Pandemic Time:
A Distributed Doomsday Clock

Credits

Venkatesh Rao is a writer, management consultant and 2019-2020 Berggruen Institute fellow. His work focuses on the intersection of technology trends, organization design and temporality.

In early Feb. 2020, as COVID-19 was spreading rapidly across the world, a far more dramatic phenomenon in absolute terms was playing out in the skies: the sudden dimming of the red supergiant star Betelgeuse. 

Betelgeuse is what is known as a variable star — a natural clock in the sky that exhibits a complex, imperfectly predictable pattern of dimming and brightening driven by multiple loosely related stellar phenomena, much like the seasonal flu here on Earth. Was the star’s dimming an anomalous phenomenon or a regular part of its variation, astronomers wondered? Was Betelgeuse perhaps about to go supernova, as theories of stellar physics predict it eventually must? 

Variable stars with unsteady rhythms are commonplace, but supernovas are rare enough and consequential enough that they count as historic events even at a cosmic scale, much as pandemics do on a terrestrial scale. Among other things, they scatter heavy nuclei around, seeding planets and life itself, inspiring the poetic observation that we are all made of stardust.

Only nine supernovas visible to the naked eye appear in the historical record, the most recent being SN 1987A in 1987, which was only visible in the southern hemisphere. The next most recent, SN 1604, or Kepler’s Star, occurred 383 years earlier. It was observed by Johannes Kepler in 1604, a few years before the invention of the telescope. Betelgeuse is among the prominent candidates for number 10.

The simultaneous dimming of Betelgeuse and the global emergence of COVID-19 were curiously rhyming phenomena: disruptions of familiar, reassuring rhythms, both with latent apocalyptic potential. Had two such events coincided in antiquity, our more astrologically inclined ancestors would have been very worried. If light traveled instantaneously, events would have coincided in an interesting way. Betelgeuse is around 700 light-years away, according to the most recent distance estimates, which means the dimming we observed in February actually occurred somewhere around the time the Black Death was making its way around the world.

Whether or not the stars foretold our present condition, we will be living for the foreseeable future in a distorted temporality shaped by the progress of COVID-19 across the globe. Like the distorted time around a supergiant star going supernova and collapsing into a black hole, “pandemic time” is anything but normal.

Globally Local

Pandemic time is an experience of time whose principal feature, for the majority of us, is its radically decentralized, accelerated and atomized nature. Most of us are experiencing it in the splendid isolation of enforced domesticity, our temporal connections to shared patterns of life having been surgically severed by civic authorities. Absent the homogenizing forces of communal life, our individual experiences of pandemic time are being shaped by the particularities of wildly variable individual situations. 

This is what makes COVID-19 so different from other global crises within living memory. The local experience everywhere is that of a consequential and highly personal participation that goes far beyond mere spectatorship. 

During the 444-day Iran hostage crisis of 1979-81, for instance, Walter Cronkite memorably ended every broadcast with a reminder of the number of days the hostages had spent in captivity. Iran crisis time was a globally shared but non-disruptive spectacle for all but the handful of individuals actually caught up in the situation in Tehran. The global salience of events in Iran was driven not by the idea that the crisis might literally arrive at one’s doorstep but by the shared narrative backdrop of the Cold War.

Betelgeuse. (Davide Barruncho/Getty)

COVID-19, unlike the Iran hostage crisis, the fall of the Berlin Wall, 9/11, the 2008 financial crisis or even SARS, is a story happening to 7.5 billion people almost simultaneously, in their homes (except, of course, for the homeless). We are all being forced to do what 1980s management gurus urged CEOs to do: think global, act local.

Almost every one of us is experiencing pandemic time differently. 

Even within a single apartment building, neighbors experience different temporalities. In one unit, we have a single extrovert experiencing the acute trauma of being forced to work alone from home. Next door, we have parents suddenly juggling childcare and work. At the end of the hall is an immigrant using WhatsApp to track the fate of family members on the other side of the globe who are suddenly physically unreachable due to travel bans. Even members of a single household experience pandemic time differently. 

