As virus crashes into technology, all rules have changed

Brock N Meeks
COVID-19 has resulted in a sudden influx of technology in nearly every aspect of our lives. In doing so, it has delivered a stark clarion call to the world
Freelance journalist and former executive editor, Atlantic 57
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed our interaction with technology

COVID-19 has resulted in a sudden influx of technology in nearly every aspect of our lives. In doing so, it has delivered a stark clarion call to the world

In the scramble for a path through the pandemic, the world’s population has turned to technology for solutions to everything – from sustaining relationships to relieving the boredom of isolation to rejuvenating a fractured workforce.

Behaviours across the globe will forever be changed—or even scarred—by how technology is now inextricably tied to that most basic of human desires: survival.

The fallout falls fast

Technology and privacy have always clashed. Compromise between the two leads to an uneasy detente, with each side left jockeying for advantage. The outcome is rarely satisfactory. And so it goes in the era of COVID-19, where tracking information about people, such as their health and geolocation, is now a primary weapon in the arsenal against the disease.

At least 30 countries have implemented contact tracing technology, with the US currently considering it. The early results have been heavy-handed, leading governments to employ tactics such as public shaming (India) and facial recognition (Russia) to dissuade and corral quarantine violators. Such systems won’t magically disappear once the pandemic subsides and the threat to personal privacy from a robust global surveillance operation is now a reality. “People will experience real harm if governments don’t analyse the downsides to these new technologies,” writes Eric Null and Jennifer Brody at Access Now, an international human rights organisation.

Genevieve Bell, director of the Autonomy, Agency, and Assurance Institute at the Australian National University, says: “The speed of the virus and the response it demands shouldn’t seduce us into thinking we need to build solutions that last forever.” She adds there is a strong argument that “much of what we build for this pandemic should have a sunset clause—in particular when it comes to the private, intimate, and community data we might collect.”

Business is tele-booming

Virtually overnight, a massive number of businesses and government organisations were forced to deploy remote working procedures to support their workforces in compliance with social distancing directives. “The crisis has created an imperative to escalate the adoption of new technology across all aspects of life, from e-commerce to remote working and learning tools,” says a McKinsey & Company brief.

In Asia, apps such as Alibaba’s DingTalk, Tencent Meeting and WeChat Work have soared in sync with the spread of the pandemic. Similar stories abound everywhere, as millions of workers worldwide shift to full-time remote work. In the process, they continue to prove that their jobs and productivity can continue without hurting the company’s bottomline, making it difficult for those companies to walkback previous policies that insisted employees work from co-located office spaces.

“This is an inflection point, and we’re going to look back and realise this is where it all changed,” Jared Spataro, a Microsoft executive, said in an online news briefing. “We’re never going to go back to working the way that we did.”

In the US, just about a third of all workers over 15-years-old say they can do their work from home, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And many carried their work home with them, despite not having formal work-from-home arrangements. Only 20% were occasionally paid to work from home.

If this telecommuting trend takes hold, the crisis will provide a stronger case for employers to sustain the trend, Brookings said in a report. It also noted that 20% of chief financial officers surveyed said they planned to keep 20% of their workforce telecommuting in the post-COVID-19 era due to the cost savings it provides.

‘Zoom fatigue’

But there’s a downside ripple in the fabric of this new telecommuting trend: users are burning out over having to attend so many online meetings. The syndrome has been dubbed “Zoom fatigue,” after the popular online conferencing system that skyrocketed to popularity during the early days of social distancing edicts. More people started using the video-conferencing software in the first two months of 2020 than in all of 2019.

“Zoom fatigue is exacerbated by how many interactions seem to have automatically moved to video chat, even if they were useless meetings to begin with, or could have been replaced by an email or a Slack,” according to DigiDay. Things are reaching a point where Zoom is being used even in the case of basic conversations that a normal phone call would have sufficed for, it adds.

Telehealth

As COVID-19 began to take hold, world health officials urged frontline healthcare providers to expand the use of telemedicine services for triage purposes. There was no sense in having routine doctor visits, for example, be in-person and upping the potential for infection in otherwise healthy individuals.

Before the outbreak, telemedicine had been making some in-roads as part of routine medical practice. But the crisis has pushed the technology to the frontlines in the medical communities arsenal being leveraged against COVID-19. It has given the sector the proverbial ‘kick up the backside’.

Telehealth can bring tremendous benefits to healthcare systems, governments and patients, if effectively implemented. It can help take the delivery of healthcare services and consultations to remote, far-flung areas and can help bring down costs. But for it to take root, investments must be made in infrastructure, and efforts made to change mindsets.

Telehealth is an ideal venue for an outbreak like COVID-19, Peter Antall, MD, President and Chief Medical Officer for American Well told mHealth Intelligence. “We can increase access to care. We can offer care that is commensurate with the acuity and nature of the symptoms and make referrals as needed,” he said. “This helps with infection prevention and control and also allows patients to receive their care in the home without exposing themselves to further illness.”

In the US, telemedicine is seen as so vital in the fight against COVID-19 that legislation was passed to waive rules that restrict the use of video services for people on Medicare. It’s a move that will likely not be rolled back once the pandemic passes.

Beyond OTT, entertainment is evolving with music ‘magic’

Prior to COVID-19, concert-goers often paid high prices for the shared experience of seeing their favourite musical acts in a crowded and sometimes raucous venue. With such concert-going experiences now expunged from musical life, performers of all stripe have taken to the online world, bringing music directly into homes from the intimate settings of their own isolated worlds.

Big name artists such as Neil Young, a well-known curmudgeon when it comes to digitised music, has opened his archives to little seen and unreleased live performances to the delight of fans and music critics. Included are videos of the regular “Fireside Sessions” Young has been solo-performing throughout the pandemic lockdown.

There is a distinct shift in how media is being distributed and how it is being consumed. It could be argued that these shifts in media consumption are being driven by the lockdowns we see globally and are hence temporary, but the jury is out.

From ‘new normal’ to ‘normal’ again

Not all believe that the public is in for a wholesale change in behaviours forced on it as a result of the pandemic, and how much of it sticks on the other side of the COVID-19 crisis remains to be seen.

What’s happened during this unprecedented time is undeniable: challenges thrown up at every turn have been a quick-acting catalyst for wholesale change and innovation. Technological solutions to problems were adopted, battle-tested, revised and fielded again in real-time. There’s been little time to evaluate the ultimate impact this sudden influx of tech has had on nearly every aspect of our lives.

How much have we gained; what have we lost? These are questions that will continue to linger long after the immediate crisis has passed. The ending to this story is far from being written. However, it’s clear that we’ve leap-frogged into a future that has woven technology ever tighter into the fabric of our lives than many—except for the futurists among us—could have imagined.

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Freelance journalist and former executive editor, Atlantic 57

Brock Meeks is an award-winning reporter and online journalism pioneer. He previously reported for MSNBC, Wired magazine and the San Francisco Chronicle, among others. He was founder of CyberWire Dispatch, which helped pioneer the online news industry.

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