Was 1918 Better Equipped to Weather a Pandemic?

Was 1918 better equipped for a pandemic? Quite possibly yes, despite having almost no medical interventions once people did get sick. They barely had oxygen, no antibiotics, steroids or bronchodilators. What they did have, we haven’t been able to rebuild.

The ties that once made local communities such anchors (in all senses of the word) for most people have eroded — national media replaced local; personalized media replaced mass. We normalized long commutes to work, school, retail.

But we’ve also target-marketed many aspects of our previously shared culture to the point where, if a product or ad isn’t targeted to the individual receiving it, it feels insulting, often to the point of rage.

Our economy runs on attention even more than it runs on oil. You can see this every time an energy company spends hundreds of thousands on an ad campaign in a city where they have a monopoly. Everyone already has to pay them. What is the point of their advertising? Mostly attention.

In 1918, Gunnison, CO was one of the towns that held off influenza with border control & social distancing. Their public health order lasted from October 1918 to February, 1919. Anyone could leave, they just had to quarantine to return. You can see how their attention economy helped them.

Radio had not yet made it to Colorado, but Gunnison did have telephones, telegraph and electricity. There was one local newspaper, and the mail still worked, so magazines, letters and books still came in. Gunnison had a college as well as a full public school system.

It was a fairly compact little town (still is), with roads still mostly suited for horses, not cars. (Neither early engines nor early tires appreciated high altitude.) It was also on two narrow gauge railways, which operated through the entire sequestration.

But as far as an attention economy goes? Most of Gunnison’s 1300 people’s worth of attention stayed in Gunnison. Their emotional and social ties were mostly focused on each other, so keeping each other alive was not a big lift.

Gunnison also had the advantage of declaring their quarantine at the end of October; winter helped people follow the quarantine, and winter made sequesteration far more economically feasible, since potatoes and cattle made up a big portion of their economy.

Their doctors were widely respected; people trusted them when they said influenza was going to be deadly; the doctors had community leaders who backed them up… and the town didn’t have a lot of outside voices “doing their own research”.

Not that there was much research to do: the only effective treatment for a respiratory illness in 1918 was to not get sick. Therapeutic oxygen had just debuted. There were no antibiotics, antivirals, steroids, or bronchodilators. Prevention was the best remedy against death by flu.

Gunnison had no infections in the first, most deadly wave of influenza. In the second wave, most records say they had no deaths; there’s one source that cites 5 deaths in the March-April 1919 wave. So their policy did work.

Everyone in Gunnison knew everyone else, at least by sight; if someone wasn’t in your close circle of friends, they were probably in one of a friend’s close circles. Nobody was more than 3 degrees from anyone else. Close ties do anchor a community in crisis.

Gunnison had advantages that large metropolitan cities lacked. As a somewhat agricultural community, winter downshifted all of their economic activity. In Philadelphia, where most of the economic activity was industrial manufacturing, which isn’t seasonal, that wasn’t possible.

When a significant section of a community must commute out of the community to earn money, that fragments the defenses that are possible. And it fragments attention, because it divides loyalties. People do develop attachments to their employers and coworkers.

The close ties that developed in an early 20th century urban block could have been put to use as quarantine and isolation molecules, if not for a capitalism that refused to pause. We have a consistent economic problem here: capitalism treats everyone like an NPC. We’re all replaceable.

But developing community close ties, regardless of location, requires attention. For Gunnison, there really weren’t many alternatives; if you wanted to be entertained, most of it was going to come from your neighbors, and most of your own attention would go to them.

That has changed over the past century. We are far, far more atomized and distanced from our communities, even if we still live in small towns or neighborhoods. As we learned when we tried to create pandemic molecules with even one other unrelated household.

Our media demands far more of our attention, and larger, more distant media sources demand a significantly higher chunk of our attention budget. Getting local news can be incredibly difficult even in fairly large towns if they share a media market with other suburbs.

At the same time, the corporate cause d’etre — to generate profit for shareholders — wanted our attention focused away from our local communities. Disorganized peasants are a profit center, but organized ones are more loyal to themselves and their community than to a corporate interest.

No corporate interest wants organized local peasants getting ideas — that threatens all the profits. But peasants can be cheaply bought as individuals or groups, or made to fight amongst themselves. Better they’re distracted, alienated from each other, atomized.

So corps spend a few grand to change a local conversation, to focus attention on anything else. Even our national political teams want us distracted from our local team. A Senate strategist doesn’t see an email list full of people with school boards, they see ATMs to fund a Texas race.

