Three Matt Hancocks

How should we understand this?

One theory would be that Hancock thinks these measures have actual virological effect, that they work. Out of them, two would directly reduce social contacts (bubbles and nurseries). How the other three – curfews, outdoor masks, and a time limit on exercise – are meant to work is less obvious. One of them implies the virus has a timetable, another assumes there is a lot of outdoor transmission although nobody has found any, and the third both assumes lots of outdoor transmission and that the risk suddenly spikes after being outside for exactly sixty minutes for some reason. In any case, if they’re that much more effective, why aren’t we doing them now?

Another theory is that Hancock doesn’t think…sorry…sorry…rather, that although Hancock isn’t operating with a clear theory of how these measures might work, he has a list of measures in order from the least to the most draconian and he’s proposing to respond to higher numbers of cases by turning the knob marked “repression” up. This is not as stupid as all that; a core insight of cybernetics is that you don’t necessarily need to know what is inside a black box or how it works to control – or govern – it so long as you can observe a relationship between inputs and outputs. The helmsman can learn that the ship turns faster to port without solving computational fluid dynamics equations. But this implies more confidence than we have – see the first theory – that there is such a relationship, and in any case Hancock would never admit he was experimenting.

Yet a third is that it’s not the virus Hancock is trying to manipulate but us. Apparently we’re not complying with the current policy, so we’re being threatened with more things to comply with. Alternatively, the whole idea is to communicate a generalized sense of emergency. This reading doesn’t fail in any of the ways the other two do. The problem, though, and this goes for both the narrow category of “nudging” and the much broader and more important one of public relations and advertising, is that once people are aware they’re being asked to do things in order to manipulate them they tend to become cynical and cranky.

If you believe in an evolved social brain, and why wouldn’t you, you should definitely believe that one of its functions is to identify deceit and manipulation. There is a cynical school of thought that argues that intelligence itself arose in order to manipulate others. Implicitly, the ability to detect such manipulation would be even more valuable in evolutionary terms, and who knows but that might be why people seem to ascribe agency to all sorts of things like hammers and computers.

One important story of the pandemic of 2020 is that the public was continually asked to exercise its ability to detect manipulation by people who were determined to manipulate it.

5 Comments on "Three Matt Hancocks"

  1. and that the risk suddenly spikes after being outside for exactly sixty minutes for some reason

    No, that’s silly. You can’t tell people to go outside less; all you can do is tell anyone who’s habitually going outside more than X that the limit is X.

    (That said, given that there isn’t a lot of outdoor transmission, the whole idea is stupid.)


    1. Same for curfews presumably — discourage meeting & mingling outdoors, especially as the evenings get longer and assuming outdoor activities don’t just get displaced into other parts of the day. Easier to police than time limits but same vacuity, given little/no outdoor transmission.


  2. Steady now!

    The only phenomena which is currently transmitting faster than New Variant Covid-19 is the rapid mission creep of definitions used to classify unacceptable behaviour or opinions.

    On the present trajectory it’s not beyond the realms of possibility for critiques of this ilk to get labelled as “anti-vax” at some not too distant point.

    Which is why I’m not going to make any kind of comment or criticism on the subject of this Twitter thread by a hospital doctor which I’ve just been made aware of:

    Who has lost an appeal against being called away for jury service in the middle of what Government spokespeople are describing in terms of the coming weeks ‘will be the worst of the pandemic.’


  3. “The problem, though, ….. is that once people are aware they’re being asked to do things in order to manipulate them they tend to become cynical and cranky.”

    Precisely. People are being asked to “do their bit” that will only be effective if the government is “doing its bit” and it is far from clear that the latter part is true.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.