“Older outbreak hotspots are serving as time machines for newer ones.”

We are learning that time as a shared global experience is only as useful as the coordination of local experiences it enables. For materially altered life in the shadow of COVID-19, the marking of time via a global graph of aggregate statistics seems like meaningless spectatorship at best and a dangerous distraction from more urgent local events at worst.

But there is a different mode of global temporal coordination that has emerged: one based neither on longitudes nor the pageantry of events like the Olympics, but rather the flow of meaningful information from hotspot to hotspot. Older outbreak hotspots are serving as time machines for newer ones. Hotspot time machines around the world form what mathematicians call a directed acyclic graph: a skinny web of arrows pointing from current events in some places to future events in other places. 

A Pandemic Time-Machine Web

In the early weeks of the pandemic, amid the dad jokes about forgetting the day of the week and precious poetic musings on the warped experience of time, one idea spread particularly rapidly across the West: the metaphor of Italy as a time machine, showing us our future. Instead of GMT plus or minus so many hours, or the countdown to the Olympics, the timeline that mattered was Lombardy plus or minus so many weeks. 

For the time-machine metaphor to make sense, two conditions must hold. 

First, events at every hotspot must unfold with the kind of overwhelming doomsday certainty that allows us to clearly see our own inevitable future through the present of the time-machine hotspot. There is, as it happens, a word for this: zemblanity, the opposite of serendipity. Pandemic time is suffused with zemblanity; it is a temporality shaped by a sense of certain doom, foreseen and amenable to some mitigation, but not entirely avertable. 

Second, we must identify subjectively with the humans inhabiting the time-machine hotspot. Pandemic time is a subjectively colored time. The empathy evoked, in the West, by images of exhausted Italian doctors and nurses, their faces bruised by too-tight masks, proved to be an important driver of the broader Western response. 

“During the early weeks of the pandemic, the future, normally so hard to predict, began to unfold with the wonderfully simple logic of a doomsday countdown.”

Cultural distance matters in the network of hotspot time machines that is currently driving global time consciousness. In the United States, the fact that the pandemic broke out in culturally distant China marked it initially as a story happening to other people, which arguably played a role in shaping the responses. Italy by contrast is both ethnically European and a liberal democracy, with patterns of governance and life familiar to Americans. Images that streamed out of Italy served as a view of the future for the average American in a way images streaming out of Wuhan did not. 

Individual experiences need not match geography, of course. My own experience, as a recent migrant to Los Angeles from Seattle, the first American hotspot, with family in India living weeks in my past and a Korean mother-in-law getting news from an alternate future via Korean television, is best described as a kind of temporal schizophrenia.

From wherever you stood in February and through whatever time machines you viewed possible futures, you could see that when COVID-19 arrived at your doorstep, it would necessarily overwhelm normal life to a greater or lesser degree and in an entirely predictable way, by straining healthcare resources past their limits. And absent sufficient surveillance infrastructure, treatments or vaccines, there was only one significant knob you could turn in response to what the time machine revealed of your future: social distancing, a mechanism guaranteed to create the domestic-siege conditions that characterize pandemic time. 

A Distributed Doomsday Clock

During the early weeks of the pandemic, the future, normally so hard to predict, began to unfold with the wonderfully simple logic of a doomsday countdown. The virus could not be bullied, argued with, negotiated with or stopped. Hand-washing and border-closing would not suffice. The only mode of agency available was the one created by the manner of its spread: social distancing. 

Every nascent hotspot in the world faced the same choice as it joined the global web of time machines. Either you “flattened the curve” by socially distancing as much as possible, or you suffered Italy’s fate, possibly many times over.

That fork in the road split the world into multiple parades of hotspots, divided by varying distancing protocols and connected by time-machine links. Each path of descent into the future, into the dark heart of pandemic time, was marked by a particular administrative approach to social distancing. If pandemic time has global time zones, each is marked by a shared pattern of containment and mitigation. Instead of longitude east or west of Greenwich, your local experience of pandemic time is determined by the effectiveness of the containment model chosen by your local government.

