’t even agree on what should be a simple presentation of fact on the story that affects us all equally. 

A recent PEW study found that where you turn for your news will significantly impact your understanding of things like when a vaccine will be ready or whether coronavirus came about naturally. 

To check this out, I did a comparison of the three most popular U.S. news sites on April 29.

Let’s start with CNN.  Of the 28 news items featured on the home page “above the fold,” 16 had an overt left bias. The most prominent was  inflammatory, dealing with Trump’s handling of the pandemic and his blowing up at press criticism. A Biden story on the Tara Reade accusations was buried in small print links near the bottom.

Now let’s go to the other side of the spectrum: Fox News, which also featured 28 news items “above the fold.” Of these 14 had an overt right bias. Again, the headline was inflammatory, calling out Biden on the Tara Reade allegations. There was no mention of any Trump temper tantrums on the home page. 

Finally, MSNBC’s headline story was actually focused on COVID-19 and the Remdesivir trial results and had no political bias. The site only had nine news items above the fold. Four of these had a left-leaning bias. 

The home pages bore almost no resemblance to each other. You would be hard-pressed to understand that each of these sites represented the news from the same country on the same day.

Now, let’s compare with Canada’s top two news sites, CBC and Global News. 

About 60% of the stories covered were the same on both sites and given roughly the same priority. The same lead story was featured on both — about a missing Canadian military helicopter. On CBC, only one appeared to have any political bias at all and it was definitely not explicit, while none of Global’s did.

That’s in comparison to the American news sites, where over half the stories featured — and all the lead ones — were designed and written to provoke anger, pitting “us” against “them.”

Once mainstream media normalizes this antagonistic approach, it then gets shunted over to social media, where it’s stripped of context, amplified and shared. Mainstream media sets the mood of the nation, and that mood is anger. Social media then whips it into a frenzy. 

Both left- and right-wing media outlets are equally guilty. CNN’s overriding editorial tone is, “Can you believe how stupid they are?” Fox’s is, “They think you’re stupid and they’re trying to pull a fast one on you.” No wonder there is no common ground where public discourse across the political divide can begin.

Before COVID-19, perhaps we could look at this with a certain amount of resignation and even bemusement. If you’re “us” there is a certain satisfaction in vilifying “them.” But today, the stakes are too high. People are dying because of it. Somehow, the media has to turn America’s ideological landscape from a war zone into a safe space.

Our Complicated Relationship with Heroes

It’s not really surprising that we think more about heroes in times of adversity. Many of our most famous superheroes were born in the crucible of crisis: Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman and Captain America were all created during the Great Depression or the early years of World War II.

Today, we are again craving heroes. They are fabricated out of less fantastic stuff: taxi drivers who give free rides to the airport for patients, nurses who staff the front lines of our hospitals, chefs who provide free food to essential workers and a centenarian (as of tomorrow) who is raising millions for his national health care system by walking around his garden every day.

These are ordinary people who are doing extraordinary things. They are being raised to the rank of hero thanks to the surging tides of social media.

Again, this isn’t surprising. We are still in the early stages of what, for most of us, will likely be the defining crisis of our lifetimes. We desperately need some good news.

In fact, everybody’s favorite paper salesman/CIA operative/husband of Mary Poppins — John Krasinski — has curated a weekly webcast collection of feel-good salutes to local heroes called “Some Good News.” As of the writing of this post, it had collectively racked up close to 50 million views.

Krasinski has himself become a hero by doing things like throwing a surprise virtual prom for all the grads who were derived of theirs by the pandemic, or letting a group of ER nurses take the field at an eerily empty Fenway Park.

Having heroes should be a good thing. They should inspire us to be better people  — to become heroes ourselves. Right?

Well…

It’s complicated.

On the surface of it, hero worship is probably a good thing, especially if our heroes are doing things we all could do, if we were so inclined.  “If a 99.9-year-old man can raise millions for a national health service, there must be something I can do.”

On that very theme, the Heroic Imagination Project was formed to help us all be heroes. Headed up by famed psychologist Dr. Phillip Zimbardo, HIP came out of his infamous Stanford Prison Experiment. “If,” reasoned Zimbardo, “we all have the capacity to be evil, given the right circumstances, we should also all have the capacity to be heroes, again under the right circumstances.”

