Showing posts with label coronavirus. Show all posts
Showing posts with label coronavirus. Show all posts

‘We Are Not That Great’: Gain-of-Function Research Highlights our Hubris

Photo by HFCM Communicatie, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
By Iris KulbatskiHealthy Debate - September 13, 2021

The SARS-CoV-2 pandemic has made believers out of us. The statements “I believe in science” and “follow the science” express our collective assurance that scientific innovation will continue to serve humanity and sustain us through our pandemic weariness.

Historically, our scientific pursuits have catalyzed both extraordinary accomplishments and unimaginable atrocities. The line between the two is thin and the guardrails that protect against crossing this line are easily corroded. As a by-product of human ingenuity, science, like any other human endeavour, is flawed and at times unpredictable – beset by human error, inaccuracies, biases, conflicts of interest, ethical challenges and political influence.

There are limits to our advances, and the more reckless we are with our scientific pursuits, the closer we come to the edge of these limitations. And when we do cross that line, science can no more save us from ourselves than an alchemist can turn lead into gold.

Restricted to laboratories with high-level clearance and rigorous safety protocols, gain-of-function research treads an almost imperceptible line between catastrophic risk and potential benefit.

Life finds a way

In his bestselling literary works, science fiction author Michael Crichton explores themes of science, technology, medicine and the ways in which human failure can lead to catastrophe. In a case of life imitating art, the current SARS-CoV-2 pandemic reads like a storyline from a Crichton novel.

SARS-CoV-2 continues to spread across the globe almost two years after it was first discovered. As the world mulls the theory that a lab leak ignited the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, the real and present danger of gain-of-function research has been brought to light.

Gain-of-function research involves the genetic modification of hazardous pathogens in ways that can increase human infectivity. The goal of such research is to understand the mechanisms of human infection and develop strategies to mitigate a pandemic, should an outbreak occur. Restricted to laboratories with high-level clearance and rigorous safety protocols, gain-of-function research treads an almost imperceptible line between catastrophic risk and potential benefit.

Despite the safety guardrails that exist for such labs, there are numerous examples of gain-of-function research that clearly crossed this line – deadly pathogens that escaped from labs, scientists who were accidentally exposed or infectedsafety and security breaches, unethical activitypoor work environments and political intrigueTemporary moratoriums and outsourcing of research to other countries does little to ensure long-term global safety. Whatever illusion of certainty we manufactured for ourselves should long ago have vanished like a desert mirage.

History will sort out the origins of SARS-CoV-2. In the meantime, our struggle to contain the crisis suggests that we are in over our heads, despite our best efforts, years of gain-of-function research and our so-called pandemic preparedness.

The current global crisis is a valuable case study of our finite ability to control nature once it’s pushed to the edge of an unstable guardrail. Even the theoretical possibility that SARS-CoV-2 escaped from a lab should cause us to take pause, because gain-of-function research using some of the deadliest pathogens known to humankind continues to thrive as the current pandemic rages on. Amid unprecedented morbidity, mortality, economic and personal hardship, political and social unrest, scientific and medical upheaval and desperate attempts to vaccinate the world, we are consistently steps behind rapidly emerging variants and subsequent waves of disease.

If ever there was a lens through which to view the potential catastrophic impact of gain-of-function research, it is the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, regardless of whether the virus gained functionality in a lab or through natural selection. To quote Crichton, either way: “… the history of evolution is that life escapes all barriers. Life breaks free. Life expands to new territories. Painfully, perhaps even dangerously. But life finds a way.”

We live in a golden cage where the illusion that we can control life shackles us to a false sense of security. It is precisely this hubris that drives us toward existential danger.

The litmus test of science

In 1963, Joseph A. Davis Jr. curated an exhibit at the Bronx Zoo titled The Most Dangerous Animal in the World. The exhibit appeared in the Great Apes House, situated between cages containing orangutans and gorillas. Visitors to the exhibit were stunned to see a reflection of their own face looking back at them from behind a cage. The illusion, created by an artfully placed mirror, delivered an elegant, powerful message, further articulated by a sign that read: “You are looking at the most dangerous animal in the world. It alone of all the animals that ever lived can exterminate (and has) entire species of animals. Now it has the power to wipe out all life on earth.”