The incentives of politics are completely broken. Usually, the campaign staff are not local talent who run local issues in off years; they’re professionals parachuted in for one election. And that makes it easy for a few wingnuts who intend to dismantle public education to take over a school board.

And to be clear: that distant strategist and their email list of ATMs will never be available to the locale with wingnuts dismantling their public education system. There is no reciprocal attention available here.

Because nobody in these situations see the other people as people. They’re all NPCs who dispense vote tokens or cash tokens. Party organizations once nurtured talent for this purpose, but that’s a long-term, expensive investment fraught with pesky agency and free will.

Right wing talk (and its successors in cable news/podcasting/youtube) learned early and well that their audience is most attentive when their attention is directed at a distant figment, and everyone in media learned from that.

A distant outrage satisfies the audience & keeps them tuned in, while it maximizes the audience’s engagement with and only with the program. Getting mad at a distant figment provides a big emotional, biochemical bolus of adrenaline and dopamine, without requiring any reciprocal work or providing distraction.

If the audience is already tired and stressed, that anger is energy, and it’s basically free, because the distant figment is an NPC, and NPCs can’t care if you’re mad. As displaced emotions go, it’s probably better than yelling at your kid because you can’t hit your boss, but it’s not good.

And is likely much worse for the population, because getting dependent on neurotransmitters does mean habituation, so it takes more to get the same effect, so the anger has to escalate and the ideas/actions to provoke anger have to get more extreme.

And we’re complicit. When we’re tired, we often prefer to give our attention to the far away instead of the geographically immediate because it’s emotionally less risky. An emotional investment in your immediate meatspace requires energy and comes with accountability.

An example: an HOA should function as a village/community, but the structure of HOAs is intentionally adversarial. It’s built with punishment for deviation as an existential goal. It rewards snitching, so it breeds distrust and alienation as a function of existence.

So it’s not surprising that behaviorally, people would rather spend their attention on anything other than an HOA. There is no reward or incentive for participation, except for sadists who enjoy inflicting pain and bullying others, so HOAs become dominated by those people.

HOAs exist because municipalities have a hard time getting their populations to be pro-social. Getting voters to approve bonds to build the street & water infrastructure for new housing is almost impossible, because voters don’t see other people as Player Characters who need housing.

The incentive is generally towards NIMBY, because a limited housing supply drives up the sale price and value for the existing homeowners without limiting scarce local resources (like parking, roads, grocery store space). So infrastructure bonds are really hard to pass.

But cities don’t like to (or can’t) raise taxes, yet their cost of doing business does increase, so they have to find revenue somewhere. (The suburban model is very broken, obvs.) The way to do that is growing the community, adding more businesses and especially more housing… without a bond for infrastructure.

So… cities dump that infrastructure cost onto a new housing developer, who then recoups it by charging a higher lot price and assigning maintenance to a management company. The city gets the property and sales tax income without a bond vote. And an HOA is born.

By turning the community infrastructure function of government into a privatized, for-profit venture (management companies suck WAY MORE cash out of HOAs than cities would to pay for bonds), the social good that should have been in a neighborhood is utterly destroyed.

This? This is a consistent class of social breakdown, from the destruction of public health systems to community water systems to community owned electrical co-ops. It was happening before the pandemic; the pandemic just makes this easier to see.

And almost all of it either starts from, or significantly profits by diverting local attention towards anything else, the more distant, the better. Thus why Facebook makes it far more satisfying to grump about [An HOA] than to participate in your own HOA/building council/town council.

It’s easier to talk about hypothetical teenagers for hours than commit to two hours a week at the local Pride Teen Center. Engagement with a distant figment feels like engagement, but it’s mostly a very low energy/attention substitute.

Local engagement is work, not only because it has immediate, emotional and social costs, but because it can’t be done alone. It requires other people, in the same geographic area, to agree to work on a common goal, and find the attention to do so.

Each person’s attention is a exponential cost multiplier. Every single person’s time is being pulled by all of the distant figments built by media companies, social media, and corporate capitalism, as well as other local needs.

It’s a very big reason why any community has a core of dynamo volunteers who guard their community (sometimes into toxic territory) — they know what they’re doing is fragile and will die without extremely expensive attention, and if they don’t, nobody will.

And because they believe that, their Player Character Sphere is People Who Do The Work. Everyone else, by default, is an NPC who cannot be promoted into Player Character. Because it’s emotionally cheaper to not invest in new people whose attention budget you don’t know.

