Reconsidering Technology During the COVID-19 Crisis
Technologies we may take for granted during good times can be critical during emergencies
By Adam Thierer
Many of us take for granted the modern digital technologies that we did not have access to even a few decades ago. Some people, however, are very critical of these devices and services, arguing that they steal everything from our jobs and privacy to our very humanity. But these technological innovations, long characterized as trivial, nonessential or even harmful during times of calm and abundance, have now become indispensable in coping with the COVID-19 pandemic. Indeed, consider how important the following technologies have become in recent weeks.
Social distancing is essential to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. With this in mind, businesses, government bodies, and organizations across the country have been going remote to help avoid some of the worst possible health consequences. Modern broadband connections allow staff to work at home instead of the office, greatly reducing the risk of transmission.
Not only are people able to talk, message, and videoconference over the internet as a result of this incredible digital infrastructure system, for many professions, they are able to do just about anything they can do in a regular office. Widespread adoption of the internet and web applications have made it easier than ever to do our jobs in virtually any location. Whether it's conducting research, updating a spreadsheet, designing a new logo, marketing a product, or providing customer service, most day-to-day tasks can now be done from the safety of one’s home. People in many professions have found that they’re able accomplish just about anything they can in a regular office.
None of this would have been possible just three to four decades ago, because most work relied on expensive, largely immobile equipment that could not be used at home. While people in some service sectors may not be able to work from home, for a good portion of the workforce, the incredible digital infrastructure of the internet makes working from home an entirely feasible option now.
Mobile networks and devices
Critics often decry the always-on, always-connected nature of modern life. The mobile phone is typically at the center of these laments. To be sure, many of us use our mobile devices too frequently or at the wrong times, and addiction can be a real problem for some. But the mobile phone revolution has provided more societal benefits than costs. Simply being able to connect with loved ones, co-workers, or emergency services from anywhere is an amazing achievement.
But mobile devices offer far more than that. Smartphones have now “morphed into the Swiss Army knife of gadgets” that we use as our cameras, portable music devices, televisions, gaming platforms, mapping and traffic navigation tools, internet portals, notepads, email and messaging clients, payment tools, home automation agents, wearable fitness trackers, and even as watches, flashlights, compasses, and thermometers. How does one measure the value of having all of these functions available in one device instead of dozens? It’s difficult to calculate, but by offering us all those services on one portable platform, our smartphones have clearly made basic tasks more convenient.
During a time of crisis, having these many capabilities in our pocket, especially any related to health, becomes even more essential. Fitness trackers could be made even more useful in a time of pandemic. For example, if more mobile devices had temperature sensors, they could help us deal with diseases like COVID-19.
Social media platforms
Social media sites have been under fire for supposedly fueling various social ills. Many critics have called for sweeping social media regulation. But the pandemic has made clear just how important these platforms are. “For going on nearly half a decade now, the tone on tech companies and social media has shifted to one of suspicion, hostility, grievance, and moral panic,” notes Elizabeth Nolan Brown of Reason. “But as COVID-19 continues to spread around the world and as many governments continue to mishandle things, people are starting to remember why the platforms we love to hate are important after all.”
Twitter has become a critical platform for mass dissemination of news and perspectives about solutions to the crisis. Dr. Scott Gottlieb, who previously served as head of the Food and Drug Administration in the Trump Administration, has become a sort of public health ombudsman that people look to for unbiased expert information and critiques of official public responses. But Gottlieb is just one of countless medical professionals and scientists who have taken to social media platforms to offer the public direct information and advice about the coronavirus.
The result has been an important collective fact-check on government statements and proposed responses. In a New York Times essay entitled, “When Facebook Is More Trustworthy Than the President,” Ben Smith noted that, “instead of seeing Chinese-style propaganda, many users suddenly found themselves reading urgent, sophisticated observations from public health experts.”
Of course, misinformation and bad advice is always a concern. But Pinterest, Snapchat, Facebook, YouTube, and other platforms all took steps to combat the spreading of gross falsehoods. For the most part, social media has made a wealth of vital health and community safety information available to the public with remarkable speed. Even traditional email and websites have become essential tools for many governments, which provide the public with constant updates about closures and safety practices.
