Distraction Free Reading

40: Quarantine & The Origins of Computation

Quarantine is a number. Quarantine was the name given to the strategy of isolating potentially harmful populations for forty days in an effort to impede potential dangers. Deriving from the Italian word for forty (quaranta), alongside quarantines there existed the trentine (thirty) and sessantine (sixty), each defined by the number of days of mandated isolation. The word took its meaning following the Black Death and subsequent waves of plague. It was first legally enforced in Ragusa (Dubrovnik today) in 1377. Today, especially at this precise moment, quarantine is rather estranged from this history. Isolation is still a key element, but the numerical specificity has been lost and it now targets both the potentially vulnerable (those predisposed to illness)  as well as potentially harmful populations (asymptomatic carriers).

Plague-stricken Europeans did not invent the strategy of isolating potentially harmful populations, but 14th century Italian-speakers are responsible for the name it currently bears and the programmatic, numerated duration of the isolation. In its most common iteration quarantine was mandated for travelers entering a city during a plague outbreak or threat of one, whereupon they may be forced into an enclosure or remain in their vessels for forty days. There is not widespread agreement on why forty days became favored over thirty days. Some suggest that the forty days of isolation was meant to mirror the forty days of Lent, others that it was simply more medically effective (Crawshaw 2012).

Waterfront Lazzaretto in Ancona Italy

Lazzaretto of Ancona (Google Earth)

This procedure is frequently lauded by historians for demonstrating a remedial appreciation for communicability and contagion. However, assessing the success of quarantines from the 14th to 19th centuries isn’t so straightforward. Quarantine certainly did not stop the nearly decadal recurrence of plague over the roughly four centuries it was endemic to Europe (though arguably many individual lives were saved in densely populated regions). If the success of quarantine is measured by its ability to maintain the prevailing social order and perpetuate the structures and organizing paradigms of society, then the strategy appears to have failed unambiguously. From 1377 to the last continental European plague quarantine in 1772 (Moscow), European society was transformed in nearly every facet. While Christianity remained a source of social values, its character was altered severely. Indeed, Crawshaw (2012) suggests quarantine programs were propaganda in the Church’s efforts to stem widespread revolt. Carmichael further argues that plague control measures opened up new opportunities to program and predict the behavior of the poor and property-less (1986).

One might suggest the sweeping social changes that laid the groundwork for the industrial revolution are less an indication of the failure of quarantine than the “success” of the printing press, Reformation, banking, maritime shipping, or the scientific revolution. However, these developments were themselves contingent upon the widespread use of, trust in, and acceptance of a computational reality epitomized by quarantine.


Though its actual etymology derives from a mangled transliteration of Arabic (al-Khwarizmi), the word algorithm has a convenient homophonic resonance with the prefix algo- (pain) and rhythm (measured flow or time). Given their contemporary deployment to police, surveil, discriminate, exploit, and plunder, one could argue that this is precisely what algorithms are: painful measures. Quarantine is such an algorithm (and algorhythm). It is an early example of computationally determined governance decisions. That is, quarantine defers the responsibility of socio-political conversation regarding well-being to the inhuman output of a numerical program. Doctors considered plague a major calamity, in the same category as earthquakes or floods, therefore not within their jurisdiction (Blažina-Tomić 2015). Beyond human responsibility, a program was written to ascertain the reality of plague and infection.

Like the ubiquitous line of programming code “If…Then,” quarantine compresses data (bodies, immune systems, time, communicability, etc.) into a set of pre-determined possible outputs and responses. A potentially infected human is run through a function (isolation for a number of days). After running the program, a binary conclusion is reached regarding the infectious status of the individual—positive or negative—that determines subsequent social responses. This dehumanized output of the observational apparatus is deemed the reality.

The numerical determinism of quarantine demanded a shift in thinking (in producing knowledge):

In order to arrive at preventive isolation, a major leap of knowledge was necessary: the notion of incubation [time]…Quarantine requires the isolation of apparently healthy individuals who could be potential disease carriers…. Whether healthy or sick at the moment of arrival [visitors] had to be isolated (Blažina-Tomić 2015, 107-108).

Unlike other traditional portents used for diagnostics (some relying on numbers—dice, tarot, horoscopy), quarantine could be reprogrammed to isolate for different durations and operate on different objects (symptomatic individuals, family of victims, travelers). Whatever the parameters, however, upon running the quarantine program, individual responsibility toward the ill was deferred to the machinic responsibility of quarantine. Kockelman’s anthropology of algorithms similarly discusses the utility of devices for separating the desired from the undesired (2013). This is what the programming of quarantine accomplished during plague outbreaks, with time serving as the “sieve” that does the separating.

Waterfront lazzaretto in Malta with many modern yachts

Lazzaretto of Malta (Google Earth)

Exceptional States

Most histories of computing begin with the programmable punch-cards of the Jacquard Loom at the turn of the 19th century. Ada Lovelace had the Loom in mind when writing what many consider the first computer program (for use with Babbage’s Analytical Engine). The underlying concept has not changed much since. The programming for Jacquard’s Loom was binary. A punch-card would be fed through a “reader” that discerned the presence or absence of a hole, and based on this binary difference would behave as programmed—If [a hole]…Then [weave], If [not hole]…Then [don’t weave]. The plague quarantines of Europe operated on a similar binary premise. Quarantine “read” the presence or absence of infection and based on this interpretation determined subsequent action.

