Communication of SARS

Why should a communication scholar care about SARS?

There are some obvious answers to this, many of them having to do with risk communication. For instance, why should we be worrying about SARS when you are still far more likely to be killed by a lightning strike (let alone an auto accident or heart disease).

While there is no doubt that SARS is communicable, can we take it a step further and consider the disease a form of information? The question, for me, is raised because SARS has pointed out an interesting network of relations among people, and especially people who belong to what was formally considered the “jet set.” This would have remained isolated to China (and perhaps kept secret) if not for a global rendezvous at the Hotel Metropole in Kowloon (which, incidentally, has some great discounts right now). A number of travelers have now allowed it to spread around the world. Almost like a tracer dye, the epidemiological trail gives us an insight into global patterns of travel and migration.

Those who think about social networks have already been widely exposed–so to speak–to the ideas of epidemiologists, and SARS again has them interested. Valdis Krebs, in a post to SocNet, points to this powerpoint presentation from the CDC, which demonstrates just how important the hotel was to the spread of the disease. Is this a communication problem?

In perhaps a prosaic definition of human communication, we can say it is the transmission of information from one person to another. Is SARS a form of information? At first glance, no. In fact, to claim it as such would seem unscientific: we know that it is a virus. On the other hand, what if we consider for a moment what information is: a way of forecasting the future by foreclosing possibilities. (I’m taking a lot of shortcuts here, considering entropy to be found most clearly in the number or range of possible future states of a system.) The ultimate sort of communication, then, would be one in which the future state of the human was completely predictable.

During my short time at the Santa Fe Institute, I had occasion to chat with a cardiologist who noted that the only stable attractor (which the NIH notes is a redundant term, but is used here to differentiate from the strange attractors found in heart rates) of the human heart was when it stopped–i.e., when a person died. When a person is exposed to the SARS virus, in some percentage of cases, he or she will exhibit symptoms of the disease, and in a smaller proportion of cases, will stop living. While that sort of behavioral effect is not at all common among the sort of communication we are used to, I think the comparison goes beyond analogy or homology. SARS is a subset of what we call communication, and its networks are communication networks.

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  1. Posted 4/28/2003 at 8:12 am | Permalink

    Have you read Gladwell’s _The Tipping Point_? While it’s focused on the dissemination of ideas and memes, it begins with a discussion of epidemics and how they spread.

  2. Alex Halavais
    Posted 4/28/2003 at 9:19 pm | Permalink

    Yes, the idea of message systems–sometimes as gossip–spreading like disease stretches back at least 50 years. But I wonder whether: (a) the metaphor has been taken to its most extreme, and (b, relatedly) whether it is really a metaphor at all. Perhaps, rather, what we consider a disease is a subset of what we consider communication.

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