In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2011 film Contagion saw a second reception. It was 2020, and a newly quarantined viewership experienced Contagion as if gazing into a forgotten scrying glass: the film quickly became one of the most streamed titles in the United States. Directed by Steven Soderbergh, Contagion narrates the emergence of a novel pathogen in China and its spread throughout the world as it infects and kills millions, inciting panic, crime, grift and misery. The film’s omnipresent perspective flits between cities and continents, allowing viewers to inspect civilization’s vulnerabilities with clinical indifference. Supply lines sputter and stall. Hospitals are inundated. Grocery aisles are pillaged. Prom is canceled. The illness, we learn, is viral, highly infectious and presents with a mix of neurologic and respiratory symptoms. Various agency officials thanklessly manage the public’s apprehension and paranoia while encouraging strange practices like “social distancing,” which buy time for the relevant experts to trace and classify the virus. Not soon enough, a vaccine is developed and distributed among the global population, albeit very unevenly.
At the height of the outbreak, you could not read a review or synopsis of Contagion without spying at least one variant of “prescience.” The word could only seem appropriate to those who had been blindsided by the pandemic, ignorant of what were nearly foregone conclusions of epidemiology decades before COVID-19 began to spread. (I for one was surprised to learn how much researchers had predicted: that the next pandemic would probably involve a zoonotic airborne virus, cause respiratory infection, originate in Southeast Asia, infect hundreds of millions of people and otherwise cripple a society that was not ready for it.) To imagine a convincing pandemic scenario, screenwriter Scott Z. Burns had consulted extensively with epidemiologists, virologists, science writers and public health experts from the CDC and World Health Organization. What viewers regarded as pre-science was evidently just science.
Contagion is a paradigmatic example of what I call the “technical disaster movie,” a genre that has grown in popularity with American viewers since the financial crisis of 2008. Unlike the schlockier disaster porn that precedes it, the technical disaster movie depicts a real or realistic catastrophe that is in principle avoidable. Their carnage and destruction are never existential horrors or acts of God; they are the consequences of human complacency, stupidity or resignation. The central disaster always entails two component emergencies: one material, the other epistemic. These emergencies share an origin but propagate through different media: one through flesh, concrete, money; the other through minds, language, knowledge.
Two other recent entries in this genre are found in J. C. Chandor’s Margin Call (2011) and the HBO series Chernobyl (2019), created by Craig Mazin. Margin Call is an oblique retelling of the beginnings of the 2008 financial crisis, when risk-management associate Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto) discovers that the investment bank he works for is poised to be the first fallen domino in a global economic collapse. The action of the film elapses over 36 hours, as the firm’s upper management, including the conflicted Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey) and the ruthless CEO John Tuld (Jeremy Irons) ultimately decide to sell off their failing assets to unsuspecting counterparties. Chernobyl, meanwhile, dramatizes the 1986 crisis surrounding the ruptured nuclear reactor near Kopachi, in what was then Soviet Ukraine. At the direction of General Secretary Gorbachev (David Dencik), the lauded physicist Valery Legasov (Jared Harris) accompanies Deputy Chairman Boris Shcherbina (Stellan Skarsgård) to a damaged nuclear power plant, which threatens to kill millions and render vast stretches of Eastern Europe uninhabitable for over a century. The series relates the struggles of Legasov, Shcherbina and physicist Ulana Khomyuk (Emily Watson) to compel the Soviet state to rectify the worst nuclear disaster in history.
The public in these films is defined by its ignorance of certain domains of expertise—epidemiology (Contagion), nuclear engineering (Chernobyl), structured finance (Margin Call)—which renders the disaster functionally invisible. What is at first a literal invisibility (no one can directly perceive nanoscopic viruses, poisonous radionuclides or ailing mortgage bonds) quickly assumes a cognitive complexion. What people know, don’t know and think they know is what determines their fate.