But there are a few hurdles between us and heroism. One of them, ironically, comes part and parcel with the very idea of hero worship.

In an extensive analysis of how superheroes reflect the American mythology of their own times, Dublin writer Sally Rooney shows how a country uses its heroes to reassure itself of its own goodness: The superhero makes sense in times of crisis. Reducing the vast complex of nationhood into the body of an individual means periods of geopolitical turmoil can be repackaged as moments of psychological stress. In the mirror of the superhero, America is reassured of its good qualities. Physical strength is good, as is the ability to make wisecracks under pressure. Masculinity is good, and women are okay as long as they can do very high kicks while making wisecracks. Once America is on the scene, order can be restored.”

So, we use heroes as a moral baseline to make us feel better about collective selves. They can help us reaffirm our faith in our national ideologies. A picture of a nurse in scrubs silently staring down a protester demanding a haircut makes us feel that things are still OK  in the heartland of the nation. It’s a reverse adaptation of the Lake Wobegone effect: “If this person represents the best of what we (as Americans) are, then the average can’t be all that bad.”

Unfortunately, this leads right into the second hurdle, the Bystander Effect: “If something happens that demands heroic action and there are a lot of people around, surely there’s a hero in the crowd that will step forward before I have to.” Being a hero demands a certain amount of sacrifice. As long as someone else is willing to make that sacrifice, we don’t have to — but we can still feel good about ourselves by giving it a like,  or, if we’re truly motivated, sharing it on our feed.

As the greatest real-time sociological experiment in our lifetime continues to play out, we might have yet another example of an unintended consequence brought on by social media. Based on our Facebook feeds, it appears that we have more heroes than ever. That’s great, but will it encourage us or keep us from stepping up and becoming heroes ourselves?

A New Definition of Social

I am an introvert. My wife is an extrovert. Both of us have been self-isolating for about 5 weeks now.  I don’t know if our experiences are representative of introverts and extroverts as a group, but my sample size has – by necessity – been reduced to a “n” of 2. Our respective concepts of what it means to be social have been disruptively redefined, but in very different ways.

The Extro-Version

You’ve probably heard of Dunbar’s Number. It was proposed by anthropologist Robin Dunbar. It’s the “suggested cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships.” The number, according to Dunbar, is about 150. But that number is not an absolute. it’s a theoretical limit. Some of us can juggle way more social connections than others.

My wife’s EQ (emotional quotient) is off the charts. She has a need to stay emotionally connected to a staggering number of people. Even in normal times, she probably “checks in” with dozens of people every week. Before COVID-19, this was done face-to-face whenever possible.

Now, her empathetic heart feels an even greater need to make sure everyone is doing okay. But she has to do it through socially distanced channels. She uses text messaging a lot. But she also makes at least a few phone calls every day for those in her network who are not part of the SMS or social media universe.

She has begun using Zoom to coordinate virtual get-togethers of a number of her friends. Many in this circle are also extroverts. A fair number of them are – like my wife – Italian. You can hear them recharging their social batteries as the energy and volume escalates. It’s not cappuccino and biscotti but they are making do with what they’ve got.

Whatever the channel, it has been essential for my wife to maintain this continuum of connection.

The Intro-Version

There are memes circulating that paint the false picture that the time has finally come for us introverts. “I’ve been practicing for this my entire life,” says one. They consistently say that life in lockdown is much harder for extroverts than introverts. They even hint that we should be in introvert’s heaven. They are wrong. I am not having the time of my life.

I’m not alone. Other introverts are having trouble adjusting to a social agenda being forced upon them by their self-isolated extrovert friends and colleagues. We introverts seldom get to write the rules of social acceptability, even in a global pandemic.

If you type “Are introverts more likely” into Google, it will suggest the following ways to complete that sentence: “to be depressed”, “to be single”, “to have anxiety”, “to be alcoholic”, and “to be psychopaths”. The world is not built for introverts.

Understanding introversion vs extroversion is to understand social energy. Unlike my wife for whom social interactions act as a source of renewal, for me they are a depletion of energy. If I’m going to make the effort, it better be worth my while. A non-introvert can’t understand that. It’s often interpreted as aloofness, boredom or just being rude. It’s none of these. It’s just our batteries being run down.

Speaking for myself, I don’t think most introverts are antisocial. We’re just “differently” social. We need connections the same as extroverts. But those connections are of a certain kind. It’s true that introverts are not good at small talk. But under the right circumstances, we do love to talk. Those circumstances are just more challenging in the current situation.

