The paradox of travel

by Joannes Vandermeulen [8 min read]

A while back, when my daughter and I were discussing veganism, I challenged the clear distinction between plants and animals. Turns out there is one: contrary to animals, plants can survive without moving around. In scientific terms, the distinction is the one between autotrophs and heterotrophs. Wikipedia will serve the curious well. 

About 10 millennia ago, our species turned towards an existence closer to that of plants. Because we invented agriculture, we had to stick around to tend to cattle and crops, therefore becoming sedentary. Travel was exceptional: for fleeing a bad situation, for exploring new horizons or for trading goods. In Islam, there remains the once-in-a-lifetime Hajj to Mecca. 

After we became able to convert plant fossils to kinetic energy through burning and exploding, we have become nomadic again. Combustion engines have us going places. 

In the 20th century, we took it even further and became long-range, intermittent nomads on our way to work, to conferences and on holidays, covering extraordinary distances in a few hours that would require dangerous and expensive missions only a few hundred years back. We do this not to find new territory but for personal fulfilment, professional activities and sheer fun. 

A highly leveraged virus 

And then pops into existence SARS-CoV-2, a peculiar variant in a family of known viruses and causes outsized disruption. There are at least three reasons why the disruption is outsized.  

The first one is that our group habits gave the virus leverage. We put so much trust in others that we do not mind congregating with people we do not know. We are a gregarious species and practice risky trust.  

Secondly, we developed a low tolerance for the risk of accidental death. An intubated death, gasping for air, is not the quiet death of old age we all have in mind. Therefore, most countries chose to bring life to a halt. 

Third, our fast and far-reaching nomadism turned an epidemic into a pandemic in no time. The virus hitched a ride on people who congregated and then flew off to infect other congregations. 

Fragile times 

COVID-19 came upon us at a time of great fragility. As a species, we are taking massive risks by continuing to burn fossil fuels that accumulate greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. This increases global temperatures and has a host of runaway consequences in the next 100 years, and beyond. This climate crisis forces us to change our ways of life at an unprecedented scale and speed. In comparison, the depletion of the ozone layer was an easy problem to tackle and the US lunar programme was a smallish effort. World Wars I and II petered out by themselves. 

The current virus-crisis present a clear demonstration of just how much we need to change our ways. In 2020, COVID-19’s global disruption is likely to cause a 7% reduction in the adding of greenhouse gases. This seems enormous, but in order not to exceed a 1,5°C increase in global temperature, we must reduce by another 7% in 2021 and another 7% in 2022 and so on until 2050, when we should stop adding greenhouse gases for good.  

The economic impact of COVID-19 may be comparable to the Great Depression, starting in 1929. Great crises have varied outcomes: the Great Depression led to the New Deal (social security) in the US but also led to the rise of fascism and the World War II in Europe. Can we try to have the COVID-19 crisis propel us towards a future where we take care of humanity’s long-term potential (Toby Ord)?  

Down to our lives 

Let’s now go back to the three reasons why SARS-CoV-2 is causing so much havoc and apply it to the climate crisis.  

First, we will need to practice a lot more risky trust to overcome that crisis. We must get to trust the other 7,8 billion people to do the right thing. Second, we will need to extend our non-acceptance of accidental deaths this year to the non-acceptance of untold misery for large segments of humanity in the coming centuries. We should not accept any threat to humanity’s long-term potential. And third, we must cut down on travel. 

The climate and corona crises share a cause: human travel. Car, train, boat and plane travel is 95% based on the burning of fossils fuels. The coronavirus overwhelms global health systems when non-symptomatic patients start packing their bags. 

Let us enhance our ability to trust others. Let us extend our intolerance for death to a longer timeframe. But let us also change our travelling ways. We should rediscover our sedentary selves and restrict our movements to what is needed, not what is wanted. And if we need to move, let us try to emit few greenhouse gases. Here are some rules of thumb dictated by basic physics: (1) slow beats fast; (2) surface beats air and (3) light beats heavy. Bikes are tops and airships are interesting. 

A design challenge 

In order to address the wickedness of the climate crisis, we need to design multiple, sophisticated solutions, involving a wide diversity of stakeholders from all over the planet. 

We need to match the climate crisis’ speed of change, global scale and multi-complexity with equal means: fast, global and multi-solving. We shall hone our global decision-making prowess. 