The invisibility of the disaster presents a serious difficulty to the filmmakers, who need their viewers to perceive it as the expert does. Their ingenious solution is found in the technical disaster movie’s pronounced ambience: the bustled score and sweaty palettes of Contagion; Chernobyl’s ghostly clanks and drones; the blare of Bloomberg terminals and pristine skylines of Margin Call. Through these effects, viewers are invited to pretend we know things we manifestly do not. We work through the night with Sullivan as he discovers his financial firm’s impending demise, study his stubbled face as he looks up from his illegible scrawl of equations before a pulsing monotone—and we simply know he’s uncovered something. The camera of Contagion fixates upon “fomites” (common objects that facilitate disease transmission), such that we learn to almost see viruses slithering over bus handles, glassware and casino chips. Chernobyl represents the presence of radiation with the throaty static of dosimeters (audible radiological instruments) that is often so loud and unnerving we forget we don’t exactly know what the sound means. Technical knowledge becomes an artificial sensorium, a collage of abstractions forced onto the nerve endings, always attempting to compensate for its baselessness.
How else but through illusion might we expect the average viewer to grasp a perspective rooted in a lifetime of training and inquiry? Besides, the viewer’s ignorance is vital to the intended experience of these films. It’s what secures their interest in the expert character, who is essentially an oracle, and an oracle without inaccessible, suprahuman wisdom loses all allure. The oracle is elevated by knowledge—to the mountaintop temples or the heights of abstraction—forming a triangular relationship with the layman and viewer. These films study this arrangement in moments of crisis, of immense pressure that reveal to us its great strengths and neglected flaws.
The experts are the protagonists of the technical disaster movie. Their knowledge of the unfolding calamity provides foresight, clarity and power when others are blind, bewildered and inert. It also positions them as unlikely moral consciences, outspoken truth-tellers in uncaring systems, averse to rationalization and capable of great sacrifice. Dr. Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) of Contagion gives his one personal vaccine dose to the son of a CDC janitor; Chernobyl’s Legasov travels “willingly to an open reactor” knowing it will truncate his lifespan.
Despite their generous humanity, the experts struggle to navigate human affairs; politics and etiquette, mostly. They make for atrocious consultants. Asked for the clear and actionable, they hold to nuance and offer vague probabilities, delivering their recommendations with an overweening arithmetic precision. Advised to remain silent, they talk, overstep, compulsively and unhelpfully. They are flustered by the implicit certitudes and ambiguities of common speech and seem truly fluent only in the argot of their fields. They seem most themselves when they are impossible to understand.
The films’ use of jargon illustrates this incongruity within the expert character. In Margin Call technical language is deployed artfully, as a kind of dialect. The senior trader Will Emerson (Paul Bettany) describes how violating the firm’s risk limits places them in a precarious financial situation: “We’re now so levered up, that once it gets outside of these limits, it gets ugly in a hurry.”1 It’s a daring line, inserted into a pivotal clarification of how the firm’s debt renders it especially vulnerable to the market. Bettany’s casual delivery bespeaks his character’s facility with the concept of leverage, and its counterpoint of technical slang with gruff idiom captures how technical communities actually talk—informally, like the rest of us do. But the pitch-perfect dialogue only further insulates its meaning from the viewer, who must decode it twice over. The film cannot do it for them, because explaining technical language destroys its potential to characterize those who use it. It’s a strange dualism common to these films. The experts can be recognized as social beings or custodians of knowledge, but never both at once.
Another defining feature of the expert-protagonist: they’re always exhausted. Actors play experts asleep on their desks, leaning against windows, rubbing their eyes, nursing coffee, splashing their faces with water. In the unlikely historic situations in which these films are set, their exhaustion is a result of the expert’s burden, the narrow but sublime intellectual competency that is suddenly invaluable to society. It’s a running gag in Margin Call that Sullivan, a former “rocket scientist” lured to Wall Street by money, is one of maybe three employees who fully grasp the risk models that guide his firm’s day-to-day business. In Chernobyl, Legasov is recruited into the disaster response explicitly because his specialization (nuclear physics and reactor design, with a focus on the exact model used at the damaged power plant) perfectly matches the dimensions of the crisis. Both the film and the show underscore the irreplaceability of their expert protagonists by placing crucial technical information in their possession (respectively, the unreliability of “volatility index limits” at the financial firm; a dangerous flaw in the reactor’s emergency-shutdown mechanism).
Understanding these arcana and translating them for the public are key to resolving the disaster at hand—or preventing another like it. Yet they are relayed among experts in confidence—in lowered tones, in nearly empty rooms. Both Margin Call and Chernobyl construct practically the same exchange between a more experienced expert and their younger colleague. Legasov asks Khomyuk to investigate why the reactor exploded, pointing her in the direction of the classified information he already knows. After being laid off, Sullivan’s boss hands him a flash drive with the risk analysis showing the firm’s imminent demise. Both seasoned experts deliver the same warning verbatim: “Be careful.”