The ability for self-reflection has made us arguably the most sentient, intelligent and dangerous species on the planet. It takes little consideration to realize our sophistication and ingenuity, to pat ourselves on the collective back for the brilliant ways in which we’ve managed to tinker with our natural world for the benefit of humankind. Yet, science, technology and medicine also serve as a mirror through which to reflect on our misconceptions. Despite the sophistication of our innovations, the assumption that we can outsmart nature is a dangerous delusion. It is also the height of arrogance.

We live in a golden cage where the illusion that we can control life shackles us to a false sense of security. It is precisely this hubris that drives us toward existential danger. If we are to learn anything from this pandemic, it is the value of humility. Science is a human construct and is inherently fallible because we are fallible. The real litmus test of science is to hold a mirror up to humanity and reflect our true nature – both our virtues and our vices, our limitlessness and our limitations.

The fulcrum of science rests on our ability to erect the necessary guardrails to protect against exceeding the limits of our ingenuity. And as conservationist Baba Dioum illustrates: “In the end we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught.”

It is time we turn toward the natural world and our own shortcomings with appropriate reverence and learn this fundamental lesson: We are not that great.

This article is republished from Healthy Debate under a Creative Commons license.
Read the original article.
Healthy Debate publishes journalism about health care in Canada by the people whose lives it touches the most, from physicians, patients and caregivers to health journalists, academics, and advocates.

COVID-19, a Nurse, her Mother, and Monoclonal Antibody Treatments

In an Oklahoma Watch feature “A Mile In Another’s Shoes,” an initiative to give voice to the voiceless or call attention to the plight of those affected by public policy, Davis, talks about treating COVID-19 patients and the personal tragedy that motivates her.

Registered nurse Jennifer Davis runs Norman Regional Hospital's COVID-19 Infusion Unit for patients on Sept. 3, 2021. Davis has been treating nearly 100 patients a week since June with monoclonal antibody infusions.
Whitney Bryen/Oklahoma Watch (CC BY-ND 4.0)
By Whitney BryenOklahoma Watch
September 6, 2021

Less than a month after losing her mother to COVID-19, registered nurse Jennifer Davis provided the first monoclonal antibody treatment to a patient at Norman Regional Hospital’s COVID Infusion Unit. Davis couldn’t save her own mother, but she is on a mission to save others from the virus, even if it means putting herself at risk. 

I’ve been in health care all of my career, ever since I was 15. I worked in nursing homes as a nurse aid and worked my way up from nurse aid, to home health aide to licensed practical nurse to registered nurse. Truly, medical is all I’ve ever wanted to do. When I was young, my grandma worked in a hospital and I thought “I want to work in a hospital and be a nurse too.” And then as I got a little older, my mom had cancer. Dad would come home from the hospital and say how wonderful the nurses were. And that really geared me into, “I wanted to be an oncology nurse” because I wanted to return that favor. So, oncology was where I went. 

I’ve been with Norman Regional for more than seven years. I worked with the oncology group so we did chemotherapy treatments, and I worked in outpatient infusion. It’s a plethora of anything that we can infuse you with and then send you home. I stayed with the infusion as oncology opened their own little area. I helped them get that started and then I stayed where I was at with the infusion center. But that was all prior to COVID. 

I was a supervisor and didn’t have to do patient care day in and day out. But since November, I’ve gone into full-time patient care again. The monoclonal antibodies were emergently approved by the FDA for treatment of outpatient COVID for high risk, mild to moderate patients that would risk being put into the hospital for severe COVID-related symptoms. The first infusion we gave was Nov. 23. In November, December, January and February we were pretty much nonstop. And then as the numbers declined and things kind of leveled off and we started getting the vaccines, we didn’t see as much COVID. We went from probably 80 or 90 patients a week to maybe two and three. And then COVID resurged with the variants and since mid-June, we’ve been nonstop. We’re doing over a hundred infusions a week. 

