Contagion and Viral Propagation

What is Steven Soderbergh's Contagion (2011) about if not fear?

The plot runs like any pandemic/virus/zombie movie: the first case, the spread, the quarantine, the panic, the destruction, the desperation of trying to survive. But somewhere in the middle of the film Soderbergh subjugates the suspense of trying to develop antibodies and vaccines underneath a more troubling examination of the contagion of fear in crises. Which is making me meditate on how contagion, as a figurative term, works with regards to information spread.

In comparison, Outbreak (1995) is emotionally arresting because it tells the story of a small core of characters who risk their lives against an airborne e-bola type virus. 28 Days Later (2002) investigates military corruption by making zombie-ism germ-like. I Am Legend (2007) takes the post-apocalyptic approach and features one man against the monsters. Blindness (2008) looks at human evil in the face of a pandemic of blindness. All of these films concentrate on coloring in the shades of good and evil when human infrastructure falls apart in the face of mass sickness and death. They all have a sense of inherent pathos to them in that they hint that the good of the few perhaps cannot outweigh the evil of the panicking masses.

Contagion does this too, and also goes further. After a while, the virus's deadliness doesn't even seem to be what's perpetuating the panic anymore - it's our mass communication outlets, individualism within globalization, and sense of entitlement towards resources and treatment. For example, Jude Law's Alan Krumwiede is an insurgent blogger hell-bent on exposing favoritism in the CDC, but his exclamations are more evidence of the questions of valid information distribution than any governmental or organizational conspiracy. Likewise, Laurence Fishburne's Dr. Ellis Cheever tells his fiancée to leave Chicago before the quarantine announcement goes public, which is evidence that in the end, we'll might choose our few individual loved ones over helping strangers.

Contagion makes me think about the spread of information. In the last short story in A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan, a music promoter in a future-set New York uses paid "parrots" to hype a live concert. The marketers behind these promotions used to have to study epidemiology in order to learn about things "going viral," but that information model has become outdated: "'No one says "viral" anymore,' Lulu said. 'I mean, maybe thoughtlessly, the way we still say "connect" or "transmit" - those old mechanical metaphors that have nothing to do with how information spreads. See, reach isn't describable in terms of cause and effect anymore; it's simultaneous.'"

If Egan's prediction comes true, and I am inclined to think that she's on track, we are headed for a system of spreading information that mirrors contagion, even going beyond viral spreading. Blogs link to blogs, Facebook and Twitter share everything, newspapers go under, social media values the instantaneous and the individual over the informative, and we end up spreading information in a frenzy that seems panicked. I think it's already happening now, and I worry that our individualism is egging it on. No, it's not about life and death here, but there's definitely a paradigm of survival going on--we all want relevance, significance, and influence.

Before Before Midnight

It's not a phase, it's a process.