The Rules of Contagion (2020)

Book Review

Kucharski, A. (2020). The Rules of Contagion: Why Things Spread – and Why They Stop. London: Profile Books.

Adam Kucharski’s The Rules of Contagion is perhaps nicely and equally poorly timed in its release, amidst the COVID-19 global pandemic. The text offers insight into contemporary sources of contagion, first, using simple and accessible language to demonstrate the utility and effectiveness of epidemiological approaches to disease pandemics, including ebola, HIV, and influenza. In the latter half of the book, Kucharski attempts to tie disease pathology into economic, behavioural, psychological and technological analyses, extrapolating epidemiological knowledge into formative societal structures and historical events (e.g. the 2008 financial crisis). Most notable about this latter half is the author’s delineation of social media contagion, carefully balancing both the benefits and dangers of online contagion – “going viral” on social media vs. computer viruses. Largely, the book broaches a huge range of epistemological assertions, placing it firmly in the domain of popular science. The book loses steam around chapter three, despite an attempt to create a wide-ranging theory of contagion. As other reviewers have aptly noted, the final two chapters read more like a confirmation and reiteration of contagion – sort of doctoral “case studies” following rigorous and tightly-woven theory. Readers invested in the evolving COVID-19 pandemic will be especially drawn to chapters 1-2. Enthusiasts of pandemics, medical historians, epidemiologists and other pop-science readers might find the book as a whole interesting as a ruminative, though small, addition to academic scholarship on global networks, virality, social media and the Internet.