"if I can save one person’s life, I’ve done it in honor of my mom."

If you just can imagine a piece of pie and there’s one slice missing that piece of pie is the cells in your body. And COVID attaches and fills in that one piece that’s missing. Your cells then continue to multiply so every day you’re multiplying COVID cells. In essence, that first 10 days is when you’re building the most cells and when the people that get the sickest typically go to the hospital. If we treat those patients within the first 10 days, that monoclonal antibody goes in there and attaches to that same spot on that piece of pie that COVID wants to attach to. So now it’s fighting with an antibody that’s like, “I’m bigger than better than you.” Then COVID can’t multiply anymore. And now your body is multiplying and making antibody cells. It neutralizes the growth of the COVID and kick starts your body into making more antibodies to fight it. Therefore it reduces the length of the symptoms, the amount of symptoms. And hopefully you don’t get symptomatic enough to have to go to the hospital. 

I have a lot of patients actually that are so thankful that we’re there. They’re concerned with us nurses who are seeing them face to face every day. They want to know “why are you putting your life on the line for us?” And I can’t answer for anyone else, but mine becomes personal because I lost my mom to COVID before this drug was out. And I just feel like, if I can save one person’s life, I’ve done it in honor of my mom.

Last October, my mom and I both became COVID positive. My daughter had surgery the last week of September and mom and I were at the hospital with her. We became symptomatic together. On Saturday, Oct. 3, she couldn’t go and get her nails done because she was tired and didn’t feel good. And on Sunday the fourth, I remember my preacher asking me, “how are you doing?” And I go, “I don’t feel good today. I’m just tired.”

I woke up on the fifth with night sweats and body aches, and I thought it  was just related to the stress. I have an autoimmune disorder and I thought it was just a flare up from the stress of my little one having a bad surgery and complications to her surgery the week before. And mom was still not feeling good either. I lost my taste on the eighth of October and that’s when I knew. 

I was in denial and didn’t get tested until I had to be tested before I had surgery on my thumb. And when it came back positive, I cried and I told mom, we had COVID. And the next day mom was just getting weaker and weaker. I had asked her mom, when was the last time you had your inhaler? She said, “Oh, I haven’t had it in a week or so. It’s at the pharmacy.” So I drove to the pharmacy and we went through the drive-through and got her inhaler. She took two puffs and in 30 minutes she had chest pain and couldn’t catch her breath. I called 911 and sent her to the hospital by ambulance.

From Oct. 14 until the 30th, I studied COVID, because I was going to tell these doctors how they were going to fix my mom. It doesn’t work that way, but I tried. I studied COVID and talked to mom as much as I could. On the 16th, on the way back to her bed from the bathroom she accidentally knocked her oxygen off and her oxygen levels went down. They couldn’t get them back up and she was struggling so they sent her to the ICU.

And I don’t think that I’ve had one person die from COVID related symptoms after these infusions. That’s what I call a miracle drug.

We weren’t allowed to visit her so it was really hard to have good communication. She couldn’t keep the oxygen on with her glasses to be able to read text messages. We were very dependent on the nurses to be able to do FaceTime. And then on Oct. 30, which is my birthday, the ice storm happened that week so we were all at her house because she had tons of tree damage. I had a hard time getting a hold of the nurse that day for an update. And finally around 4 p.m. I was able to get a hold of the nurse and he said, “well, she’s not doing well.” I told them I wanted to talk to her and she gets on the phone and she says, “I can’t do this anymore. I’m tired.”

I told my family it was time and we needed to go to the hospital. It was my son, my brother and my aunt and they would only let two of us in to see her. My brother and my aunt were on FaceTime with one of the hospital computers. My son and I geared up and when we walked in the door, I knew she was done. But I was able to hold her hand and brush her hair, change her clothes and talk to her about planning her funeral for the last four hours of her life. And she didn’t die on my birthday. She held on until the next day.