Your future is revealed by hotspots with similar models and similar local conditions that have progressed deeper into pandemic time than you have.

“Instead of longitude east or west of Greenwich, your local experience of pandemic time is determined by the effectiveness of the containment model chosen by your local government.”

The predictability of the zemblanitous future, and the simplicity of the only control scheme available, meant that all available futures could be modeled with mathematical precision, based on how much you managed to turn the one available knob. Models could be updated as new data came in, allowing the predictions to be refined further. The future could not just be predicted — it could be altered by design. The web of time machines did not just allow viewing of different futures — it allowed for selection. 

As many political leaders around the world discovered to their horror, they were faced with the sort of choice no sane person ever wants to make: turn a knob to decide how many people to kill and at what economic cost. The distributed doomsday clock is also a distributed doomsday machine.

Time Under Siege

Social distancing, the unavoidable response to an inescapable threat, is what created the siege-like experience of pandemic time. The increased physical distance that slows the ability of the virus to jump from person to person also results in a dramatically reduced rate of social collisions on streets, in coffee shops and around office water coolers — collisions we rely on, as a deeply social species, to create and maintain our sense of time. If it weren’t for the palliative social effects of online interactions and video conferences, pandemic time might be as traumatizing as solitary confinement.

In pandemic time, individual streams of consciousness that anchor subjective experiences of time cannot converge and diverge freely, shaped by shared social experiences in shared physical spaces. They can only draw on shared digital experiences, punctuated by rare away missions to grocery stores. Missions undertaken in the newly hostile outdoors of a planet whose M-class status (the habitable kind, for you non-Trekkies) is now in doubt. 

Instead of space-suits, we wear masks and regard fellow humans with suspicion. In lieu of being beamed back up by Scotty, we put ourselves through elaborate decontamination rituals upon our return to base, to rid ourselves of invisible tribbles. And then (having first sanitized our phones), we post pictures of the strange sights we have seen on social media: the downed shutters of a comatose economy, masked aliens, strange sidewalk-markings six feet apart and, above all, emptiness.

Individual experiences so far have been as varied as personal situations. For me, the hours go by slowly, but the days go by quickly. Last week seems like ancient history, and next month feels like the far future. February, of course, is now prehistory. For friends with young children, the experience has been different. For them, pandemic time has been something of a return to 19th-century work-life rhythms, shaped by the collocation of childcare activities and economic production. 

“The web of time machines did not just allow viewing of different futures — it allowed for selection.”

For those whose service labor is deemed “essential” — grocery store workers, delivery drivers, cops — pandemic time has been a period of exhausting, thankless labor, serving the more privileged in their virus-resistant redoubts. And for the most essential minority — cleaning crews, nurses, doctors and morticians on the healthcare frontlines — pandemic time has meant a frenzy of woefully inadequate and under-resourced preparations in the calm before the storm, followed by the predictably overwhelming experience of the storm surge itself. 

But as with war, the effort against the virus has been shaped primarily by the larger-scale experiences and perceptions of the majority, hiding out in relative safety far from the frontlines. The experience of civilians in London during World War II was one shaped by air-raid sirens and sheltering underground. For us, living through COVID-19, the experience is one shaped by stay-at-home orders and the anxiety ratchet of gradually tightening financial situations.

In the U.S., a notable episode marking the national shift into pandemic time revolved around Donald Trump airing aspirations to reopen the country by Easter, evoking images of packed churches. Images that gladdened the hearts of some religious conservatives prompted despair among public health officials and provoked Maryland Governor Larry Hogan into accusing the Trump administration of operating by an “imaginary clock.”