Take Zoom for instance. My wife, the extrovert, and myself, the introvert, have done some Zoom meetings side by side. I have noticed a distinct difference in how we Zoom. But before I talk about that, let me set a comparative to a more typical example of an introvert’s version of hell: the dreaded neighborhood house party.

As an introvert in this scenario, I would be constantly reading body language and non-verbal cues to see if there was an opportunity to reluctantly crowbar my way into a conversation. I would only do so if the topic interested me. Even then, I would be subconsciously monitoring my audience to see if they looked bored. On the slightest sign of disinterest, I would awkwardly wind down the conversation and retreat to my corner.

It’s not that I don’t like to talk. But I much prefer sidebar one-on-one conversations. I don’t do well in environments where there is too much going on. In those scenarios, introverts tend to clam up and just listen.

Now, consider a Zoom “Happy Hour” with a number of other people. All of that non-verbal bandwidth we Introverts rely on to pick and choose where we expend our limited social energy is gone.   Although Zoom adds a video feed, it’s a very low fidelity substitute for an in-the-flesh interaction.

With all this mental picking and choosing happening in the background, you can understand why introverts are slow to jump into the conversational queue and, when we finally do, we find that someone else (probably an extrovert) has started talking first. I’m constantly being asked, “Did you say something Gord?”, at which point everyone stops talking and looks at my little Zoom cubicle, waiting for me to talk. That, my friends, is an introvert’s nightmare.

Finally, I Get the Last Word

Interestingly, neither my wife nor I are using Facebook much for connection. She has joined a few Facebook groups, one of which is a fan club for our provincial health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry. Dr. Henry has become the most beloved person in B.C.

And I’m doing what I always tell everyone else not to do; follow my Facebook newsfeed and go into self-isolated paroxysms of rage about the Pan-dumb-ic and the battle between science and stupidity.

There is one social sacrifice that both my wife and I agree on. The thing we miss most is the ability to hug those we love.

Is the Marketing Industry Prepared for What Lies Ahead?

It was predictable. Humans are starting to do what humans do. We are beginning to shift gears, working our way through the stages of shock. We are daring to look beyond today and wondering what tomorrow might be like. Very smart people, like Sapiens author Yuval Noah Harari, are concerned about what we may trade away in the teeth of this crisis.

Others, like philosopher Barbara Muraca, climate change advocate Greta Thurnberg and Media Spin’s own Kaila Colbin,  are hoping that this might represent a global reset moment for us. Perhaps this will finally break our obsession with continual year after year growth, fueled by our urges to acquire and consume. We in the advertising and marketing business kept dumping gas on this unsustainable dumpster fire. There is hope by some – including myself – that COVID-19 will be a kind of shock therapy, convincing us to take a kinder, gentler approach to both the planet and each other.

My own crystal ball gazing is on a much-reduced scale. Specifically, I’m wondering what advertising and marketing might be like in our immediate future. I started by looking back at what history can teach us about recovery from a crisis.

Both World Wars resulted in explosions of consumerism. One could probably make the argument that the consumerism that happened after World War II has continued pretty much uninterrupted right to the current day. We basically spent our way out of the dotcom implosion of 1999 – 2002 and the Great Recession of 2007 – 2009.

But will this be different? I think it will, for three reasons.

One, both World Wars repressed consumer demand for a matter of years. With World War I it was four years, plus another 3 marked by the Spanish Flu Pandemic and a brief but sharp recession as the economy had to shift gears from wartime to peace time. With World War II, it was 6 years of repressed consumerism. 

Secondly, the wars presented those of us here in North America with a very different psychological landscape. We went “over there” to fight and then “came home” when it was done. The war wasn’t on our front stoop. That gave us both physical and emotional distance after the war was over.

Finally, when the war was over, it was over. The world had to adjust to a new normal, but the fighting had stopped. That gave consumers a clear mental threshold to step beyond. You didn’t have to worry that you might be called back into service on any day, returning once again to the grim reality that was.

