"More than machinery, we need humanity."
“The public be damned is the private motto of the majority of our citizens: which means that they are damning themselves; and at a serious crisis like the present one, they may even be damning themselves to hell,”
– Lewis Mumford (1940)
If people wait to learn from a disaster until that disaster has ended, chances are good that most of those people won’t really learn much. After all, once the situation improves, people tend to be eager to get on with their lives, and thus prefer not to wallow in the mire that they have only recently escaped. Indeed, even the perception that the calamity is winding down, can be enough to lead people to forget the lessons that they should have learned from the previous month or the previous year. Certainly, there will always be a ragged few howling in the desert about what steps need to be taken to deal with future hazards, but when times are good such figures are politely ignored. All of which is to say, that the correct time to learn from a disaster is when some of those key takeaways begin to be clear—even if the disaster has not in fact ended as of yet.
When the history of this pandemic is finally written, it will be impossible to ignore the role that technology has played throughout it. From misinformation to vaccines, from Zoom to N95s and KF94s, from working from home to doom-scrolling—any narrative of the pandemic is going to be forced to wrestle with the various technologies that alternatively ameliorated or exacerbated what was happening. Given the scale of this catastrophe (and we won’t know the true toll of the pandemic for years), it can seem a bit banal, insensitive even, to focus overly much on what the pandemic reveals about the state of technology and about our relationship to technology. And yet we still must recognize that the pandemic can teach us quite a lot about the technological society in which we live—and, for better or worse, the sort of technological order that we shall find ourselves trying to navigate whenever it is that the pandemic finally ends.
What follows is an effort to identify some of the technological lessons that can be learned from the pandemic. While attempts to predict the technological future are inevitably challenging, the point here is not to forecast what will happen next but to attempt to recognize some of the things that have happened (or have been happening for a while, but which have been made clearer by the pandemic).
The computers have won
Throughout the final decade of the twentieth century it was fairly common to find hopeful paeans or woebegone dirges on the dawning of the “information age.” Such narratives, in positive or negative form, focused on the widespread dissemination of computing technologies (and the Internet), and sought to forecast what the spread of these technologies would mean for anything and everything. Yet one of the stumbling blocks in such narratives (of the positive and negative variety) was the attempt to really define the moment at which the “information age” had truly come into being. What percentage of a population needed to own a personal computer, what percentage of a population needed an e-mail address, what percentage of a population needed to have high-speed internet—before it was clear that it had arrived in the “information age”? To be clear, there wasn’t really a single right answer to this. Naturally, there were some on the celebratory and the mournful side who argued that this transformation had fully occurred by the mid-90s, though there were slightly more hesitant voices (again, on the celebratory and the mournful sides) who cautioned that even if the “information age” was coming into being, it remained too soon to truly say that it had arrived. And these debates continued throughout the first two decades of the twenty-first century, as attention focused on levels of worldwide access, with the celebrants touting that the presence of a smartphone in a village meant that the village had finally joined the “information age” even as others tried to push back against narratives that flattened out the significant differences that remained in terms of access (and use) of digital technologies.
The pandemic cannot tell us what the precise moment was in the last ten, twenty, thirty, or forty years when digital technologies ceased being merely ascendant and became truly dominant—but the pandemic makes it very clear that regardless of when that shift occurred, we (at least in many places) are now living in the computerized age.
Most of the technological narratives of the pandemic assume, to a greater or lesser extent, that the people experiencing the pandemic are all using digital technologies. Whether the topic is working from home, or doom-scrolling, or navigating misinformation on social media, or attending classes from home, or scheduling a vaccination appointment, or using a contact tracing app, or getting test results from a COVID test—there has been an assumption that everyone has access to these digital tools and that everyone has a basic level of comfort using these tools (as will be noted later on, these assumptions are problematic). Indeed, throughout the pandemic many problems have arisen as a direct result of there being too much of an assumption that everyone has equal access/equal skills when it comes to using these technologies. Nevertheless, the pandemic has made it very clear that many societies have now come to truly see themselves as fully computerized. And in this case those who lack full access, or do not have all of the necessary technical literacies, are seen as a small exception to the rule.