But for once, even Trump could not distort reality to suit his narrative and hew to his preferred timeline. The virus would not respect his imaginary clock or be nicknamed and shamed into submission and retreat. It would not just “wash through” simply because he hoped it would. As Anthony Fauci, the ever-diplomatic foil to Trump, observed with his characteristic low-key realism: “You don’t make the timeline; the virus makes the timeline.” By the following week, Trump, too, had accepted pandemic time. As Vladimir Lenin once observed, there are decades when nothing happens, and weeks when decades happen. 

“As Lenin once observed, there are decades when nothing happens, and weeks when decades happen.”

Pandemic time is perhaps best understood as a relentless series of decadal weeks that will last months on end around the world, forcing reconciliations in historical ledgers of karmic debts and credits, accumulated over centuries, in ways we can only begin to guess at.

This is not a condition we humans are capable of enduring indefinitely. And fortunately for our sanity, physical exponential processes in nature inevitably hit boundaries and collapse. One way or another, every exponential dynamic, be it a pandemic or an exploding star, hits a boundary. The earth is an extraordinarily large petri dish containing 7.5 billion potential COVID-19 victims, but it is a bounded one nevertheless. 

As the time machines have already revealed, pandemic time must end as surely as it must begin. But the process of getting ourselves out of pandemic time is a little more involved than getting ourselves into it was.

The Virus Quadrille

If the advent of the pandemic was marked by a short period of exponential time and the emergence of a remarkable web of time machines, its departure will be marked by a longer period of oscillatory disengagement from the virus. Together, they form a two-act pandemic time narrative arc that Tomas Pueyo evocatively labeled “the hammer and the dance.” 

The hammer is the first act, marked by aggressive social distancing measures across large geographies, leading up to a first peak of cases and fatalities. The dance is the second act, which has already commenced in parts of Asia, Europe and even the U.S. If Italy served as the lead time machine for the first act, Singapore served as the lead time machine for the second act: a period marked by repeated loosening and tightening of mitigation measures.

Time in the second act is marked neither by the steady ticking of ordinary clocks, nor by the accelerating ticking of the exponential case-count clock that marks the first act. Instead, it is marked by the tempo of the dance with the virus, reminiscent of the Lobster Quadrille in “Alice in Wonderland.” 

“—you advance twice—”
“Each with a lobster as a partner!” cried the Gryphon.
“Of course,” the Mock Turtle said: “advance twice, set to partners—”
“—change lobsters, and retire in same order,” continued the Gryphon.
“Then, you know,” the Mock Turtle went on, “you throw the—”
“The lobsters!” shouted the Gryphon, with a bound into the air.
“—as far out to sea as you can—”
“Swim after them!” screamed the Gryphon.

The dance, which I’ve labeled the “Virus Quadrille,” is designed to gradually drive R0 (the average number of infections emerging from one person) below 1 and cast the virus into the ocean of endemic microbial hostility all around us, while ramping up surveillance capabilities to govern the endemic state. The dance is likely how most hotspots will exit pandemic time. We will trade an acute stressor, lasting a few weeks to months, for a lower-grade chronic stressor that might last as long as several years, depending on progress made in finding treatments and vaccines.

The Lobster Quadrille, an original engraving from “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” 1865. (John Tenniel/Shutterstock)

We will have left a world governed by Chronos, the Greek god of linear, global, objective time measured by clocks, and arrived into a world governed by Kairos, the Greek god of nonlinear, local, subjective time, measured by the ebb and flow of local patterns of risk and opportunity. The Virus Quadrille is not just the concluding act of pandemic time but the opening act of an entire extended future. 

The world we are headed toward is one that demands many dances with the many large-scale forces being unleashed by the Anthropocene. The Virus Quadrille is merely the first of many dances that a world ruled by Kairos will require of us.

Kairos Rising

Chronos was the primary Greek god of time, ancestor of the modern figure of Father Time, or Death, in the West, lord of clocks, corpses and the 20th century. Father Time, notably, carries a scythe, with which he harvests souls when their time comes. 

Kairos, on the other hand, is usually associated with the fullness of life and a carpe diem spirit. 