This basic logic underlies algorithmic governance (rule by decision-making programs; by If…Then coding). Chandler argues that algorithmic governing voids public-political responsibility, “The management of [output]… evades the question of responsibility or accountability for problems or the need to intervene on the basis of government as a form of political decision-making” (2019, 25). Do the “analog” determinations of quarantine plant the seeds for Chandler’s irresponsible algorithmic governance?

Agamben, drawing on Foucault, has suggested present forms of dehumanized algorithmic governance derive from the “state of exception” epitomized by the response to the September 11th, 2001 attacks in the U.S. This state of exception (the supposed omnipresent threat of terrorism) is used to justify increased securitization, surveillance, and depoliticization (undemocratic policies). While Agamben argues that this state of exception has not abated since 9/11, perhaps his gaze could stretch back a bit further to the far more exceptional state of omnipresent plague threats that lingered over Europe for four-hundred years after the Black Death. Indeed, Foucault’s tracing of bureaucratic efforts to control plague in the 17th century echo the surveillance measures enacted by today’s algorithmic state—the accumulation of data as a basis for behavioral projection (be it the NSA, Cambridge Analytica, or Google).

The proliferation of quarantine suggests a growing belief that individual human behavior can be detached from responsibility and an increased belief in coincidence concurrent with a diminishing sense of meaning. Quarantine ushered in era of programmatic dehumanization, of algorithmic and mechanistic thinking, of quantified control. These are the preconditions necessary for the violence of colonial capitalism, and there is nothing more exceptional than the performance of capitalism—the pursuit of perpetually accelerating economic growth. The history of capital is the history of an exception. The history of capital is inhuman; it is algorithmic.

Island lazzaretto of Venice

Lazzaretto of Venice (Google Earth)

The Future of Pain

Since the outbreak of COVID-19, Agamben has extended his argument toward efforts to contain the pandemic, railing against state-mandated isolation and monitoring systems. He has suggested current quarantine measures are a retreat toward “bare-life”—a way of life concerned only with basic survival as opposed to life as fulfillment. The blowback against Agamben has been severe. His arguments against the biopolitical apparatus of control unleashed during the pandemic have been seen as callous and out-of-touch. With the clarity of hindsight, he was demonstrably incorrect about the severity of the pandemic, but more interestingly, Agamben’s stance denotes a misapprehension of the scales at which “exceptional” and “normal” are being negotiated.

If Agamben characterized the state of exception not as a multi-decade condition beginning with 9/11, but as a multi-century affair spanning the history of colonial capitalism, his response to today’s efforts to contain COVID may not be so reactionary. The adjustments to life Agamben bemoans are not only petty in respect to the danger imposed by the virus, but bespeak a bourgeois way of life normalized by the practice of capitalism. The fulfilling life he contrasts to bare-life is replete with the middle-class pleasures of cafés, theaters, and Victorian gardens. As pleasurable as these artifacts may be, they are tightly monitored and controlled conduits for (profit-accumulating) socialization circumscribed by the borders of capitalism. The program Agamben is fighting for needs to be rebooted, not debugged.

The 2020 “reboot” of quarantine has entailed a markedly different relationship to responsibility—far more human. The power dynamics are inverted. At least in the U.S., official state authority fears quarantine and the damage it poses to economic growth. Quarantine has been in some small measure a resistance to the status quo. While there are justified fears that contact tracing will continue the algorithmic data accumulation upon which the epistemology of capital thrives, the on-the-ground responsibility for collective well-being during COVID (in regions that have brought the rate of infection down) has been much more inter-personal. Rather than building a machine (quarantine or a contact tracing app) to bear responsibility, individuals existing outside of programmed determinacy (uncertain about their binary relation to infection) are compelled to act as if everyone’s well-being is everyone’s responsibility. This approach is decidedly not binary, not either/or, and for better or worse, is not programmed. If [quarantine_1377]…Then [begin algorithmic governance], If [quarantine_2020]…Then [end algorithmic governance]?


Agamben, Giorgio. 2014. “What is a Destituent Power?” Environ Plan D 32 (1): 65-74.

Blažina-Tomić, Zlata and Vesna Blažina. 2015. Expelling the Plague: The Health Office and the Implementation of Quarantine in Dubrovnik, 1377-1533. Montreal: McGill University Press.

Carmichael, Ann. 1986. Plague and the Poor in Renaissance Florence . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Chandler, David. 2019. “Digital Governance in the Anthropocene:; The Rise of the Correlational Machine.” In Digital Objects, Digital Subjects, edited by David Chandler and Christian Fuchs, 23-42: University of Westminster Press.

Crawshaw, Jane. 2012. Plague Hospitals: Public Health for the City in Early Modern Venice. Burlington: Ashgate.

Kockelman, Paul. 2013. “The Anthropology of an Equation: Sieves, Spam Filters, Agentive Algorithms, and Ontologies of Transformation.” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 3 (3): 33-61.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *