COVID-19 has confirmed some long-understood yet long-ignored truths about the economics of information, and has also highlighted deeply disturbing fractures in today’s information ecology
COVID-19 has delivered an extraordinary shock to humanity. Advocates and researchers working on sustainability have rightly seized on the similarly extraordinary opportunity that the (eventual) recovery from this pandemic offers: to build upon changes to everyday consumption and production behaviours at the levels of households and firms, to lock in reductions in emissions and pollution achieved during the lockdown period in many nations, and to invest in a “green recovery” that can transform our infrastructure to become fit for a sustainable future. Yet is also essential that we learn the less comfortable lessons of the COVID-19 pandemic. In our recent paper in Global Sustainability, co-authors Katie Kish, Josh Farley, Stephen Quilley, Katharine Zywert and I argue that COVID-19 has confirmed some long-understood yet long-ignored truths about the economics of information, and has also highlighted deeply disturbing fractures in today’s information ecology. Both will need to be addressed if we are to make progress towards a fairer, healthier and more sustainable world.
COVID-19 has reminded the citizens of even the world’s richest nations that physical scarcity has not gone away. At the onset of the pandemic, nations vied with each other for limited supplies of personal protective equipment, hand sanitizer, ventilators and other clinical supplies – some enlisting their foreign intelligence services to get ahead in the global scramble to source essential supplies. Even affluent citizens experienced a frisson of fear as supermarket shelves emptied around the world; the global poor face hunger and the reversal of decades of progress towards reducing poverty.
However, it is the search for effective vaccines and treatments for COVID-19 that has demonstrated the corrosive effects of the artificial scarcity which is generated by deliberate economic policy choices on how we choose to generate knowledge and innovation. We have long understood that knowledge and information are not scarce resources – my using a piece of knowledge does not make that knowledge unavailable to others. Indeed, knowledge tends to improve with use and dissemination. Yet today we choose to grant monopoly rights to vaccine and drug developers through patents. Conventional theory claims that firms will only invest the resources required to develop inherently risky new technologies if they can receive guaranteed monopoly profits. However, an effective COVID-19 vaccine is a global public good par excellence, that we all wish to be made available to humanity as a whole, and not to be rationed by price and ability to pay. In reality, governments are pouring enormous resources into the race for a vaccine – but are both investing public funds into multiple competing initiatives, and still offering the developers patent monopoly rights if their products are successful. Rather than advancing the search for a vaccine and treatments, it is likely that this public “double-funding” (of both development and monopoly sales) is primarily increasing economic rents in the pharmaceutical sector – already one of the most profitable industries in the world. We need to ensure that access to the technologies needed to create a more sustainable future for humanity are not subject to the same fate. We explicitly need to make sure that the way we generate knowledge prioritises human welfare over profits. Treating knowledge as a commons, not as private property, through publicly-funded research, peer-to-peer (P2P) and a commons knowledge economy offers us models by which we can still innovate and research the new technologies we need – yet can also incentivise firms to produce and deploy these firms at the lowest possible cost to society.
COVID-19 has brought into sharp relief an altogether newer information pathology: the unexpected fissures the pandemic has opened up at the interface between science, public policy and public discourse.
COVID-19 has brought into sharp relief an altogether newer information pathology: the unexpected fissures the pandemic has opened up at the interface between science, public policy and public discourse. Technical discussions of public health and treatment options (such as face masks or use of the drug hydroxychloroquine) have become hyper-partisan and weaponised as political objects. Standard models for disseminating research findings through peer-reviewed journals have stumbled and struggled to keep up; high profile research failings and retractions have undermined confidence, while pharmaceutical firms (and some researchers) have chosen “dissemination by press release” over traditional peer-reviewed routes. Once-authoritative institutions such as the World Health Organization and the US Centers for Disease Control have been undermined, by ineptitude and by design. Meanwhile, misinformation, conspiracy theories and active disinformation have flourished online and in social media, undermining public trust in governments and science.
Sustainability scientists and advocates need to reflect carefully on these lessons from COVID-19. Creating a commons knowledge economy is an attainable goal, albeit one that will be bitterly opposed by vested interests. Yet healing the fractured information ecology that the pandemic has so vividly highlighted is likely to be even harder. Long-cherished institutions and methods of science, policy and democracy may not be compatible with the tech-mediated information ecology that we have allowed to grow up around us in recent decades. Yet it is this broken and polluting information ecology which needs to change – for if it does not, this new world of information warfare of all against all risks gravely undermining our prospects for achieving real sustainability transformations.