Scholars and journalists and businesses and activists can (and will) continue to debate exactly what moment it was in which “computers and the Internet took over;” however, the pandemic has made it quite clear that as far as many societies see themselves we are now truly at the point at which computers and the Internet have won.
The pandemic has been a technological accelerant
Closely related to the way in which the pandemic has made clear the amount of social power that has become vested in digital technologies, the pandemic has also served to accelerate certain technological trends. For several years now there has been a gradual process by which more and more things have become available for purchase online (with delivery of the aforementioned products also speeding up). E-commerce was certainly already a booming area before anyone had even heard of COVID-19; however, something that makes shopping online feel much more enticing is when people do not want to physically go into stores because they are worried about contracting a dangerous virus. Does this mean that no one was shopping in person during the pandemic? Of course not. Does this portend the end of physical stores? No. But it is worth considering the ways in which the pandemic encouraged people to become even more reliant on “just ordering it online.” For those with the means to be able to make such a shift, the pandemic provided an excellent excuse to start buying groceries online, or to start making use of one of the many gig economy type services wherein someone else has to do the work of actually going into the store. This is not to pass judgment on buying groceries online, or using a service wherein someone else does the physical shopping (these can be important lifelines for many) – the point is to note that during the pandemic it seems that even more people became reliant on such services.
There have certainly been some entirely novel technological responses that have appeared during the pandemic, but many of the technologies that have enjoyed great success during the pandemic had already existed before…it’s just that the pandemic provided them with ideal conditions to flourish. After all, Zoom was founded in 2011, but it took the pandemic to turn the company into a household name. Disastrous times can provide the right conditions in which certain technological trends make great advances very quickly. From online shopping to video chatting to digital workspaces to online classes – none of these things were invented by the pandemic. However, what the pandemic did is that it quickly swept aside many of the barriers that had kept groups wary of fully jumping on board with those particular technologies from truly embracing them. There are many companies that have toyed with the idea of letting employees work from home, there are many school administrators who have fantasized about putting all of their classes online – and the pandemic provided a blunt instrument by which lengthy board/committee meetings about exactly how such a change would be implemented were replaced by a sudden need to start doing things very differently. Even though the pandemic has lasted quite some time (and will likely last quite a bit longer), the vast majority of the technologies that have enjoyed tremendous success during the pandemic were ones that already existed when the pandemic started. Here it is not so much that the pandemic changed everything, as that it allowed a quick push in a direction that things may have already been heading.
Granted, as will be discussed later on in this piece, that uptake of a certain technology accelerated during the pandemic does not necessarily mean that this embrace will continue. Though, it is likely also the case that enough force has built up behind some of these trends that it is unlikely that they will completely vanish. In other words, you aren’t done with Zoom meetings yet.
Technological shifts in the pandemic have made many things more accessible
Throughout the pandemic a common refrain (from many circles) was to express some level of frustration or dissatisfaction with online meetings. “Zoom fatigue” was not just a catchy term, it was a descriptor of something that lots of people genuinely experienced. And yet for many other people (even as they also found unending Zoom meetings exhausted), such meetings represented an important improvement over how things had been done before. Here’s just one example: most in person meetings don’t have captioning. And yet with a couple of quick setting changes, and then the click of a button, a Zoom meeting could feature real time captioning. Of course, the automated version of that captioning was often riddled with errors—but for many people the presence of those subtitles was a major help. Similarly, even as many people lamented events and conferences being transitioned to “online only,” this switch made many of those events more accessible to many people. And when considering the various individuals who have benefited from some of these technological shifts it is worth recognizing that a wide variety of groups have benefited in one way or another. Those entitled to accommodations have seen some of the forms of assistance that they had to fight for become a new norm, individuals with a different native language than the main language in which their classes have been conducted have benefited from captioning in discussion sessions and lectures, and those who cannot afford (financially or in terms of time) to attend expensive conferences in distant cities have benefited from being able to attend these events digitally.