An absurdity arises when technical knowledge is brought into the public square or the offices of the powerful. The rising action of the epistemic emergency corresponds to the resistance the experts encounter when they try to communicate their findings, mostly because it reveals embarrassing secrets about state and society. The friction builds to a critical moment, when the expert at last delivers the “grave explanation,” a trope of the genre. These are climactic scenes when skeptical parties are forced to heed technical authority, and in the nick of time.
Chernobyl relies heavily on these scenes, the most dramatic of which shows Legasov and Khomyuk reporting to Gorbachev that the sand and boron used by the Soviet military to smother the reactor fire had formed a “kind of lava,” which was melting through the concrete shield beneath the reactor toward a series of large water tanks. Khomyuk describes the unthinkable consequences in her typically methodical manner:
When the lava enters these tanks, it will instantly superheat and vaporize approximately seven thousand cubic meters of water, causing a significant thermal explosion. … Everything within a thirty-kilometer radius will be completely destroyed, including the three remaining reactors at Chernobyl. The entirety of the radioactive material in all of the [reactor] cores will be ejected, at force, and dispersed by a massive shock wave, which will extend approximately two hundred kilometers and likely be fatal to the entire population of Kiev, as well as a portion of Minsk. The release of radiation will be severe and will impact all of Soviet Ukraine, Latvia, Lithuania, Byelorussia, as well as Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania and most of East Germany.
The leader of the Soviet Union cannot find even an appropriate posture in response, shifting uneasily before throwing up his hands in bewilderment. Likewise, in Contagion, when epidemiologist Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) describes to a touchy public official how a recent spate of infections will develop into an epidemic, the official can only think to remind Mears that releasing such information to the public would cause panic and economic contraction. Whether under Soviet Communism or the liberal capitalist order, there are no effective mechanisms for bringing the depth of specialized knowledge to public consciousness. The calamities beggar belief because the knowledge that unveils them seems to have been developed in seclusion, secret to all but a collection of elite minds.
Just as the expert is ennobled in the technical disaster movie, his responsibilities expanded by dire circumstance, so too is the ordinary person demoted and infantilized. Each entry has its surrogates for the layman; those whom Margin Call calls “normal people,” represented by janitors, plumbers, valets, firefighters or the pedestrian masses. Inevitably, they all exhibit the same characteristics: desperation, superstition, panic and an ignorance that tends to self-destruction. They cannot be anything but numbers, vectors, collateral, victims. They are never so lucky as to receive knowledge when it still matters.
In Contagion, that proxy for the everyman is Mitch Emhoff (Matt Damon), a devoted husband and father who learns that his wife has died of unknown causes. (The viewer, however, knows it was the virus.) Seeing Emhoff is in shock, the uneasy doctor can only offer him speculative diagnoses:
My best guess is that this was either meningitis or encephalitis, and with encephalitis, we’re in the dark a lot of the time. If it was summer, I might say a bug bite, West Nile… Herpes can cause encephalitis.
Emhoff explodes, “She didn’t have herpes! What are you talking about? What happened to her?! What happened to her?!” The doctor reluctantly assumes the role of a secular priest (the most disappointing kind). He knows his postmortem guesswork is a meager offering, but he gives what he has. Emhoff, beside himself, demands the explanation he believes he is owed, as though it would resurrect his wife or allay his grief. At his most helpless, the layman can only repair to his childlike illusions, in which expertise is a form of magic.
The layman’s confusion is a largely inevitable consequence of how technical knowledge is organized. Modern expertise is the product of specialization, the division of labor applied to knowledge production and scholarly pursuit. The specialist sacrifices scope for depth, synthesis for mechanism, wonder for understanding. Today’s budding scholar recapitulates the historic course of specialization in their field, walks a fussy branching path to the edge of human knowledge, where they begin the lonely work of carving out a humble contribution to the enterprise. One might set out as an awestruck biology student only to end a lustrous research career as an international authority on the folding of a class of protein.