Video conferencing may be one of the most obvious and direct innovations that enable social distancing over extended periods of time. Not only has video conferencing made it significantly less burdensome for many businesses to continue functioning with a largely remote workforce, it also provides people with much needed face-to-face interaction. Long-term social isolation can be quite demoralizing, and while nothing can fully replace being in the physical presence of others, the ability to see and interact with co-workers, friends, and family can make this period far more bearable.
In addition, video conferencing platforms allow schools and universities to continue educating their students virtually while they are not able to meet in an actual classroom. In fact, the CEO of Zoom, a popular video conferencing platform for educational institutions, recently announced that he is giving his product away for free to K-12 schools during this time of disaster. Just twenty years ago, none of this would have been possible, and students sent home in a time like this would have had a more difficult time connecting with teachers or other students. Instead, students across the globe are able to continue on with their education with less disruption.
Video streaming platforms from Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, Disney, HBO, YouTube and many others have given the public an array of viewing choices and helped usher in a new golden age of television. During a time of quarantines, these services became an essential way for people to find quality entertainment without having to go out into public and be in close proximity to others.
Likewise, online games offer a safe social experience in a time of quarantine. For example, Quiplash is a humorous game that people can play at a distance. After the players login remotely in their homes they can answer silly questions for points. It’s good, clean quarantine fun. Of course, there are plenty of more serious gaming options that allow people to play either with known acquaintances or communities of anonymous individuals.
E-commerce and food delivery services
Some of the newer and more exciting innovations to emerge in the past few years are e-commerce platforms and still-new food delivery services. You can now get almost anything delivered directly to your door without having to interact with people. In fact, for many of these services, you don’t even have to make contact with the delivery driver. They will just leave the product at your door or front desk.
While these services may seem little more than mere convenience in normal times, COVID-19 shows us just how important and even lifesaving these services can be when minimizing human contact is of the utmost importance. It is no surprise that many of these services have become overwhelmed with demand during the crisis. For many, particularly the elderly and those with compromised immune systems, the ability to have much needed products and groceries delivered directly to their door without the need to physically interact with another person is anything but trivial.
We need tech–and Big Tech–now more than ever
Had the pandemic hit just 30 years ago, none of these technologies would have been at our disposal. This is not to say that things aren't bad or that these technologies somehow make everything perfect, but as difficult as life is today in the midst of social distancing and shelter-in-place requirements, life would have become even more difficult without these platforms, devices, services, and applications.
But what other useful or needed technologies might we have access to today if not for outdated regulations that hold back innovation?
When politicians and critics call for burdensome regulations on digital platforms and services, it is important to think ahead about possible unintended consequences. For example, in the months just before the pandemic hit, there was a growing movement afoot to reopen and revise a rule called Section 230, which established a broad liability shield for online content distributors. Without these protections, online platforms could be driven out of business by excessive liability and the threat of costly litigation, which could decimate online activity. Given what’s happened in recent weeks, we should be thankful that advocates for rolling back Section 230 protections were not successful.
Other critics were clamoring for “breaking up Big Tech” through sweeping antitrust regulations. That “techlash” would have hobbled many platforms, especially Google, Facebook, and Amazon, that Americans are relying on in the midst of the crisis. But these efforts also have not born fruit, possibly because most Americans use and benefit from the services these large tech firms provide. Indeed, even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, most Americans viewed digital technology in a positive light and expressed gratitude that these devices and platforms were at their disposal.
Finally, before the outbreak, many state and local governments were taking steps to regulate the sharing or “gig” economy through burdensome labor regulations. For example, last year California passed a new worker classification law—Assembly Bill 5 (AB-5)—which made it easier to classify a gig worker as an employee than as an independent contractor. Such laws were already starting to hurt gig economy companies and workers in good times. Now that we need delivery drivers and emergency transit more than ever, the human cost of regulations like AB-5 is tragically stark.
Permissionless innovation is needed in normal times as well as in times of crisis
The lessons here are clear. No matter how well-intentioned, we should evaluate laws and regulations based on real-world outcomes. Proposed or existing regulations like those discussed earlier can undermine the ability of companies, organizations, and average citizens to innovate rapidly in a time of crisis.
We must never take for granted just how much new technological developments have improved our lives in meaningful ways. To be sure, the internet, social media, and digital platforms have created new societal problems and have exacerbated some old ones, such as hate speech and harassment. But these new technologies have always given us more good than bad. Unfortunately, it took a crisis to teach us this lesson.