The hardest thing I’ve had to do is lose my best friend. But God knows what he’s doing. If I hadn’t gone through that, I wouldn’t be where I’m at now with my COVID patients that I’ve taken care of. I wouldn’t have the passion. I wouldn’t have the ability. I wouldn’t have the knowledge of knowing why COVID does what it does or the understanding. It put me where I need to be to be able to reach out and touch these people and help them heal. And to be that sense of comfort for the ones that are terrified dropping their moms off for a COVID infusion. It’s full circle. 

This work is tiring, but it’s so fulfilling. If I stay an extra 15 minutes, we can see one more patient. If someone will go get my daughter, I can see three more patients. It becomes an obsession because you want to help as many people as possible. And then if I can help all of these people stay out of the hospital, I’m also helping my colleagues that are seeing the ones that are dying. And I feel like if I can get these people in the first 10 days, they’re not going to end up at the hospital and they’re going to die. 

I have given probably 1,800 to 2,000 doses of monoclonals since November. And I don’t think that I’ve had one person die from COVID related symptoms after these infusions. That’s what I call a miracle drug. 

This article first appeared on Oklahoma Watch and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

John Lennon’s Imagine at 50: a deceptively simple ballad, a lasting emblem of hope

By Leigh Carriage - September 9, 2021

This article was originally published in  The Conversation

1971 was a tumultuous year. The counter-cultural movement of the 60s was still being felt. Demonstrations were held opposing the Vietnam War and in August, Australia and New Zealand withdrew their troops.

Apollo 15 landed on the moon. Feminist Gloria Steinem made her first address to women in America. Switzerland held a referendum on women’s suffrage. In New York, John Lennon sat down at a brown model Z upright piano and began to write what would become an inter-generational, transnational phenomenon — and perhaps the gentlest of protest songs — Imagine.

Imagine was recorded on May 27, at Lennon’s new home studio. The song was released to the world as part of the album of the same name (co-produced by Lennon, his wife Yoko Ono and Phil Spector), on September 9.

John Lennon Imagine (Official Music Video 1971)

For three minutes and three seconds, the lyrics of this gentle ballad present a vision of unity and of hope. It is a space in which to dream of real change in the world.

As with all songs, the interpretations are as broad as the listeners. For many, it is a call for peace; for others it is a prayer.

The verse lyrics, partly based on poetry by Ono, remove all the central components that seem to separate us: violence, hate, borders, poverty, greed, governments, religion, consumerism and capitalism.

The final verse offers a vision of a unified world at peace.

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will live as one

Imagine would become Lennon’s best-selling single of his solo career. In 2004, Rolling Stone labelled it third on its list of the greatest songs of all time, saying “we need it more than he ever dreamed”.

Unpacking it musically

Imagine is often used to teach beginner music students, but it would be a mistake to think it is just a simple, soft rock, piano ballad.

This perception is due to Lennon’s highly effective crafting. As a peace anthem, the song appears simple, but dig a little deeper, and you find layers of complexity and nuance.

Imagine was written in the key of C major, which has no sharps or flats, so it is melodically and harmonically playable and broadly accessible.

The melody is comprised of small intervals (the difference in pitch between two notes), and repeating small motives (a fragment of melody repeated, manipulated or re-positioned throughout the melody), all within a singable range of one octave..

Youtube - Imagine (UNICEF: World Version)

The introduction to the song sets up a gentle sway between harmonic resolution and tension, like waves on a beach.

The third, longer phrase (“Imagine all the people”) steps into a passage of unresolved tension. This culminates in a harmonic state of balance, like a broom standing on end. It can fall either way — forward into resolution (the next verse) or back into tension (the chorus). This balance is intensified as the rhythm section pauses and Lennon sings in falsetto.

Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us, only sky
Imagine all the people
Livin’ for today

The opening piano chords also create a sense of pushing into tension before falling back to resolution, linking to the dreamlike feeling of the lyrics. The third phrase, “imagine all the people” starts on the four chord and holds that tension until “living for today” lands on G, creating more stability.

Perhaps the most distinctive part of Imagine is the short piano riff between the vocal lines. This riff uses just three notes — A, A# and B — called “chromatic passing notes”. Your ear thinks these notes will go up again, to the C chord. Instead, Lennon brings the listener’s ear down to the G melody note, creating a gentle sense of unpredictability.

