Writing these words at the beginning of the global community outbreak phase of the Covid-19 pandemic, I am painfully aware of their ephemeral nature. Hopefully, the pandemic could soon wind down; yet it is just as possible that we might be heading towards a large-scale disaster or towards anything in the between. And yet, most of us cannot do much at this stage. Being in self-isolation, my ‘research’ of Covid-19 consists of cooking nice meals, cleaning my flat, endless consummation of the infodemic, frantic exchange of emails with friends all over the globe, and feeble attempts to make sense of what happens. Unsurprisingly, that involves a lot of trivia and a bit of humour. Reading semi-serious, semi-bitter, semi-hopeful ‘predictions’ of a possible baby-boom nine months after introduction of a curfew in Italy, Austria, and Spain, my first instinct was to think of all those academics now sitting at home. Those of us who teach are now dealing with the complexities of online education, and many of us will also try and catch up with writing that one paper that has always hovered at the bottom of our to-do lists. In the sea of Covid-19-related speculations, the only prediction I would put my money on is an increased number of paper submissions to academic journals in the months to come.
Researchers in some areas of medical sciences, biology, economy, logistics, and others, can help people directly affected by the pandemic through the development of diagnostic tools, medicines, and vaccinations; analysing counter-recession measures; increasing efficiency of shipping food and medicine; and the like. However, what happens to people who have not been infected by Covid-19 but have lost their jobs, cannot pay their mortgages, or have become homeless due to economic slowdown? What happens to the most vulnerable members of the society - children, elderly, disabled, those with mental issues? How many indirect victims will the Covid-19 pandemic create? In our context of advanced global capitalism, what should be done to spread the burden of the pandemic at least a bit more equally? And which consequences will the Covid-19 pandemic have in regards to the environment, surveillance, worlwide rise of fascism, democracy? Postdigital viral modernity is equally about biology, culture, and society; in the long run, humanity cannot defend itself from Covid-19 and create a better future without engaging all strata of the society. Therefore, it is crucial that academic researchers working in the humanities and social sciences immediately join the struggle against the pandemic. In the postdigital context of viral modernity, decades of training and experience in any academic field can contribute to making sense of the crisis. Postdigital researchers should read, research, and write about all imaginable aspects of Covid-19!—even if that research, at present, does not seem to offer much help in getting us through and over the pandemic.
The Covid-19 pandemic has brought a huge social experiment into our homes, streets, cities, countries, and globally. Outcomes of this social experiment will follow the whole humankind, probably fairly unequally, far into the future. As I write these words, nurses and doctors undertake huge health risks to support our wellbeing. Supermarket tellers undertake similar health risks, but receive much less praise, to bring supplies to people who are not (or will not be) allowed to leave their houses. Teachers work nights and weekends to develop learning materials and support their online students. People working in many other occupations, pensioners, children, and many others, need to stay at home, watch the news, and follow instructions. None of these roles is less important than the other. While we obviously need food, healthcare, and education, the virus can be contained only through discipline and solidarity of all strata of the society.
The humanities and social sciences are already making significant contributions in areas such as informing citizens, prevention of panic, big data analysis, open science, and others. For instance, UK’s Wellcome Trust statement, ‘Sharing research data and findings relevant to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak’ (Wellcome Trust 2020) has enabled unprecedented levels of sharing Covid-19-related information which have already significantly contributed to development of diagnostic tools, medical procedures, and vaccines (see Peters et al. 2020). While we struggle against immediate threats, however, we should also keep in mind the broader picture. Other areas of the humanities and social sciences, which may now seem unrelated to our immediate struggle against the pandemic, are not less crucial for long-term flourishing of the human race.
We, postdigital scholars working in the humanities and social sciences, should not take our home isolations and quarantines as unexpected vacations or opportunties to catch up with old projects. Instead, we should look into the strengths of our disciplinary knowledges and research methods to try and create opportunities to contribute to humanity’s collective struggle against the Covid-19 pandemic and point towards more sustainable futures. Some of our current insights will be hasted, and will serve as mere first-hand testimonies for later (and more balanced) research. Some of our insights will be picked up only in the next pandemic. Some of our insights will be plainly wrong, and consequently retracted. In our current infodemic, the most of our current produce will probably simply remain overlooked and unread. Yet some of our insights may raise awareness of important issues, add more nuance to our thinking, and perhaps even influence the course of the pandemic. It is impossible to know which piece of research will end up in the garbage bin of history, which piece of research will make a difference, and when that difference may surface. Anne Frank’s diary did absolutely nothing to stop the Second World War, and poor Anne had not lived long enough to even see it published. Yet seventy years later, Anne Frank’s diary still makes a huge service to humanity by providing a constant reminder of the perils of fascism.
Wearing my academic researcher hat, I am not ashamed of naivety of this paper—it honestly represents my current thoughts and feelings about the Covid-19 pandemic on 16 March 2020. These thoughts are likely to be overridden by new developments, but they will nevertheless serve as a testimony of this historical moment. Wearing my academic editor hat, I am not afraid of publishing papers that might be proven wrong or even retracted—messy and unpredictable postdigital challenges pertaining to viral modernity require messy and unpredictable attempts at answering. Wearing my Daddy hat, I am admittedly a bit ashamed of withdrawing into the world of research while my son lives through some of the most challenging times in his 6-year-old life. Yet beneath all these hats, there is a head; in this head, there is a mind; and in this mind, there is a tiny, persistent voice that whispers: knowledge and solidarity are the key to long-term survival and flourishing of the human race. I invite all postdigital scholars to take this voice seriously, get out of our comfort zones, and explore all imaginable aspects of this large social experiment that the Covid-19 pandemic has lain down in front of us. In the midst of the pandemic, many of these efforts may seem useless. Yet paraphrasing John Fitzgerald Kennedy (1966), those who dare to fail miserably are also those who might change the course of history.