For these three reasons, I think our consumer mentality may look significantly different in the coming months. As we struggle back to whatever normal is between now and the discovery of a vaccine – currently estimated at 12 to 18 months – we will have a significantly different consumer reality. We don’t have years of pent up consumer demand that will wash away any pragmatic thoughts of restraint. We have been dealing with a crisis that has crept into our very homes. It has been present in every community, every neighborhood. And – most importantly – we will be living in a constant state of anxiety and fear for the foreseeable future. These three things are going to have a dramatic impact on our desire to consume.

Blogger Tomas Pueyo did a good job of outlining what our new normal may look like in his post The Hammer and The Dance. We are still very much in the “Hammer” phase but we are beginning to wonder what the “Dance” may look like.

In our immediate future, we are going to hear a lot about the Basic reproductive rate – denoted as R0  – or R naught. This is the measure of the number of cases, on average, an infected person will cause during their infectious period. A highly infectious disease, like measles, has a R naught of between 12 and 18. Current estimates on COVID-19 put its R naught between 1.5 and 3.5. Most models assume a R naught of 2.4 or so.

This is important to understand if we want to understand what our habits of consumption might look like until a vaccine is found. As long as that R naught number is higher than 1, the disease continues to spread. If we can get it lower than 1, then the numbers stabilize and eventually decline. The “Dance” Pueyo refers to is the actions that need to be taken to keep the R naught number lower than 1 without completely stalling the economy. With extremely restrictive measures you theoretically could reduce the R naught to zero but in the process, you shut down the entire economy. Relax the restrictions too much and the R naught climbs back up into exponentially increasing territory.

Much of the commentary I’m reading is assuming we will go back to “normal” or some variation of it. But the new “normal” is this dance, where we will be balanced on the knife’s edge between human cost and economic cost. For the next several months we will be teetering from one side to the other. At best, we can forget about widespread travel, large public gatherings and sociability as we previously knew it. At worst, we go back into full lockdown.

This is the psychological foundation our consumption will be based on. We will be in a constant state of anxiety and fear. And our marketing strategies will have to address that. Further, marketing needs to factor in this new normal in an environment where brand messaging is no longer a unilateral exercise. It is amplified and bent through social media. Frayed nerves make for a very precarious arena in which to play a game we’re still learning the rules of. We can expect ideological and ethical divisions to widen and deepen during the Dance.

The duration of the Dance will be another important factor to consider when we think about marketing. If it goes long enough, our temporary behavioral shifts become habits. The changes that are forced upon us may become permanent. Will we ever feel good about stepping aboard a cruise ship? Will we be ever be comfortable again in a crowded restaurant or bar? Will we pay 300 dollars to be jammed into a stadium with 50 thousand other people? We don’t know the answers to these questions yet.

Successful market depends on being able to anticipate the mood of the audience. The Dance will make that much more difficult. We will be racing up and down Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs at a frenzied pace that would make a game of Snakes and Ladders seem mild by comparison.

That’s what happens in times of crisis. In normal times we spend our lifetimes scaling Abraham Maslow’s elegant model from the bottom – fulfilling our most basic physical needs – to the top – an altruistic concern for the greater good. Most of us spend much of our time stuck somewhere north of the middle, obsessed with our own status and shoring up our self-esteem. It’s this relatively stable mental state that the vast majority of marketing is targeted at.

But in a chronic crisis mode like that which is foretold by the Dance, we can crash from the top to the bottom of the hierarchy in the blink of an eye. And we will all be doing this at different times in different locations.

The Dance introduces a consumer scenario marketers have never encountered before. We will crave comfort and security. We will be desperate for glimpses of positivity. And it’s certain that our values and beliefs will shift but it’s difficult to predict in which direction. While my hope is that we become kinder and gentler people, I suspect it will be a toss-up. It could well go the other way.

If you thought marketing was tough before, buckle up!

Whipped Into a Frenzy

Once again, we’re in unprecedented territory. According to the CDC – COVID-19 is the first global pandemic since the 2009 H1N1 outbreak. While Facebook was around in 2009, it certainly wasn’t as pervasive or impactful as it is today. Neither – for that matter – was H1N1 when compared to COVID-19. That would make COVID-19 the first true pandemic in the age of social media.

While we’re tallying the rapidly mounting human and economic costs of the pandemic on a day-by-day basis, there is a third type of damage to consider. There will be a cognitive cost to this as well.

So let’s begin by unpacking the psychology of a pandemic. Then we’ll add the social media lens to that.