Imagine transports the listener. The lyrics lift the spirit. The easy rises and falls of the melody comfort. Lennon’s familiar voice reassures.

A balm in times of crisis

Imagine has inspired an outstanding array of cover versions, sung by everyone from Elton John to Madonna. American singer Eva Cassidy’s interpretation remains a particular favourite. Her expression and subtle reinterpretation of the melody, her note choices and phrasing, are breathtaking.

Youtube - Eva Cassidy - Imagine

At times of crisis, people have often turned to this song. Queen covered Imagine the day after Lennon’s death in 1980; Neil Young played it in the wake of 9/11.

After the 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, people gathered on the streets as a man quietly played the song on a piano decorated with a peace symbol.

Youtube - Pianist plays John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ outside Paris’ Bataclan theater

In March last year, at the beginning of the pandemic, Gal Gadot and other celebrities released a now ironically celebrated and much criticised version.

And last September, Melbourne students wrote their own version:

Imagine there’s no Corona
And we can see our friends

Our interconnectedness and reliance on one another are our biggest strengths. 50 years after Lennon wrote the song, Imagine will accompany us along the way: a lasting emblem of hope.

Instagram - These brothers fom Milgate Primary School in Doncaster have used their time in lockdown well.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.
Read the original article.
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Parenting Through the Pandemic

2020 was a difficult year for many parents as a result of COVID-19 limitations – but did being at home with children influence their levels of life satisfaction?

This article was first published on  Pursuit
Read the  original article.

Being a parent is never an easy gig, but during the pandemic lockdowns, parenting was made even more difficult.

Many parents were cut off from family and friends, unable to make or keep plans, had no one to share the load while trying to work-from-home, keeping toddlers entertained and generally learning to cope.

It made 2020 a challenging year for parents of children of all ages, but particularly first-time parents and those with young school-age children.

So, how did being a parent during lockdown affect their levels of life satisfaction?

My research, published in the Life Satisfaction during the 2020 Pandemic in Australia report, examines levels of satisfaction during the unprecedented COVID-19 lockdowns in 2020.

The data was collected from one group of participants of the Life Patterns Program aged in their early 30s. Almost 500 participants completed the annual survey between April and May, during the national lockdown, and 40 participants were interviewed between October and November, when people in Melbourne were hoping to emerge from the harsher second lockdown.

Overall in 2020, parents were just as satisfied as non-parents.

This contrasts with results from 2019 when parents reported lower levels of life satisfaction than non-parents. So, it would seem that parents and non-parents were similarly affected during the initial stages of the pandemic.

Perhaps the extra work of caring for children while working from home was offset by the time saved by not commuting to work or dropping off and picking up children.

However, parents with toddlers and pre-schoolers were largely left to fend for themselves, juggling their work commitments while also trying to entertain and care for their children.

Lockdowns and parenting

During much of last year, the pandemic restrictions limited the ability of most parents to spend time with their extended families and friends. It also constrained their ability to develop social networks and to engage with other parents and health professionals.

Schools, childcare centres and creches were closed and children had to stay at home with their parents, many of whom were also trying to work-from-home.

My research shows that levels of life satisfaction varied according to age of the youngest child. Parents with a baby aged less than one year old reported the highest levels of life satisfaction, while those with a youngest child aged four years old reported the lowest levels of life satisfaction.

Interestingly, parents with a youngest child aged five years or older reported higher levels of life satisfaction than their peers with a youngest child aged four years. This may be because school-aged children were able, in most cases, to stay connected with their classmates and teachers through virtual classrooms.

However, parents with toddlers and pre-schoolers were largely left to fend for themselves, juggling their work commitments while also trying to entertain and care for their children.

“I set up activities in the backyard, but it was always raining so we were cooped up inside trying to think of activities for inside…The kids didn’t respond very well. Their behaviour wasn’t very good because they realised that they couldn’t leave the house, I couldn’t break up the day” – mother with a four-year old boy and two-year old twins living in regional Victoria.