The pandemic has given rise to a great deal of dissatisfaction with digital technologies, but for many people the technological shifts made to deal with the pandemic have made it easier for them to work, learn, and socialize. Of course, there are also many individuals who were thrilled at the ways in which the pandemic made things more accessible, while simultaneously not particularly loving being in Zoom sessions all day. There has long been a debate over the capabilities of digital technologies and the ways in which these technologies have often been deployed in the world. And far too often these technologies have not been deployed in a way that has been driven by a desire for accessibility. Yet one of the things that the pandemic has shown is that if the will is there for it, these digital technologies really can be used to make the classroom more accessible, to make the workplace more accommodating, and to make it easier to attend various sorts of events. To be clear, the intention here is not to suggest that digital technologies are a panacea, or that embracing digital technologies will provide an instant fix for issues of accessibility and accommodation. However, it is a reminder, that we have the tools available to make things more accessible and more accommodating—if we choose to use them in such a way.
Whenever it is that the pandemic finally ends, many of the technological shifts that occurred due to the pandemic will likely come to an end as well. Many of us won’t really miss Zoom meetings, but many of us will miss meetings having captioning. We have a responsibility to ensure that the gains in accessibility which many have experienced throughout the pandemic are not lost when the pandemic comes to a close.
The pandemic has made clear that technological access is not equal
Disasters have a tendency to hit the already disadvantaged the hardest. For those who have been struggling to get by, the disruptions caused by a major crisis can be sufficient to significantly worsen their situation. Not everyone has the privilege of being able to work from home, not everyone has the ability to stock up their shelves, not everyone has a beach home that they can drive off to, and not everyone has their own computer with high-speed Internet. As the pandemic pushed many things to go increasingly online, one of the stark dividing lines that this revealed was the matter of those who could make this shift and those who could not.
This played out clearly in terms of the world of labor, wherein “working from home” was largely shorthand for the sorts of jobs that could be relatively easily done “from home.” To be clear, many workers who don’t typically sit in front of a computer all day (such as teachers), found themselves going through this transition as well; however, all of the emphasis on “working from home” has generally served to privilege certain types of work and certain types of workers over others. Not everyone has been working from home, not everyone has been able to work from home. While much attention, understandably, has been focused on the medical workers who have spent the pandemic in often crowded hospitals—the pandemic has also been the story of the people still working in kitchens, and the people still stocking the shelves at the grocery store. There was a moment, a brief moment, when there was an effort to hail the people who were working in stores so that “the rest of us” could work from home—but the praise didn’t last long. The pandemic revealed a serious split not just in the way that we work but in the way that we value work, with all of the emphasis on “working from home” often serving to make the types of jobs that can’t be done “from home” seem lesser.
While the pandemic divided workers into those “working from home” and those for whom this wasn’t an option (to say nothing of the unemployed), perhaps there was no area in which the pandemic’s technological divisions were clearer than schools. As K-12 schools and universities rushed to go online in the spring of 2020, a question that many educators found themselves wrestling with was how to continue serving the students who did not have the digital technologies they needed to be able to fully participate in online school. It is foolish to assume that every student has their own personal computer, it is foolish to assume that every student has high-speed Internet, it is foolish to assume that every student has reliable electricity, it is foolish to assume that every student has a webcam, and it is foolish to assume that every student’s family has the means to ensure that the students in the family have these things when a major crisis occurs…and yet these were the types of assumptions that undergirded many of the plans for switching to online education. To be fair, many schools (and many educators), worked tirelessly to accommodate all of their students and to ensure that no one was being left behind. Nevertheless, the pandemic starkly laid out a situation in which the students who had better access to digital technologies were better able to adjust than the students who lacked sufficient access to these digital technologies. This gap in access to such technologies certainly predates the pandemic, but for many students the pandemic turned this gap into an unbridgeable chasm. Online learning was not easy for most students, but it was especially difficult for the students who lacked the ability to be truly online.