Emotional Contagion aka “The Toilet Paper Syndrome”

Do you have toilet paper at your local store? Me neither. Why?

The short answer is that there is no rational answer. There is no disruption in the supply chain of toilet paper. If you were inclined to stock up on something to battle COVID-19, hand sanitizer would be a much better choice.  Search as you might, there is no logical reason why people should be pulling toilet paper by the pallet full out of their local Costco.

There is really only one explanation; panic is contagious. It’s called emotional contagion. And there is an evolutionary explanation for it. We evolved as herd animals and when our threats came from the environment around us, it made sense to panic when you saw your neighbor panicking. Those that were on the flanks of the herd acted as an early warning system for the rest. When you saw panic close to you, the odds were very good that you were about to be eaten, trampled or buried under a rockslide. We’re hardwired to live by the principle of “Monkey see, monkey do.”

Here’s the other thing about emotional contagion. It doesn’t work very well if you have to take time to think about it. Panicked responses to threats from your environment will only save your life if they happen instantly. Natural selection has ensured they bypass the slower and more rational processing loops of our brain.

But now let’s apply the social media lens to this. Before modern communication tools were invented, emotional contagion was limited by the constraints of physical proximity. It was the original application of social distancing. Emotions could spread to a social node linked by physical proximity, but it would seldom jump across ties to another node that was separated by distance.

Then came Facebook, a platform perfectly suited to emotional contagion. Through it, emotionally charged messages can spread like wildfire regardless of where the recipients might be – creating cascades of panic across all nodes in a social network.

Now we have cascades of panic causing – by definition – irrational responses. And that’s dangerous. As Wharton Management professor Sigal Barsade said in a recent podcast, “I would argue that emotional contagion, unless we get a hold on it, is going to greatly amplify the damage caused by COVID-19”

Why We Need to Keep Calm and Carry On

Keep Calm and Carry On – the famous slogan from World War II Britain – is more than just a platitude that looks good on a t-shirt. It’s a sound psychological strategy for survival, especially when faced with threats in a complex environment. We need to think with our whole brain and we can only do that when we’re not panicking.

Again, Dr. Barsade cautions us “One of the things we also know from the research literature is that negative emotions, particularly fear and anxiety, cause us to become very rigid in our decision-making. We’re not creative. We’re not as analytical, so we actually make worse decisions.”

Let’s again consider the Facebook Factor (in this case, Facebook being my proxy for all social media). Negative emotional messages driven by fear gets clicked and shared a lot on social media. Unfortunately, much of that messaging is – at best – factually incomplete or – at worst – a complete fabrication. A 2018 study from MIT showed that false news spreads six times faster on social media than factual information.

It gets worse. According to Pew Research, one in five Americans said that social media is their preferred source for news, surpassing newspapers. In those 18 -to 29, it was the number one source. When you consider the inherent flaws in the methodology of a voluntary questionnaire, you can bet the actual number is a lot higher.

Who Can You Trust?

Let’s assume we can stay calm. Let’s further assume we can remain rational. In order to make rational decisions, you need factual information.

Before 2016, you could generally rely on government sources to provide trustworthy information. But that was then. Now, we live in the reality distortion field that daily spews forth fabricated fiction from the Twitter account of Donald. J. Trump, aka the President of the United States.

The intentional manipulation of the truth by those we should trust has a crippling effect on our ability to respond as a cohesive and committed community. As recently as just a week and a half ago, a poll found that Democrats were twice as likely as Republicans to say that COVID-19 posed an imminent threat to the U.S. By logical extension, that means that Republicans were half as likely to do something to stop the spread of the disease.

My Plan for the Pandemic

Obviously, we live in a world of social media. COVID-19 or not, there is no going back. And while I have no idea what will happen regarding the pandemic, I do have a pretty good guess how this will play out on social media. Our behaviours will be amplified through social media and there will be a bell curve of those behaviors stretching from assholes to angels. We will see the best of ourselves – and the worst – magnified through the social media lens.

Given that, here’s what I’m planning to do. One I already mentioned. I’m going to keep calm. I’m going to do my damnedest to make calm, rational decisions based on trusted information (i.e. not from social media or the President of the United States) to protect myself, my loved ones and anyone else I can.

The other plan? I’m going to reread everything from Nassam Nicholas Taleb. This is a good time for all of us to brush up on our understanding of robustness and antifragility.