On a more positive note, some parents commented on being able to spend more time with their children and partners due to working-from-home, or not working at all.

New parents in a pandemic

Welcoming a first child is typically a period of immense joy and celebration for the parents, grandparents and other relatives. The excitement of sharing the joy with as many people as possible often sustains parents through the many months of sleepless nights and the stress associated with parenting.

But not always.

“No siblings were allowed and they considered his twin brother as a sibling so he wasn’t allowed to come into special care with us, so we’d have to leave him down on the ward with the midwives so that we could go and visit his brother in the special care nursery” – First-time mother of twin boys born in March 2020, with one in intensive care.

As the pandemic unfolded, new parents experienced isolation from family and friends, had restricted access to social supports such as parenting groups and were often trying to do their paid job at home during the chaotic first few months of parenthood.

During the interviews, parents talked about how the pandemic had changed their priorities:

“We are moving back to our family… being in lockdown for so long, being away from people… we just wanted to be closer to them from now on” – father with an 18-month-old boy living in regional Tasmania.

“I think one thing I know I’m going to do is not to say no to things…I haven’t seen anyone in four months now” – mother of baby girl born in August 2020 living in Melbourne.

“At the beginning with him, it was just us and the midwife, the only people who ever had even touched him, no physical contact with anyone else” – mother of baby boy born April 2020 living in Adelaide.

On a more positive note, some parents commented on being able to spend more time with their children and partners due to working-from-home, or not working at all.

“The upside is that I get to see the kids a lot more, that’s fantastic. I also get to see my wife a lot more, also fantastic” – father with a four-year old and two-year old living in Melbourne.

Now that Victoria is again in lockdown, little attention has been paid to how parents will cope. What services are now in place to support new parents? How flexible will employers be? How will those who survived on JobKeeper in 2020 fare without it in 2021?

And how will they rate their life satisfaction this time around?

This article is republished from Pursuit under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivatives 3.0 Australia (CC BY-ND 3.0 AU) license/Title and subtitle have been reworded.
Pursuit publishes trustworthy and credible news, commentary and analysis to break through the jargon and give you more insight into the world around you.

Covid-19 Hastened the Digital Shift With Consequences for the ‘Data Divide’, Wellbeing

People working entirely from home have been relying almost exclusively on digital tools to socialise, work, and access any state services they needed. Photo by Vlada Karpovich from Pexels
BY CALEB DAVIES - July 31, 2021
This article was originally published in Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation Magazine

Sometimes it can seem like we’ve uploaded our whole lives to the internet: bank accounts, social media posts, dating profiles, work emails – it’s all out there in that nebulous cloud of digital information that is the world wide web. The problems with this new digital way of life are well known. Social media is thought to produce echo chambers in which people aren’t exposed to healthy debates. Big tech companies make money from our personal data. Workers in the gig economy are paid a pittance to deliver groceries to the better off.

In the context of the epic, risky nature of living our lives digitally, one of the European Commission’s six strategic priorities for 2019-2024 is to create a Europe fit for the digital age. The aim is that technology will work for people; the digital economy will be fair; and that it supports an open, democratic and sustainable society.

The Covid-19 pandemic has put rocket boosters under the transition to a digital society. One survey conducted in July 2020 found that more than 1 in 3 workers in the EU were working exclusively from home. This means that they were relying almost exclusively on digital tools to socialise, work, and access any state services they needed. Now more and more researchers are asking themselves: does our reliance on digital tools leave us on the wisest path?

One is Dr Matthew Dennis at the Technical University of Delft in the Netherlands. Dr Dennis is an ethicist interested in applying the philosophy of human flourishing to the digital age. Philosophers have long wondered what constitutes a ‘good life’, and from Aristotle to Confucius, they have supplied their own slightly different answers. One central idea is that happiness alone is important but not enough; there are people who are subjectively happy who might still not be living a great life.