While work and school may be two of the primary areas where the pandemic made digital inequalities more visible, it is also worth recognizing the ways in which access to such technologies was necessary for dealing with the virus in the most literal way. Scheduling appointments for COVID testing, scheduling appointments for the vaccine, accessing governmental assistance, getting the results from a COVID test, using apps that were necessary to demonstrate that you were not ill—many of these things required individuals to make use of and navigate websites and apps. And many of those websites and apps have been challenging to navigate for individuals who may feel that they are less technologically literate, or who may lack access to the devices necessary to use those websites and apps.
Even as many of the official responses to the pandemic have rested on an assumption that “everyone is online” (or at least that everyone can get online), the realities of the pandemic have shown that “being online” is an experience that looks radically different for various groups. While many of the loudest advocates of digital technologies have argued (for decades) that these technologies would erase differences between groups and elevate everyone, the pandemic has clearly shown that the embrace of digital technologies has largely served to maintain a status quo in which those who were doing pretty well before the rise of digital technologies continue doing pretty well while those who were struggling before the rise of digital technologies continue struggling.
The pandemic has not been easy on anyone. But for those who do not have the types of jobs that can be done “from home,” for those who are less comfortable using digital technologies, and for those who did not have sufficient access to these technologies—the pandemic has been even harder.
Misinformation and disinformation are not new phenomena, but digital technology has super-charged them
Perhaps no technologically related trend of the pandemic has received quite as much attention as the matter of misinformation and disinformation (which is why they shall receive less attention here). From conspiratorial videos that spread rapidly online at the pandemic’s start, to all manner of strange information that continues to spread around vaccines, misinformation and disinformation have been repeatedly identified as massive problems. And while misinformation and disinformation (as well as anti-vaccine sentiments), definitely pre-date the Internet—it is hard not to look at the present situation and recognize the role that the Internet has played in helping these ideas to spread (and creating rabbit holes into which many people fall deeper and deeper). In terms of this spread, conspiratorial ideas have benefited from these ideas being picked up and amplified by many older media sources (television, talk radio); however, the way that these views spread quickly online should not be underestimated.
The conversation about misinformation and disinformation online has sparked renewed calls for social media companies to step up their monitoring and moderating of dangerously incorrect medical information and the conspiracy theories that tend to boil down to recycled versions of old xenophobic tales. And yet another question that needs to be asked is whether or not some of the affordances of social media make these platforms particularly susceptible to being hijacked by misinformation and disinformation. It’s always fun to blame Facebook and YouTube for not doing more, but it’s harder to ask the deeper question about whether or not certain technologies lend themselves to conspiratorial content.
The pandemic showed that the longing for a techno-scientific solution is widespread
The idea that there will be a techno-scientific solution to every major problem has a long history. It is a belief that holds that the complexities of truly dealing with social, political, economic, and historic challenges can be avoided if the right techno-scientific solution can just be found. And throughout the pandemic this faith in a relatively straightforward techno-scientific solution has been on clear display in the form of vaccines. To be clear, vaccines really are a very impressive techno-scientific solution to a virus, and vaccines have been an important techno-scientific fix to dangerous viruses for quite some time. The speed with which COVID-19 vaccines have been developed is an impressive achievement, and the degree of protection these vaccines offer is laudable. There have been major problems with the equitable international distribution of these vaccines, but those who have been able to become fully vaccinated have received excellent protection (breakthrough cases exist, but they are exceptionally rare). Lest there be any doubt, the point here is not in any way to oppose the vaccines, or to question their efficacy (I am fully vaccinated, and have been since May), but to consider the ways in which the narrative surrounding vaccines has played into a broader technological narrative.
