Riffing off an observation on Twitter that coronavirus is no longer the story but the setting, Venkatesh Rao explores the idea, noting, for example, that “social distancing is an element in protests”. Rao goes on to try to “unpack what it means to for a big, all-subsuming condition to evolve from story to setting” by revisiting the Black Death, exploring the phases of our own pandemic so far, and suggesting bleak comparisons between our present circumstances and how the Black Death “brought a bunch of strong historical forces, which had been building up pressure, to a crisis point”.

Now here’s the thing about the Phase 2 of the Black Death: it’s clear that everything basically broke at a very deep level, which is a very strong statement coming from me. I don’t like to call complex systems broken very often. Usually when people say that, they are just complaining that the system is working for somebody else rather than for them. But when the system doesn’t work for any of its human individual or institutional parts, or even to preserve and perpetuate itself, I think it is safe to say it is actually broken.