Coronavirus is an opportunity to rethink tech
The air was hot and thick on Aug. 14, 2003 when the power across the northeastern U.S. and central Canada suddenly shut off. With little to do but sit in an increasingly sweltering home, my family went to a friend's house, mostly because they had a gas grill. We cooked dinner together, drank, and against an eerily silent and bright night sky, even sang a little. It was just a blip really, but it was also a reminder that there are different ways to live — that what is normal doesn't necessarily have to be.
It's hard not to think of a moment like that now as we live through the COVID-19 pandemic. But unlike the blackout, where most people simply had to wait it out, COVID-19 seems like it will instead force some sort of change. With a vaccine safe for broad use at least year away, most societies around the world are going to enter a sustained period of inactivity, with yet unknown consequences for the economy and life more broadly.
This is perhaps especially true for technology. There is, after all, something profoundly contemporary about this pandemic: the way it has revealed the connectedness of our globalized, digital world and also its resulting fragility, or even perhaps the limits of capitalism or democracy. It's an ambivalence acutely reflected in the tech so many are now relying on. Screens are a lifeline to an outside world we have been told to avoid, but also a source of anxiety, disinformation. All the various competing vectors of the digital era — the way it opened so much up and then created so many problems — seem to be manifesting in this current crisis. So what might emerge from the murkiness of the now?
Among the most heartening changes so far is the apparent realization on the part of Facebook and others that it is the responsibility of platforms to better police misinformation. As there has been a storm of predictably misleading posts about COVID-19, the major tech players put out a joint statement committing to fighting them and prioritizing verified, trustworthy media about the virus.
That it took a pandemic to make this happen is unfortunate. But it seems like is the final nail in the coffin of an entirely unfettered internet in which bad actors and misguided individuals pollute the mediascape without consequence. It clearly highlights the idea that notions of free speech simply aren't the same in the age of the internet.
But if it is encouraging to see big tech react appropriately, that relief itself also betrays just how central a handful of companies on America's west coast have become to modern life. Beyond the obvious — that Apple and Microsoft et al collectively have hundreds of billions of dollars of cash that might be better spent, say, paying workers more — there is also the sense that these tech companies hold altogether too much influence. It suggests that relying on tech giants as a form of modern infrastructure — for communication, commerce, distribution and more — leaves us too vulnerable.
That isn't to say things are simple. Twitter, for example, has expanded its definition of harm on the platform and will remove any post that, say, encourages home remedies for COVID-19 or suggests that social distancing isn't effective. That sounds good in theory, but as Internet scholar Zeynep Tufekci points out, given how quickly information is moving and the fact that figures of authority, from the Chinese government to President Trump, have put forth dubious claims about the virus, such aggressive filtering may well cause more trouble.
Yet the day-to-day experience of tech still may have power to change things. For one, the shift to working from home for white collar jobs has given rise to a culture of remote work — and it may be hard to put that genie back in the bottle once this is over. People are faced with the fact that there are different ways to do things. And as Dan Kois writes on Slate, the pandemic may well point out how broad swaths of American life are in fact absurd — that even this early, it is "worth asking if we are willing to allow governments and corporations to return to business as usual" or instead face up to the inequities and inefficiencies built into our systems.
I've long held that technology isn't so much a tool as the ground that allows the human to exist. Everything that we define as civilization — language, agriculture, housing — is technology of a sort, and shapes the kind of society we have. And we seem to be entering a moment in which we might be able to put forth a new model of technology, or perhaps even more than that. It may be that we can imagine tech that is more responsive to the new information economy, leans more on publicly- or user-owned platforms, or more simply, acknowledges the disparities that let highly-paid people continue to work from home while those in grocery stores or on the front lines of health care continue to be exposed to both harm and insufficient remuneration. Perhaps we'll finally take seriously the precarity inherent in many gig-economy jobs, or that many of the recent Silicon Valley unicorns have built their business models on the availability of underpaid and insecure labor.
As people have begun staying home from work and factories close, many have noted that air quality has gone up. It's a mistake to think that the future is a time in which we will simply undo all the machinations of modernity. This is but a temporary period, and the machine of capitalism will fire up again. Still — it's helpful to take a moment to think about what we might want to be different when this is over: to look through to what was previously obscured by haze and smog, and put forth our ideas for a society made anew.
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