Specialization is also a means for organizing knowledge within and across institutions (universities, museums, professional associations, etc.). This system, first realized in the European sciences in the early nineteenth century, has had undeniable benefits—greater efficiency and productivity among them. By 1917, this scientific reorganization had proved so effective that Max Weber proclaimed that “science has entered a stage of specialization that has no precedent and that will continue for all time.” Weber only failed to predict how quickly specialization would be adopted by disciplines beyond the sciences and the academy generally.
Even during its ascendancy, specialization had some drawbacks that even its own champions acknowledged—among them Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill and Auguste Comte (who reportedly coined the French word spécialisation). Much as it did to laborers toiling on a production line, specialization threatened to reduce researchers into cognitive machines, confining their intellect, dulling their acuity, while diminishing their capacity to understand and communicate with one another.
Around the same time, a more principled resistance to specialization emerged in the United States, where the arrows of critique were slung from well outside the sciences. The historian John Higham, in his instructive 1979 essay “The Matrix of Specialization,” observed that American intellectuals in the nineteenth century worried that specialization might vitiate against domestic values such as self-governance and the belief in the “omnicompetence” of the average citizen. The individualist sensibility that penetrated American culture naturally rejected a scheme that parceled out “work or knowledge, so that the responsibility of each person contracts while his dependence on others increases.” The ideal “intellectual specialist” created in the process, Higham noted, “affronted [American] egalitarian values: he dealt in secrets only a few could share.”
Yet between 1860 and 1920 the American opposition to specialization basically folded. Partly because of the complacency of manner-school professors who might have better defended generalism, partly because many American scientists envied the great successes of their eminently theoretical and specialized European competitors, American science shifted away from its “addiction to a narrow factuality” and “excessive concentration on practical applications” toward the specialized organization of knowledge and the so-called “German” model of the research university. What Higham called the “matrix of specialization” was built over a single generation of academics who “sought to purify science and scholarship (as well as art and literature) by making those enterprises more rigorous and sophisticated and thus removing them from common understanding and participation.” By the time Weber issued his famous proclamation, the institutions of American science, more prestigious than ever, had become a peerless bastion of specialization. Roughly a century later, the body of technical knowledge has grown considerably, along with the public’s ignorance of it.
The makers of the technical disaster movie inherit this epistemic rift between experts and the public, only to find they can barely begin to mend it. Whenever a technical element must be communicated to the viewer, they rather ham-fistedly signal that an important lesson in physics, biology or finance is forthcoming. Dr. Mears of Contagion takes to a whiteboard to define the basic variables of disease transmission. The last episode of Chernobyl is basically a protracted lecture—complete with a diorama and color-coded flashcards—given by the scientists during a trial for power-plant officials. The viewer is addressed as a student, and not a particularly bright one.
It’s tempting to chalk this up to incompetence or cynicism. But there’s also, as Higham intuited, something about technical knowledge that makes it excessively difficult to fully communicate to ordinary people or their leaders. Margin Call uses its physical setting—a Manhattan skyscraper—to brilliantly illustrate how Sullivan’s technical insight (i.e. the historic market patterns that underlie the firm’s acceptable volatility boundaries are being tested by recent trends in the housing sector), is elevated literally, floor by floor, and organizationally, boss by boss, and at each stage is summarized and simplified according to the priorities of that authority. By the time that knowledge has reached the highest floor, the executive conference room where Sullivan is instructed by the CEO (Jeremy Irons) to describe the problem, “speak[ing] as you might to a young child.” Irons’s character further glosses the matter, presumably for the viewer’s sake: “The music is about to stop and we’re going to be left holding the biggest bag of odorous excrement ever assembled in the history of capitalism.” The viewer is left with a murky and reductive metaphor, but they have also witnessed the processes of reduction and the social realities that necessitate it.
Make no mistake: the truth of any technical matter undergoes a similar filtration when it is disseminated to the actual public, government officials or within private institutions. The raw facts, the data, when they reach you, have been neatly ordered, interpreted and summarized for your benefit. Such is the cost and convenience of living in modernized society; to “trust the experts” and their liaisons not out of goodwill but stark necessity. But only during technical disasters, storied and real, can the full severity of this bargain be recognized: a technical elite will accept an unfathomable responsibility in exchange for the public’s unwavering trust and obedience. The citizen and his representatives are asked to forget the many instances in which experts have been grievously mistaken, and to overlook that many disasters now originate in the cloisters of technical institutions (the disasters of both Chernobyl and Margin Call are expert-made.) There is no time to consider past errors.
