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Relying on algorithms for biosecurity

On my infrequent train journeys over the last year, I’ve noticed an interesting difference between those services which insist on seat reservations and those which don’t. For the former where you sit on the train becomes a matter of what’s allocated to you, either at the time of purchase or at a later point if you need to shift to a different train. Therefore social distancing is a function of the algorithm and what social infrastructure exists around enforcing it and adapting to failures to follow its instructions. For the latter where you sit on the train is a matter of interpersonal negotiation, entailing quite different interactions as people choose to position themselves apart from each other or fail to do so.

The problem I’ve noticed is that the seat allocation algorithm seemingly doesn’t distribute people across the carriages of the train. People are spaced out to varying degrees, albeit sometimes imperfectly as I found out earlier today when placed directly behind someone, leading me to move and possibly mess up the system for other people. In practice some carriages are quite full whereas others are completely empty. In this sense I wonder if the social distancing would be more effective if people were left to choose their own seats, perhaps guided by some instructions such as avoid sitting next to or directly in front of or behind someone else.

It raises what I thought was a really interesting question. To what extent will we rely on algorithms to sustain social distancing as we move into an intermediate phase of biosecure vigilance rather than biosecurity crisis? What would this reliance exclude? Can we develop collective habits of coordinating ourselves in shared spaces to the same degree if algorithms are orchestrating the underlying dynamics of the process?

Categories: Covid-19

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