Kairos is often represented carrying a pair of scales and was regarded by the Greeks as the personification of particular critical moments in time marked by risk and opportunity, hanging in the balance. Kairos is the god of winning and losing, of pivotal moments seized or not seized, of decision cycles cohering or collapsing, of agile adaptation. He personifies the kind of time evoked by one of Shakespeare’s most familiar passages (Julius Caesar, Act IV, Scene III):

There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat;
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.

Kairos, as embodied by tides, is a rhythm in patterns of risk and opportunity. The ebb and flow of tides ordinarily drives a localized and predictable pattern of risk and opportunity, but it is also capable of manifesting, on occasion, powerful and anomalous global risks and opportunities, in the form of tsunamis or storm surges. 

Tides represent the sum of diverse forces — the gravitational tug of the sun and the moon, local weather patterns and planetary tectonic activity — combining through the medium of the ocean lapping at a particular shore, to imbue the local sense of time with a specific meaning. Unlike the rhythms of global, objective time, whether marked by clocks or variations in the brightness of Betelgeuse, tidal rhythms mark out a time that is local, subjective, and about you and your choices.

Ordinarily, those choices are about when to go surfing or fishing. But sometimes they are about running from tsunamis.

In April, a very specific tsunami loomed for mayors and governors around the world: a tidal wave of cases overwhelming hospitals. A tidal wave that would create specific hard choices for specific individuals as it arrived at specific shores. A tidal wave that would translate a global news event into a local life event. 

“Pandemic time can be understood as a liminal passage between the end of the industrial era and the beginning of the digital era.”

Every mayor was faced with a hard choice as the pandemic arrived at the shores of their city: Clamp down at just the right moment and prepare to dance the Virus Quadrille gracefully out of the crisis, or risk one or more large fatality spikes in a desperate attempt to either hold on to an old normalcy too long or to return to it too soon, and too completely, with no enduring changes. 

It is perhaps the latter temptation that presents the greatest risk; arguably, a return to an old normal is simply not possible. Past the Virus Quadrille, and past the inevitable long period of reconstruction to follow, lies a future that is not like the past. Though cathedrals to Chronos will still exist — Easter, the Olympics, football season — every part of the world will be entering, each at its own pace, a new epoch ruled by Kairos. 

The only questions are how willingly they do so and how large of a final harvest of souls they will offer up to Chronos as an exit tax as they pass from his century-long realm. 

Aion’s Doorway

Willingly or unwillingly, and whatever their success or failure at navigating the opening challenge of the age of Kairos, every part of the world will eventually emerge, stumbling and blinking, into a radically transformed landscape.

Perhaps it will be a cyberpunk landscape of city-states governed by mayors who earned the favor of Kairos through pandemic time. Or perhaps it will be a deglobalizing world full of empires warring with each other and striking back at pesky regionalists. Perhaps it will be something else entirely, that no futurist has yet imagined. The only way to find out what lies at the other end of the liminal passage is to go through it. 

A third Greek figure of time, Aion — often represented by a version of an ouroboros (a snake eating its own tail) and personified as either a young man or an old man — personifies this liminal aspect of pandemic time as a passage between major historical epochs. Aion rules over time, outside of time, time in escrow, even as Chronos and Kairos struggle for ascendancy. The weeks and months spent in pandemic time will be weeks and months spent outside of time itself, in Aion’s doorway.

In the here and now, for me, as I write this in Los Angeles, Aion’s doorway looks like a passage that extends from February 2020 to perhaps August 2021, the threshold of the flu season after next. By which time, hopefully, a vaccine will be ready.

“Where Virginia Woolf and her contemporaries lived in a world getting on the clock, we are living in one getting off the clock.”

But on a larger temporal canvas, pandemic time marks the waning of a cycle that began waxing approximately a century ago at another of Aion’s doorways: the Spanish flu. 

As World War I and the Spanish flu raged, Chronos waxed, and Kairos waned. Today, as COVID-19 rages, Kairos waxes, and Chronos wanes. Between these two doorways lies the familiar world of industrial modernity, the source of the normal some hope to return to and others have already written off as an irrecoverable dream.

