Information Sickness

The surveillance state in which we live, as Thomas A. Bass writes in our cover story, aspires to a condition of “total information awareness,” where everything that is knowable about each of us is collected to be analyzed or sold. We have for the most part accepted this situation passively and benefited from it in ways ranging from how we shop to how we travel to how we communicate. Since 9/11, the surveillance state has kept us safe from terrorism, or so we’re told, and now holds out the possibility of keeping us safe from the current pandemic and those that follow. To contemplate the downside of total information awareness, begin with George Orwell.

What it cannot bring us, apparently, is wisdom. Or even common sense. Who can resist blaming our nation’s mystifying failure to take the coronavirus seriously on one dangerous and increasingly pathetic old man and his feckless imitators? But let’s face it, if you’re going to bars or to a rave in the Hamptons, or if you’re sending your child maskless to school even as the virus spreads like wildfire in your community … then you have a serious deficit of information awareness. But congratulations, your hearty individualism is intact.

Which is not to say that the rest of us have cornered the market on wisdom. Those lucky enough to work from home have the luxury of gathering information that makes us doubly or triply safe from the virus. But what do we understand about those millions who are jobless, or homeless, or who know they have the virus but cannot miss work without losing income and, possibly, shelter, or who are healthy but for the same reason cannot protect themselves from a virus they know is slithering through their workplace? And for Americans who are not people of color, what do we know of Black and brown lives? Allison Blakely, a gentle and erudite man who graces our masthead, recently wrote a piece for our website describing the racism he has endured over a long and productive lifetime. I’ve thought of him as a friend for 15 years, and yet I had no idea.

Yes, many of us who are wise enough to keep safe still have much to learn. A good place to start might be Philip Alcabes’s searching essay “Race and Public Health,” which describes our two-tiered system of medical care and asks, “What will it take for health to be for everyone?”

After six years of sterling service as our fiction editor, Ann Beattie is stepping down. We can be happy only if this means that our friend has even more time to write her own fiction, which has, as much as anyone’s, defined our times.

Thank you, Ann.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Robert Wilson's most recent book is Barnum: An American Life. He was the editor of the Scholar for more than 17 years.


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