‘What the other important aspects of flourishing are depends on who you ask,’ said Dr Dennis. ‘It might be about fulfilling roles in society, or achievements and contributions to society. More modern ethicists like me are quite interested in the idea that pursuing passions is an important part of flourishing.’

Digital wellbeing

Dr Dennis has been part of a Delft working group looking at the ethics of innovation in the Covid-19 era. Through the group, he carried out some work that explored how to manage our digital wellbeing.

The idea that the time we spend online is bad for us is a controversial one. Dr Dennis points out that the latest research suggests time spent online can be bad for our mental health, but we really need to take into account what we’re doing online – are we having a conversation with friends or mindlessly scrolling? They are very different things. One 2019 report from the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen, Denmark, found that the most frequent users of social media ‘tend to be less satisfied with their lives and make more negative social comparisons’.

Dr Dennis looked at three frameworks for enhancing our digital wellbeing in pandemic conditions. First were rule-based frameworks, such as that issued by US-based nonprofit, the Center for Humane Technology. These suggest people take specific steps, such as limiting their time on devices and taking care to do exercise designed to promote mindfulness. Second, were character based strategies, which say we ought to cultivate character traits that will be useful in the online sphere, such as the ability to control where we give our attention. The third way is not so much something for individuals but for designers. It is to explicitly change the way that online spaces are designed so that they don’t prompt us to make choices that are bad for our wellbeing.

None of these frameworks on their own can provide a perfect route to digital wellbeing, Dr Dennis concludes, but he says we’re more likely to be able to overcome the challenges posed by a post-coronavirus world – where we may spend more time online – by combining the best bits of them all.

Data divide

As we accelerate towards a digital society, the implications go beyond how we spend time online. Collection of people’s data also has consequences for online autonomy, wellbeing, and other crucial aspects of life, including access to welfare.

Beginning in 2015, Stefania Milan, an associate professor of new media and digital culture at the University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands, has been working on the DATACTIVE project, which has been investigating how civil society engages with and responds to the collection of data on a massive scale. One of her early projects involved creating a browser extension, now called Tracking Exposed, which aims to highlight the power of personalised algorithms by allowing a comparison between what different users see on certain websites, such as Facebook.

These tools allow researchers to get a sense of how the algorithms control what users see. The project is now expanding to cover Amazon, YouTube and Pornhub.

More recently, Prof. Milan has been thinking about what she calls the ‘data divide’. As she pointed out in a recent essay, this divide has been exacerbated during the pandemic. There are two ways in which this plays out, she says.

First, she points out that people’s interaction with the world and with the state is mediated by data. If information about a person is not included on databases, for example, then that person can’t interact with the state properly, accessing welfare assistance becomes an issue, for instance. This first digital divide applies at the level of individuals within nations. It is people such as undocumented migrants, poor people who don’t have access to connected devices, or workers on the gig economy that are among those who fall on the wrong side.

‘Data is a condition of visibility, almost a condition of existence,’ she said.

This divide also operates at an international level, and this has become more deeply important during the Covid-19 era. The ways in which nations have responded to the pandemic have been dependent to a large extent on the quality of their data, says Prof. Milan. Their ability to carry out tests and compile the results, and their ability to track people who have tested positive and trace their close contacts.
Prof. Milan also has a prescription for how we might remedy this, as least when it comes to the national level. It’s not complicated. She says we must first begin to invest heavily in making sure poorer people have access to devices so they are not excluded from interacting with the state. Second, and more importantly, we need to start investing in building up people’s data literacy, she believes. This has to be done in schools, from an early age, she says. But we can’t leave out adults, so there will have to be classes and even TV campaigns to help them become more data-literate, she suggests.
‘You learn how to swim because if you fall into a canal you need to swim to be able to survive,’ said Prof. Milan. ‘In the same way, we should also incorporate into school programs digital and data literacy.’

This story is part of a series in which we hear from the next generation of scientists and researchers who are working to tackle global challenges.
Various sessions discussing the digital decade and how to leave no one behind will take place on 24 June as part of the European Commission’s Research and Innovation Days conference. If you liked this article, please consider sharing it on social media.
This article was originally published in Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation magazine.

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