The liminal passage at the start of this century-long cycle was perhaps most carefully observed by Virginia Woolf in a remarkable essay, “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown,” in which she famously noted: “[I]n or about December, 1910, human character changed.” The essay — which laid down the artistic principles underlying stream-of-consciousness fiction, the literary genre she helped pioneer — was above all a declaration that the nature of time itself had changed and with it, human nature. 

The new reality principle governing the human condition was not an empire on which the sun never set but a device that never stopped ticking. The Victorian human, ruled by human monarchs, had given way to the modern human, ruled by the emissary of Chronos, the clock.

Woolf, born in 1882, wrote her essay in 1923 at the age of 41, in the aftermath of the Spanish flu and World War I. Electricity, automobiles, telephones and airplanes were as new then as iPhones and videoconferencing are today. But it was the mechanical clock that looms largest in Woolf’s imagination. In her first novel, “Mrs. Dalloway,” for example, the narrative features a recurring motif of the striking of Big Ben interrupting the streams of consciousness of the various characters. 

“Pandemic time heralds, in some ways, a return to pre-industrial patterns of life, when the home was a locus of child-rearing, schooling and collocated production and consumption.”

Clocks, of course, had been ubiquitous for decades at that point, and wristwatches had become popular during World War I. Greenwich Mean Time, introduced at the International Meridian Conference in 1884, was within living memory for Woolf, much as the IBM personal computer is for us today. The remarkable wave of new technology unleashed by the second industrial revolution had created radical new patterns of connectivity characterized by deep, clock-based synchronization. Through the rest of her literary career, Woolf continued to grapple with the growing ascendance of Chronos, which she and her modernist contemporaries experienced as an increasingly intolerable siege of subjectivity.

At our end of the century-long era of Chronos ascendant, pandemic time can be understood as a liminal passage between the end of the industrial era and the beginning of the digital era. It is a transition that began in the early 1980s with the introduction of the personal computer and Network Time Protocol, which governs time on the internet. It accelerated sharply with the introduction of the iPhone in 2007, which catalyzed a change in human nature comparable to the one observed by Woolf in 1910, and has arrived at its final stage with the changes being wrought by COVID-19. 

Our remarkable wave of new technology has also created radical new patterns of connectivity, but unlike those introduced in the run-up to the Spanish flu, they are characterized by deep desynchronization. Where Woolf and her contemporaries lived in a world getting on the clock, we are living in one getting off the clock. Where watches were appearing on wrists in Woolf’s time, they are disappearing from wrists in ours.

At a prosaic level, the before/after changes being established via the shock of pandemic time are already obvious. The most iconic feature of industrial life — 9-5 schedules for workers engaged in specialized production activity at a location designated a “workplace” and kids sent away to daycare centers designated “schools” — has been temporarily torn apart. It has been replaced, almost wholesale, by a condition of digitally mediated remote work and home-based schooling for an astonishingly large fraction of humanity.

Many in that fraction, I suspect, having discovered the affordances of a desynchronized new world, will not be going back to the clockwork grind of offices and schools. They will seek instead to remain off the clock for good, as permanent migrants to the realm of Kairos.

The experience of consumption has been transformed as well, as we switch en masse to online shopping over offline, take-out over dine-in, and home entertainment over movie theaters and theme parks.

The era of factory and school schedules and consumer culture built around retail shopping is drawing to a close. The era of essential service workers resisting automation is also drawing to a close. The next pandemic — and there will be a next pandemic — will likely see essential robots outnumbering essential humans in what are sometimes referred to as “dull, dirty and dangerous” jobs. 

“We continue dancing our way through the liminal passage of pandemic time, waiting to exit the other side of Aion’s doorway into a transformed new world.”

Those jobs, like the atomic-precision clocks that drive them, will increasingly be for machines.

