The End of Transmission
The Sims, Electronic Arts, 2000
by Joel Gn
Pandemics in the age of communication technologies are stranger beasts than the parasitical agents that gave birth to them. As populations struggle with the spread and impact of a novel virus, societies have been inundated with a cascade of dissonances permeating the informational spaces of their lived realities. How was the virus introduced? What can be done to contain or eradicate it? Would it be possible to survive a period of absolute isolation? More than before, our beliefs about the virus are shaped or ‘infected’ by information consumed from the media, and words previously confined to separate frames of reference are now part of a more complex and troubling convergence, as perceptions evolve to be more viral than the pathogens they speak of. The conversation surrounding globalisation no longer just pertains to what is circulated for economic advantage (i.e. people, goods, services), but is now focused on the transmission of ideas along national and cultural lines.
In view of how the present pandemic is being etched into cultural memory, I believe the following question is pertinent: what does it mean to transmit the idea of a virus? Many have speculated of an impending de-globalisation, and how governments have suspended links and networks to protect their citizens. Protectionist measures and other undesirable ramifications seem inevitable, but they are also explicitly produced by transnational information networks that are built to satiate our desire for knowledge. Instead of pronouncing its demise, current events continue to lay the groundwork for globalisation’s transformation. Some people may temporarily suspend travel to a different country, but the wider majority has never been more dependent on the connectivity permitting access to narratives of the pandemic. Communication technologies have enabled other areas previously confined by national boundaries (e.g. climate change, big data and the medical sciences) to gain more global traction, and the attention on this thoroughly viral event will in time only catalyse greater integration between the relevant political and economic entities.
These prospects, unfortunately, have hardly resolved the darker side of the connectivity we relish, as demonstrated by other rampant expressions of xenophobia and falsehood. One’s desire to attribute blame to a person or group may be as intense as another’s intent to uncover the epidemiology of the virus, and information channels have proved to be inconsistent–and on occasion, severely compromised—arbiters of fact and fiction. Like the transfer of genetic information between a host and a foreign agent, communication technologies can indiscriminately assimilate into and afflict our social fabric. Transmission is in this sense a covert act of writing that goes under the skin, and its symptoms are the words we do not want to see. They are deemed to be accidents, errors and a deviation from normalcy that should be expelled or excised. Indeed, these sentiments are reprised in the psychodramas of the public sphere, with politicians and activists reacting against the hand of globalisation writing on their walls.
Given this relationship between writing and transmission, let us then venture past the conflicts of globalisation to listen for the voices at the margins of this highly mediated spectacle. To be clear, I do not intend to evade the problem that has befallen us; rather, I hope to direct our gaze to the vestiges of an exchange that questions our own appetite for information. If globalisation is the city that has confined us to our own conceit, it is only because its script has rapidly infected us with a view from nowhere. It would not, I think, be too naïve to acknowledge that a different view is to be found in the pages of the past, once we have pulled ourselves away from the noise of the all too present crowd.
For apart from their harrowing portrayals of pestilence, texts since the classical period also displayed a curious fascination with a character’s journey from the city and the encounter that followed. Socrates in Plato’s Phaedrus uses the road out of Athens to educate a younger companion, while two men in the Gospel of Luke are taught by a stranger they meet on the road to Emmaus. In spite of their cultural and chronological distance, Japan’s Noh dramas also frequently begin with the human waki (trans. witness) making a journey that leads to an exchange with the masked shite (trans. actor), who usually plays the role of a spirit or deity.
A cursory glance at these examples may easily lead one to assume a message has been transmitted from one to another, but it is through the utterances of the characters that we witness a different relationship unfold. In these stories, one is brought into a dialogue with the other, and the encounter closes with the host or recipient holding an indelible view of his or her predicament. What lies at the end could be insight, truth or a hymn to the gods, yet common to all is the distance that precedes discovery – where one has to momentarily depart from a familiar, populated place – and the eventual affection eventually shared in a bond of friendship, upon which a new understanding antithetical to transmission emerges.
Hence, the experience of reading that we receive from these distances bears a stark contrast to the global logic of transmission, for although reading first and foremost involves a distancing from the crowd, it is fundamentally a correspondence that is intimately bound to the care and hospitality given to the other, be it in the person of the author, the companion in a journey, or the serendipity with a stranger. But as governments, organisations and the media defer to statistics and protocols, one’s sensitivity to the stories and struggles of those taken ill becomes diminished, and communities are left with nothing but sensationalist conspiracies and lifeless codes of conduct. In his essay The Ecstasy of Communication, the French philosopher and sociologist Jean Baudrillard remarked that humanity is ‘nothing more than a filthy little germ disturbing the universe of transparency’.  Far from being enthralled by a posthuman future, I wager Baudrillard saw the acceleration of technological clarity as an imminent danger to our human fears and frailties. Subjectivity and our regard for each other would be rendered obsolete, once all experiences are seen, quantified and translated within the structure of digital surveillance.
It is, therefore, ironic that the distances we have mandated between ourselves have failed to draw us out of the information-saturated crowd, even as our fixation with the flow of data concerning the pandemic has subjugated our condition to the domain of statistics and medical experimentation. Treated like pathological symptoms, the stories of our collective mortality have been systematically excluded from this globalised transmission of viruses and news messages, and the aftermath of the pandemic might further deprive us of the reasons for our finitude. But lest we continue to sanitise and separate ourselves to death, there is still the opportunity for a departure that would, in these turbulent times, bring aid to the labours of writing, reading and sharing with those near and far. This journey may prove unpredictable in a myriad of ways, but it will at the very least, set us at an artful distance from a homogenous field that is destined for erasure. We are approaching the end of the transmission; this is where the stories begin.
 Jeremy Cliffe, “Far from making nations more insular, the coronavirus outbreak will transform globalisation”, New Statesman (US edition), 4th March 2020, https://www.newstatesman.com/science-tech/coronavirus/2020/03/far-making-nations-more-insular-coronavirus-outbreak-will-transform (accessed 16th March 2020).
 Jean Baudrillard, The Ecstasy of Communication, trans. B. Schütze and C. Schütze (California, Semiotext(e), 2012), 37.
About the Author:
Joel Gn writes about aesthetics, technology and East Asian popular culture. He currently teaches at Singapore University of Social Sciences.