Things of COVID-19

In these weeks of social isolation, I’ve began to spot some curious objects. At first, I shrugged: who cares about a strange thing to push buttons without touching them with a bare finger? But they kept appearing not only in my social feeds, but all around me.

I began to call them Things of COVID-19, an odd mix of weird speculation and reality. Are they the signs of what lies just around the corner? Do they offer a glimpse of our near future as the pandemic unfolds? Should we analyze them critically? What are their consequences on design, politics, and ethics? Or are they random blips on my radar, just weird ideas and objects that I shouldn’t pay much attention to? I just don’t know yet, and I wonder what patterns might emerge from this collection. Like everything these days, I’ll just need to take it one step at a time, and gather as many examples as possible before even thinking of an analysis.

Have a nice Thing of COVID-19 to share? Instagram or email work best to share some curious artifacts.

Would you like to geek out about Things of COVID-19 and their cultural significance? Ping me via Mastodon, or Linkedin, or email.

The collection

A first #ThingofCOVID19 – a rather questionable proposal for social isolation on the seaside. This artifact hasn’t been realized, and perhaps it will never be, but I find it significant that public spaces related to leisure, such as beaches, seem so important in our collective imaginary of living with the pandemics.

Another #ThingofCOVID19, a curious ritual that could (?) become commonplace in a lasting pandemic: sterilizing your smartphone. As phones are already ubiquitous in our lives and play a special role during social isolation, it stands to reason that people want to sanitize them?

Handy is a multipurpose object to push buttons, open doors, pull levers and even carry shopping bags! This one is not for sale, and its author Matteo Zallio released it as an Open Source / Creative Commons thing to 3D-print, adapt it and use it. Credits to Gábi Prattingerová for the tip

The future of air travel in the times of COVID-19? I think it’s quite interesting to see that many designers and vendors (like Avio Interiors) focus on #ThingsofCOVID19 to fix (?) minute issues rather than the larger system of air travel. I’m not saying that focusing on quick solutions is per se always wrong, but perhaps a broader rethinking is in order.

The metro trains in Milan, quite close to the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak in Italy, will have stickers to remind passengers of what is the “safe” distance to keep. I guess that visualizing a relatively abstract notion (stay at least 1.5 meters apart) into something that’s more embodied is a challenge for many #ThingsofCOVID19.

#ThingsofCOVID19 “Testing Serres Séparées at Mediamatic ETEN – Safer water side dining in Amsterdam. Soon, we’ll offer really nice plant-based dinner in our greenhouses on the Amsterdam water side of the Oosterdok. We are testing the setup now whilst waiting for permission to re-open our restaurant and art space. Of course, these chambres séparées are recommended only for people that are already living together. Photo was taken at Mediamatic ETEN in Biotoop Dijkspark during our testing on April 27, 2020. Reproduction permitted with credit: Willem Velthoven for Mediamatic Amsterdam.” For the record, I’ve also come across some criticism of this proposal from the owners of other venues who say (I’m synthesizing) that Mediamatic is in a pretty privileged position given the space & resources available, and many others really cannot afford to take the same route.

This is a #ThingofCOVID19 that is also a zine, called “Urgency Reader 2: Mutual Aid Publishing During Crisis”. It is an experiment in instant publishing, with a call for contribution that was announced on March 18 2020 and remained open for the following 10 days. It contains reflections, sketches, patterns for face masks, provocations, speculations, and stories. The result is open access and can be downloaded for free

Today’s #thingofCOVID19 is a playable simulator by Marcel Salathé & Nicky Case, explaining with interactive visualizations some future scenarios and different approaches to contain the virus.

Dealing with social distancing is not only a matter of reorganizing one’s life, but also of saying no to hugs and physical contacts. This is particularly hard for people with a compromised immune system, or otherwise particularly at risk. This #ThingofCOVID19 is the Knuffelscherm (literally the Cuddlescreen?), currently in crowdfunding phase. Give it a look at and perhaps pitch in to help keep COVID-19 out of assisted-living homes

Public spaces are deeply changed by social distancing measures. So far, Taiwan has been exemplar in how they controlled the virus. Taiwanese baseball league is still playing, but without live audience, and they’re using cardboard fan cutouts as a #ThingofCOVID19.

Many #ThingsofCOVID19 are robots of various types. This one is an autonomous rover designed to roam a supermarket or a warehouse, while blasting UV lights that (should) kill viruses. I do wonder about the effect of UV radiation on fresh foods…