City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

1: Writing the coronavirus to memory

Written in


Afternoon walk, Stockholm 17 March 2020

Observing, listening and writing, as a way of remembering the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic, from within the midst of the slowdown.

Writing to memory

The impact of this virus is pitched somewhere between the common cold and the end of capitalism, and no one knows exactly where.

That, and the ceaseless torrent of both events and discussion about the events, makes it difficult to write about. As a result, these articles hover between personal reflection, cultural observation, and possible insights for policy, design, and action, without ever really settling.

This is not a time for conclusions, though. I refuse to offer up strategies, or ideas here. It is not the time or the place: people are dying and I’m not a doctor. The situation is too complex to carelessly stumble into. It would be like hurling a PDF at a hurricane.

Not that the strategies, or ideas, don’t exist. The ‘day job’, and much of the evening discussion within my extended professional community, who are split across varying degrees of lockdown across most timezones, is spent discussing, devising, and reviewing, whilst increasingly trying to avoid a spitting firehose of speculation about ‘teachable moments’.

So while my ‘day job’ is full of attempted interventions, as is yours if you have one, I suspect the best thing I can do here is to listen, observe, discuss, try to learn, to understand, to frame questions, and to find the time and space to reflect. Writing is a good way of forcing these acts. I was particularly inspired by Jessica Helfand’s meditations on looking and reflecting, but also a simple tweet from John Thackara gently imploring us to S L O W D O W N.

As Joe Moran says, “First you write a sentence …”. But this kind of writing is also, by definition, open and unfinished. It’s also worth noting that it was written almost exclusively late at night, and the words would probably benefit from daylight as much as they would an editor.

It feels hugely egotistical to publish anything right now (although I’m not exactly a French writer in a country home.) Yet I’ve found myself returning time after time to the piece I wrote from the 2011 Queensland floods, not because it is exceptional, but to learn from what I chose to write down at the time, and to reflect upon what followed. I’m publishing these ‘papers’ in order to share ways of seeing, ways of thinking. But I’m also writing in order to not forget, forcing the deceptively simple act of putting one word in front of another as a way of figuring out what to look for in the blazing environment around us.

“One person writing in a quiet room, trying to connect with another person, reading in another quiet — or maybe not so quiet — room … But in the end, stories are about one person saying to another: This is the way it feels to me. Can you understand what I’m saying? Does it also feel this way to you?” — Kazuo Ishiguro, Nobel lecture, 7 December 2017

How to read these papers

These are a series of observations, reflections and ideas, emerging from my view of the early impact of the coronavirus COVID–19 pandemic in the first quarter of 2020, but following the Australian bushfires over Christmas 2019. They were first published on 6 April, but will no doubt be updated and extended. The following papers work in sequence, but you might also skip to the section that most appeals to you:

1: Writing to memory

Observing, listening and writing, as a way of remembering the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic, from within the midst of the slowdown.

2: The pitiless crowbar of events

How will we remember the coronavirus? While we are ‘flattening the curve’, how can we think about the curves beyond?

3: Remember the bushfires to remember the virus

The Australian bushfires and floods as harbingers of the coronavirus, and a world wearing masks and blinkers.

4: We make the virus and the virus makes us

The reversed dynamics of coronavirus and climate, and how the destruction of biodiversity that created the climate crisis probably also created the virus.

5: The curves beyond the curve

Flattening the curve on corona, squeezing the curve on climate.

6: A language in crisis

How key words, phrases and concepts are being bent out of shape by the coronavirus, shaping how we think about what follows.

7: Cultures of decision-making, in Sweden and beyond

Sweden’s ‘Middle Way’ approach to the coronavirus, democracy as a political system for people who are not sure that they are right, and the role of trust, expertise and citizenship, as compared with other Nordics, Taiwan and China.

8: An A/B test on our way of life

The lumpiness of history, how events change the world, World A versus World B, and six questions to prompt reflections about what the coronavirus might mean.

9: The restoration

The coronavirus immediate creates a restored and regenerative environment, and the Slowdown starts to create new habits.

10: Another Green World

Slow cities, flightshame, fast and slow layers, energy use maps the permanent weekend, the acceptance of essential infrastructures and Universal Basic Services, and is the coronavirus forcing us to sketch new forms of governance?

11: Post-traumatic urbanism and radical indigenism

How cities post-coronavirus can benefit from the distributed patterns of post-traumatic urbanism meeting radical indigenism, Wakanda meeting Aalto, and ‘Lo-TEK’ nature-based technologies meeting contemporary infrastructures.

12: Between the roots and the stars

Another green world lying just beneath ours; what our response to the coronavirus can learn from the night sky after Katrina, a 6000 year-old eel machine in Victoria, and a spruce tree in Sweden.


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