The VICE Channels

    The Other Flu Epidemic: Information

    Written by

    Michael Byrne


    Here's a thing: I don't remember the flu being ever scary as a kid (which would have been through about 1993, for reference). Maybe it's still not scary for kids, because things are just a lot less scary in general. And at some point, everything just gets a bit darker. But it's not unreasonable to say that the flu, for everyone, has gotten a bit darker over the past two decades for some potent reasons: information (the internet), an aging and more vulnerable population, relatively cheap travel (from and to places with booming swine flus), and those new and even more deadly strains we've been hearing so much about.

    So, an interesting thing happens when the flu starts going around--in the media, social media, your body: it gets darker supernaturally fast, following a steep curve from the inconvenience you remember it as as a kid, to a looming specter with civilization-crushing capabilities. This year's flu season is pretty epic--hence why you're reading about it here and everywhere else--but the flu over recent years hasn't been surging in an overall trend sense. It remains a wildly fluctuating thing dictated by whatever that year's particular strain is all about. This year's, for example, is a beast. But '09/'10 and '10/'11 had notable spikes-from-average as well.

    Likely buoyed by the fact that my household doesn't currently doesn't host the flu, what's interesting to me about this year is the literal overnight explosion of it an information sense. As a kid I wasn't able to see that half of my friends are currently laid up in a great deal of misery, nor a bottomless pool of media sources all reporting the Big Flu Story and highlighting only the most deadly angles. If that's not enough, you can tune into a new handy search-based Google Map of flu data. Indeed, it's all red, but we've also never had a public-friendly map to tune into before.

    So, while it's true that a whole lot of people have a flu and we may be facing an epidemic in which people die, all of that is magnified in a pretty new, interesting way. Search-based data faces the likelihood of being skewed by a feedback loop of sorts, with the map itself (and other media) increasing search queries for flu (even among non-sick users) and, in turn, reddening the map more, particularly if the current explosion of internet-based medicine continues apace.  

    Flu will probably never be a casual thing again, and not just because massive numbers of Americans are heading toward the age threshold where flu becomes very top serious and there's also a super-deadly strain of bird flu out there waiting for a crucial, doomful mutation (or, much less likely, someone to steal that mutated form from a lab). The flu has acquired a whole new transmission vector that doesn't leave much space between bummer sick day and threatening civilization.  

    Reach this writer at michaelb@motherboard.tv