I don’t mean to suggest that we shouldn’t accept the guidance of experts. We have to. But we could reexamine how and why this social necessity emerged, especially when so much popular media is content to simply chastise the skeptical layman for not upholding their end of the irrefusable bargain. This was recently exemplified in Adam McKay’s Don’t Look Up, an unbearably stupid allegory for climate-change denial in which two astronomers discover an Earth-bound comet that will destroy human civilization and most life on the planet. As they try to inform the public of the coming apocalypse, the astronomers are ritually ignored from all quarters of society—a manic political class; a glib media; shallow celebrities; a droolingly stupid public; and a pseudo-intellectual capitalist cult leader. The film cloaks itself in Cassandrian garb but only serves to vindicate liberals and progressives who want to unearth an ancient idea about disasters: that they are punishment. McKay’s film carries forward the logic of the technical disaster movie, but only after perverting it into a petty morality play, where the catastrophe is the only natural fate of a society so aloof and disdainful of expertise. Don’t Look Up manages to partake in the lethal incuriousness it means to bemoan by finding the suspicion of experts to be a moral failing, rather than a manifestation of the structure of technical knowledge itself.
In “The Matrix of Specialization,” Higham expressed optimism that the institutions of American science, in refashioning themselves along European lines, would make the necessary adjustments to accommodate the “egalitarian requirements of American society.” But the reconciliation Higham described only ever occurred within technical institutions, mostly universities, and not at the level of society. The challenge that specialization posed to the democratic ethos of the country has remained intact.
I feel confident in contradicting Higham only because we live a century after the profound reorganization he chronicled, at a time when the relations between the technical elite and the civil population are rapidly deteriorating. What Tom Nichols has called the “death of expertise” is routinely attributed, under different names, to the politicization of science, the overabundance of information online and the erosion of journalistic and academic standards. But these are surface expressions of a deeper instability. Specialized knowledge progresses in a sort of fractal pattern, further departing from commonsense understanding as it reaches deeper into nature, reticulating endlessly at ever greater resolution. Its complexity and abstraction are always rising. But it also works, bringing us closer to what is apparently true about our world. And what works reliably makes its way into the mechanisms of society. The theory that earthquakes are the result of faulting is developed and tested until it becomes the basis of building codes. Likewise, securitization is prototyped and refined by bankers and economists until it becomes a mainstay of the global financial system.
As a consequence, the basic workings of society become increasingly difficult for the expert to communicate and for the ordinary person to comprehend. More than ever, the fault lines that Higham identified between specialization and democracy tremble through contemporary politics. Inarticulate cries against the technocracy emanate from both the left and right in an endless concatenation of controversies at the intersection of technical knowledge and social function: over the seriousness of the novel coronavirus; over the reality of climate change; over vaccines new (mRNA) and old (MMR); over the non-ionizing radiation of cell phones; over embryonic stem cell research; over Remdesivir, Hydroxychloroquine and Ivermectin; over the safety of nuclear power; over wind-turbine syndrome; over nicotine vaporization; over genetically modified crops; over monosodium glutamate; over financial derivatives; over human gene editing; over glyphosate-based herbicides; over pasteurization; over neural network algorithms; over the fluoridation of potable water; over polytetrafluoroethylene (Teflon). Is it possible for a citizen to inform themselves about any one of these topics? Of course. But some of them? Most? All?
The public rage against specialists is rightly perceived as a rejection of their hard-won expertise. But I suspect these outbursts stem from a shared impression that our world is becoming impossible to understand in a remotely unified manner. For the ordinary person to think about any subject is to sense the burrows of specialization beneath her feet, dug ever deeper to bedrock by dedicated specialists who know more about their narrow tunnels than she ever could. What is the point of learning if the smallest truth is always already someone else’s life’s work? One feels relegated to the mere surface of things; necessarily stupid. This is not only infuriating but also makes it increasingly difficult to participate in the governance of our gleaming technological society.
The technical disaster movie and the real events that inspire it serve as the most advanced expression of this social reality. Yet we will never find within these films a way out of the problem they uncover. The project of synthesizing technical knowledge into broader social concern, much like specialization, is a long collective haul—and we lag far behind the progress of knowledge. Until then, the expert class will remain in the unenviable position of convincing the public, with every compounding crisis, that ours is a technocracy of necessity.