To boost our risky trust, we need long, personal and rich encounters. Trust needs to grow; it cannot be delivered in a package. Joint sensemaking and careful deliberation takes meetings. Because we are not brain-based cognitive decision machines, we need to meet in person to truly collaborate. However, until now these global encounters required travel. This brings on a paradox: we need to travel to solve a problem that is partly caused by travelling. Is videoconferencing the solution? 

Videoconferencing 

Videoconferencing goes only part of the way. In terms of speed and realism, it is a big improvement over letters and phone calls. However, videoconferencing is not up to the task of global decision-making. Why is that? 

Your body is barely engaged. Your head is visible, but your body language is not readable. Even simple hand gestures do not come across. 

It is difficult to “read the room” and keep track of evolving sentiments. Subtle facial expressions, minor vocalisations or total silences can point to a growing consensus or to the emergence of factions. They go unnoticed. 

A computer screen covers a small fraction of our field of vision. Inversely, most cameras struggle to have more than one person in view. This does not contribute to broad awareness of a situation. And with camera and display separate, you can only pretend to look each other in the eye. 

The shoddy quality of sound absorbs mental energy that could be applied to the careful consideration of what the others have on their mind. The mute on/off binary does not reflect how the world works. 

If meetings are an exercise in humanity, videoconferencing dehumanizes. We want to apply our full sensory apparatus but cannot. 

And then there is the language barrier, not only as in Dutch, Farsi or Malay languages, but also as in popular, technocratic or ceremonial languages. Imagine being an elderly Telugu-speaking migrant farmworker in Pune (India) trying to strike a meaningful conversation with a Somali-speaking mother and healthcare worker in Mogadishu (Somalia)? You have a lot more than 3600km of Indian Ocean to cross. But you may want to get involved in joint decision-making without travel. 

A new experience 

We must invent an as-yet unnamed experience of being with others for value creation in the virtual. What’s on the wishlist? 

Place When talking with others, our space extends beyond one square meter with a chair, a desk and a computer. We freely move around in our buildings. We even go outside while contributing with the capabilities offered by the available tools at hand. If we want, we share where we came from, where we are and where we will go. Place matters. 

Body Others can detect our untold feelings through our body language. We see who is looking at us and can look them straight in the eye. We notice when someone appears to have a clever idea but does not get the space to express it. We notice the emotional affect and capture the mood of the room. 

Senses We use a large part of our field of vision to see what is happening and hear sounds in high fidelity. Full-gamut video and full-timbre sound enhance our commitment to what happens in the conference. Mute is not on or off but is on a sliding scale. When sound becomes distracting, it disappears. 

Fluidity The virtual get-togethers have natural fluidity. It feels right to come in a bit early and have a chat or to hang out after the scheduled ending. You fade out of one meeting and fade into another. Meeting “transitions” are a whole new game. 

Community Hybrid meetings, in which some are virtually and others physically present do not put those virtually present at a disadvantage. We can exchange awareness of who else is in our physical space. If they choose, they can come into the meeting. We can see which meetings are going on and, party style, can introduce ourselves. We can invite people in from adjacent meetings, whatever adjacent means in the virtual. 

Abilities differing Even with preferences (e.g. about privacy) and cognitive and physical abilities differing, we all take part in the conversation. Real-time language translation (to subtitles or sound) is available. We can come to the aid of those who are experiencing difficulties, give them a hand and coach them through the conventions and habits of the group. 

Externalities 

This dream of a technology in support of deliberative, transnational governance, required to handle the unfolding global climate crisis, surely appears a bit airy-fairy to many. 

And as Anatomy of an AI System visualises wonderfully, these technological dreams bring along a host of unintended consequences. The risk is real that the cure is worse than the disease: the production of energy, the mining of rare materials, the exploitation of people may make all the of the above not worth its while. Designers should keep that firmly in mind. 

Kingdom Fungi 

Still, if we would like to construct a story in which humans are more akin to sedentary plants, which plant should we go for in particular? 

And, if you do not fancy becoming a plant, there are surely inspiring alternatives among the few million species in the Kingdom of Fungi. Surprisingly, fungi are genetically closer to animals than to plants. As opposed to humans, they are essential in the global ecosystem because they symbiotically help plants share nutrients and information. Not a bad example either. 

But let’s not take the route of the parasitic Armillaria or honey fungus that can kill trees in a few years even if these trees “may exhibit prolific flower or fruit production shortly before death”.  

BTW, my daughter does not like mushrooms.