Pestilence has fallen upon modern society. For thousands of years of written history, humanity fights and inevitably wins battles against infectious diseases. Although the war against pathogens shall likely continue for as long as humanity exists, our current conception of modern society may not. Modern society must evolve, imminently.
I refer to the novel coronavirus known as severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), which is the cause of the disease known as coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). Although humanity has known worse infectious diseases, such as the Black Death or Black/Great Bubonic Plague—caused by a specific bacteria—modern society has not.
The era of the First Industrial Revolution has come to a close. This version of modern society cannot survive in the context of emerging and escalating global challenges, such as COVID-19. Although humanity can and will continue to survive, we must look to a new era. An era of worldwide unity is a pathway for all of humanity to thrive in a new version of modern society.
No person has the intelligence necessary to achieve worldwide unity alone. No organization has the strength necessary to unite the entire world. No country has the power to terraform the totality of modern society. However, the human race continues to have the capacity and the will to continue transforming this planet. What elements must the evolution of modern society contain?
In the current fight against COVID-19, as well as subsequent infectious diseases and beyond, humanity must sweepingly empower science, engineering, medicine, and the arts. Science is the mechanism for the discovery of new knowledge. Engineering is the mechanism to apply this knowledge. Medicine is an intersection of science, engineering, and the arts specific to human disease, health, and wellness. The arts inspire necessary creativity in all of these realms.
A new version of modern society will *not* emerge from new technology alone. Technology is a tool by and for humanity. People must endorse humanity itself. What does this mean?
As an absurd yet insightful example, biomedical researchers cannot necessarily distinguish between academic authors who happen to share the same name (Harrison AM & Harrison AM, 2016, BMJ Innovations). However, current marketing & advertising purports artificial intelligence, and machine learning (so-called AI/ML) have already transformed healthcare and modern society at large. This is a disconnect between technology and reality. One source of this disconnect is vast resource inhomogeneity and frank inequity between and within nations.
On the grandest scale, the era of nation-states may be concluding as well. Although tribalism continues to reign throughout the world, a new era of modern society cannot manifest in a background of rampant and petty bickering. Direct from science fiction, this small planet must finally unite. Even the word leadership may need to rise to a level not yet known to humanity.
On a practical scale, people must conserve and allocate resources in a global effort of extraordinary altruism. Medical infrastructure cannot be compromised due to reckless disregard for the safety of our medical workforce, which includes individual hoarding of personal protective equipment (PPE) such as face masks. This endorsement of humanity also extends to nation-states.
Beyond medical infrastructure, people must place great trust in the ingenuity and especially the creativity of scientists, engineers, and the entire medical workforce. What does this mean?
As an important but complex example, humanity is overwhelmed and fatigued by information overload. In the case of medical practice, electronic medical record systems have been rebranded as electronic health systems, yet little has changed. New information/data is *not* necessarily new knowledge. Vast advances in the ability to translate data/information into knowledge—for experts ranging from the basic sciences to medicine—are needed now.
On this grand scale, some quantity of power and even control must shift from governments and other organizations to scientists, engineers, and the medical workforce. If not, new disease management techniques and truly revolutionary therapies, such as medications and vaccines for the treatment of COVID-19, as well as subsequent more deadly pathogens, will not emerge.
On this practical scale, new technologies must emerge as tools to rapidly support and advance communication between governments, organizations, and many people, including scientists, engineers, and the medical workforce. Humanity currently requires strength and support in the form of leadership from experts. However, expertise does not necessarily equal leadership.
The above must occur for the benefit of the global public. Humanity clings to tradition and the familiar, especially in the context of fear and the unknown. Experts are no exception. However, as leaders, experts must unite in spite of uncertainty. To earn greater trust from the rest of humanity, experts must evolve to cooperate and coordinate worldwide as expert-leaders.
The mechanisms of processes ranging from the evaluation of scientific data/information to dissemination of resultant knowledge must be modernized. Expert-leaders must abandon archaic practices in academia and beyond. If not, only humanity will survive this pestilence. We must embrace new concepts as a pathway for a new era of modern society to thrive.
I write as a concerned citizen of the United States and the global community. As an academic by training, I can continue citing my own academic efforts. However, I believe I am guilty and complicit in these archaic practices, too.
Several weeks ago, I drove from Minnesota to Los Angeles. Days after my arrival, the reality of COVID-19 finally began to erupt. I write this plea to humanity days after watching Los Angeles and California initiate quarantine. Although my faith in technology is limited, my faith in humanity is broad. We must unite across all the world in truly meaningful and novel ways to empower experts, endorse expert-leaders, and bring everyone into a new era of modern society.
Andrew M. Harrison is a physician.
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