Allowing things to break
I have long toyed with the idea of creating a personal web page that I can use to publish anything that doesn't fit anywhere else. There is a reason for Twitter and others to be somewhat rigid in form and content, but it makes the universal machines on our desktops and in our pockets appear much less universal, and also less approachable to experimental exploration than they allow for. Here should rather be a space for exploration.
It is hard to predict what exactly this page / blog / space ends up being when I'm just writing the first couple of words of hopefully many more, but I have an idea of it that may show in a small thing I've been working on in the last few days.
The situation we're in
Where I live we're nearing the third year of significant restrictions of daily life for the purpose of countering the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic. New virus strains have shown to be less harmful and calls for reopening get louder by the day.
At the same time we're dealing with a three digit number number of daily deaths, something that was shocking just one year ago and now is barely mentioned. There was at some point an international compassion, solidarity and a sense that what is going on affects all of us, but this also seems gone now. Every country seeks to reign within the small confines of its borders and the prospect of returning to a life as it was before seems to be the best thing we can hope for. Muster up the courage and carry on.
Trying to grasp
I think it is worth trying to take a step back and make yourself aware of the sheer scale of this crisis hyper-object that is all around us. Countless dashboards promise scientific accuracy and rigor, but there is loss and mourning that is not captured by meticulous data-gathering.
I did the most stupidly simple thing I could imagine: Count out the numbers. Not aggregate them, or try to make sense of them, deduce some clever insights to show myself how well prepared I am. Just count them out.
I did this in the way I know how to do those things, by creating a small web page that is as self-contained as possible. You can find the result at https://arnes.space/pages/dimensions-of-covid.
It is a single HTML-file without any external resources like stylesheets, fonts or images. The data is regularly fetched from https://covid-19.datasettes.com, which provides a simple way to query data gathered and provided by the Johns Hopkins University Center for Systems Science and Engineering. The data is saved in a local SQLite database and queried in a Lua script, which draws one dot for each person that died globally.
I'm not sure if the page has a similar effect on anybody else or if I, as its author, am looking at it from a unique perspective, but I found its effect quite profound. A couple of observations that I want to note:
- The page is generated quicker than I care for, in a split-second. Rendering the document takes most of the time and broke on my mobile phone, which appeared to load the page endlessly.
- The resulting document has a size of roughly 15MB for just text.
- Scrolling breaks in multiple ways and makes navigating hard. It probably makes no sense to navigate at all in something which seems endless.
- The text disappears and reappears in Chromium-based browsers while trying to move around on the page.
- The patterns formed by the dots cause slight optical illusions.
I don't think that this is amazingly clever. Quite the contrary actually, it is something very very simple that gave me a tool for thought. The result of this little process, of literally just counting and pointing out something that has been all around me, has properties reflecting the crisis and its effects, especially my felt disability of trying to come to terms with it in my day-to-day. In doing so it feels like it forces everything to slow down.
The data will continue to be updated daily and I plan to keep the page up and running. I hope to continue to find time and for small experiments like these, I'm sure I'll find other occasions.
If you are interested in the source code please take a look at https://git.arnes.space/arne/wtf.nein.dimensions-of-covid.
PS: The website has been up for a while now and I realize that even this computer-crashing amount of dots is too small. The given number describes the officially confirmed deaths, and there are other estimates that place the true number much higher. I have changed the wording to reflect that.