Nor is this an exclusive behavior to any alignment. This is not a left-right issue, it’s not on the authoritarian axis or any of the values axes. Which groups become NPC’ed might be influenced by your values axis, but not the tendency. That’s a cultural manifestation of atomization.

And the sick obverse of this? If all of our attention is focused on the distant figments of giants we cannot engage, we come to believe that nothing can be done except donate a few bucks to a distant candidate or preacher or GFM and complain *at* the NPCs in our social media lists.

Never mind that the issue the distant figment represents is 100% playing out in one’s own geographic community right now. Since our attention has never been there, we don’t know, and because we feel discouraged and defeated, we don’t look around for a local place that needs our help.

The good news? This is not… fully inherent in human nature, it’s mostly a product of modern, late-stage capitalism, and specifically advertising driven modern capitalism. Because the most expensive resource on the planet is attention, and humans are the only ones who make it.

That’s the advantage Gunnison had in the fall of 1918. Most of the attention in that community stayed in the community. Maybe 20% for print media from Away. Material goods manufactured in Away were still sold and serviced locally. Local butcher, baker, greengrocer.

A kid’s teacher was always a Player Character in town, because she’s also Peg Smith who buys shoes and groceries, talks to her neighbors who are also your neighbors. Same with your doctor and the butcher and the local mechanics and the people who made clothes and raised food.

The 20th century version of this was in NO WAY idyllic, especially for disabled people (usually excluded, often exiled), or LBGT+ people (often lonely, almost always closeted) or BIPOC and religious minorities (mostly just exiled to their own community or forcibly assimilated).

The discrimination was based on cruel thinking and a scarcity mentality, but discrimination is not inherent in community cultures. Communities are perfectly capable of developing on all cultural axes.

Some atomization is benign, even beneficial. Wide nets make disability organizing and LGBTQ+ online communities possible, and from there, make local activism easier. But no community should come at the price of NPC-ing more people.

And let’s be clear: people did manage the cognitive load of knowing their community just fine. Even in the early days of media atomization. HIV activism ran on phones & copiers. Before fast media, the Player Characters in the real world MMO were your own block.

And yeah, a 1918 town had their own NPCs — usually everyone Away. The difference of a century is this: they interacted much less with their NPCs, and their Sphere of Player Characters had to incorporate a much larger set of people, usually around 200 named characters.

Ours is a big, complex, fast-moving world, and it is HARD to not NPC people. It’s why we build more practical alternatives, like good masking & social distancing. Our ethics are a conscious social structure that enable us to refuse to buy luxuries with another person’s life or health, without having to think deeply about it.

It’s living Granny Weatherwax’s maxim — Sin, young man, is when we treat people like things. It’s refusing to objectify.

As an example of this version of social fabric and cohesion, try the London Blitz and the resulting blackout. Everyone had a moral and social and legal obligation to observe the blackout to protect not just themselves, but their immediate neighbors.

ARP wardens from inside the neighborhood were responsible for enforcing this obligation, and sure, people got disgruntled and frustrated and forgetful. But it’s much easier to fulfill a social duty when that duty is to your personal Sphere of Player Characters.

AND when you trust that your Sphere will reciprocate. It didn’t stop hate, or abuse, or the effects of stress, but a large sphere of Player Characters forces an accretion of (often grudging) group tolerance into the weave of the social fabric.

Our 21st Century Player Character Spheres have gotten extremely small, often little more than our households, and while we may promote an NPC temporarily — kid’s teacher, mechanic, etc — once the transaction is over, that person becomes invisible in NPC world again.

But mostly? We don’t promote anyone to Player Character even temporarily, which is why retail and restaurant work and health care all suck so badly right now. Nobody likes being treated like an NPC and almost everyone is, all the time.

And it’s killing us. Not just from covid. We are lonely and disconnected; this causes us stress, which tends to make us isolate more, use social media more, avoid emotionally taxing events like city council or school board meetings. Which further isolates us, and makes Disney/Netflix/Facebook richer.

And they’re happy to take our money and attention. The more focus on distant media, the better; the less local engagement, the better. It’s much cheaper for them to commodify their product for half a continent than to even attempt the bespoke, retail attention of local community.

Local communities don’t have the resources to compete. And thus we become more insular, more suspicious of the people next door than the ones three states away; more isolated, more stressed, more tired.

We’re in trouble. And this one? I can describe it, but I don’t how to fix it, except being mindful and retraining our internal reward systems to enjoy our community, especially when it’s hard.

It’s Be Here Now.