Pandemic time heralds, in some ways, a return to pre-industrial patterns of life, when the home was a robust locus of domestic activities, child-rearing, schooling and collocated production and consumption. But in other ways, we are in uncharted waters. Workers returning home does not equal economic production returning to a domestic scale and generalist, localized principles of organization. 

Orion. (James Stone/Getty)

Children learning at home does not necessarily mean schooling returning to the domestic sphere, transformed wholesale into homeschooling or unschooling as some hope. More people indulging in stress-relieving baking experiments does not mean a sustained turn away from a century-old infrastructure of consumerism, convenience and economic specialization.

It is the presence of digital media and automation in the calculus that makes this a liminal passage into a fundamentally new human condition rather than a backsliding into a repackaged old one.

When Betelgeuse Blinked

In an earlier part of “Julius Caesar,” a play pregnant with temporal symbolism (and drilled into my head by the sort of industrial schooling that may be a thing of the past), Caesar’s wife Calpurnia remarks upon a comet in the sky to her as-yet-unassassinated husband:

When beggars die, there are no comets seen;
The heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes.

Caesar’s comet, as it happens, was not a Shakespearean invention. C/-43 K1, as it is now known by astronomers, actually appeared in 44 BC, and was likely one of the brightest comets in recorded history. It was regarded by the Romans as a sign of the deification of Julius Caesar. 

In our own time, even as COVID-19 began its rampage (making little distinction between beggars and princes), the dimming of Betelgeuse attracted little attention outside of scientific circles.

In antiquity, it would have been taken as a cosmic sign of historic events about to unfold. As above, so below, the hermetic philosophers of antiquity believed. We moderns are perhaps too sophisticated for our own good. We generally lack the appreciation for the power of the vast, wild forces of nature that astrology, for all its codified crackpottery, provides and the contemplation of deep time — time on geological rather than human scales — that it encourages.

That is perhaps, in some ways, a pity. Perhaps world leaders might have taken news of a new disease brewing in China more seriously had they been in the habit of regarding rare cosmic events as foreshadowing rare historic events on Earth.

But perhaps we can recover a version of the temporal sensibilities of the ancients in our time, armed with a participatory microbial panopticon that defends us against at least one kind of existential risk that, at the moment, seems beyond our ability to contain.

“As we retreat to the most intense period of domesticity most of us will likely ever experience, COVID-19 is taking us on a wild, traumatizing ride, one that will dump us with scarred, partially rewilded frontier psyches, into a new aeon.”

As it turned out, Betelgeuse, which lies about 700 light-years away, did not explode in 1370. Whether or not it has exploded in the centuries since, we will have to wait to find out. As best as we can tell right now, the unusual dimming observed on Earth in 2020 was caused by dust clouds. One day, perhaps next year, perhaps a hundred million years in the future, Betelgeuse will explode for real, whether or not we are around to watch.

But not today.

One day, perhaps next year, perhaps a few thousand years in the future, an apocalyptic threat will loom here on Earth that we will not be able to survive. Perhaps we will have already left for the stars, or perhaps we will simply blink out of existence, as yet another civilizational victim of the great filter, a cosmic statistic.

But not today.

Today, we continue dancing our way through the liminal passage of pandemic time, waiting to exit the other side of Aion’s doorway into a transformed new world.

Whether you navigate by Easter, the Olympics, the football season, the Whig narrative of endless progress, the reactionary narrative of rediscovered historical greatness or the accelerationist narrative of embracing unbridled change in the hope that it embraces you back, you are not in charge. 

For now, a virus is in charge, inviting us to make it past our local surge and dance the Virus Quadrille for a while, pay our exit taxes to Chronos and earn our visas to a new era ruled by Kairos. Even as we retreat to the most intense period of domesticity most of us will likely ever experience, COVID-19 is taking us on a wild, traumatizing ride, one that will dump us with scarred, partially rewilded frontier psyches, into a new aeon. 

But that new aeon lies many doublings and dances away. An eternity in pandemic time. 

So for the moment, welcome to pandemic time, population you.