The pandemic has been handled extremely poorly, to put it lightly. In the first year of the pandemic (at least in the US), the government response was wholly inadequate, and at many points the people and institutions responsible for protecting the public exacerbated the problems (it isn’t good when the President keeps insisting that the pandemic is about to magically end). On March 31, 2020, President Trump’s COVID-19 press briefing noted that the pandemic could be as bad (in the US) as between 100,000 and 240,000 deaths—but by now that death toll had eclipsed 600,000, and that was before the Delta surge (and there is reason to believe that number is too low). Considering the catastrophic mismanagement of the pandemic, it was hard for many people to put particularly much faith or trust in the Trump administration, and while people have been willing to put more faith and trust in the Biden administration that administration has inherited quite a mess (which is not to absolve the Biden administration of its own missteps). And you can’t lay all of the blame at the Trump’s feet (even if you can lay a lot of the blame there)—numerous governors and other elected officials have blocked necessary action (often while spreading misinformation and disinformation themselves), some segments of the news media have contributed to anti-mask and anti-vaccine sentiments, and even some institutions like the CDC have provided unclear messaging. All of which is to say, that when it comes to ending the pandemic, people haven’t been able to put their faith in politics or in institutions.
The pandemic has been a perfect opportunity for faith in techno-scientific solutions. On the one hand, this makes sense insofar as the vaccine really is a techno-scientific solution. However, at the same time this belief in a techno-scientific solution has been amplified by the failure of other solutions. One can imagine a response to the pandemic in which a sense of solidarity, social cohesion, and a Mr. Rogers-like concern for our neighbors was invoked in order to beat the virus. Government figures and institutions could have emphasized a “we’re all in this together” message that, coupled with providing adequate support for people to do so, could have encouraged a response wherein sacrifices for a month or two were shared so that it would not be necessary to sacrifice so many lives. Instead, at least in the US, selfishness and immature wailing about personal freedom has largely won the day (though millions of people have made considerable sacrifices for the sake of helping others).
In this atmosphere the hope for a techno-scientific solution could easily amplify itself: there really is a techno-scientific solution (the vaccines), and the failure of other responses makes it so that the techno-scientific response seems like the only option. The faith in techno-scientific solutions often hinges on the idea that techno-science can get us around complicated social, political, economic, and historic issues. And as the pandemic was exacerbated by political, economic, social, and historic forces there was a widespread hope that the vaccines could manage to cure the virus without getting bogged down in those other matters.
Unfortunately, that was not to be…
The pandemic has shown the folly of counting on techno-scientific solutions
Once the vaccines became available (especially once they became available to the vast majority of the public [at least in the US]), there was a race between vaccination and the more virulent strains. Throughout the spring and early-summer it really appeared that the vaccines were going to win the day, as the vaccination rate was heavily buoyed by people rushing out to get vaccinated. The early surge in vaccinations led to a moment of optimism after so many grim months, and it seemed like the summer might really look something like “normal.” Success seemed so assured that mask mandates were rolled back, and journalists/columnists across the country started devoting their attention to heaping mockery upon the people who were still taking precautions. Granted, all one had to do was look at the international news to get a sense that the worldwide pandemic was far from over, but for much of the spring and early-summer it really seemed like the pandemic was no longer a major issue here (in the US). There were still new cases, there were still hundreds of daily deaths, but it seemed like the finish line was in sight and that vaccination had a comfortable lead over the virus. In short, the techno-scientific solution had won.
On July 4th, people were in a celebratory mood, but by August 4th, that mood had turned sour. The sentiment that “we’re right back where we were a year ago” has become common, but it misses the point that we know a lot more now than we did a year ago, and also the unfortunate fact that in August of 2020 case numbers were dropping, while in August of 2021 (at least so far) case numbers are soaring. And of course, the biggest difference between August 2020 and August 2021 is that there are vaccines, and (at least in the US) those vaccines are widely available (and free of charge). It is too early to tell the definitive story of the Delta variant and the spike it has caused, but there is ample evidence to show that the surge is primarily hitting the unvaccinated, and it is hitting areas with low vaccination rates the hardest. The vaccines provide strong protection against the Delta variant (and even in the breakthrough cases, that have been receiving quite a bit of media coverage, the vaccines are making the experience of the virus considerably milder). We are witnessing a situation in which the techno-scientific solution is working for many…but in which the failure of the techno-scientific solution to clear social, political, economic, and historic hurdles is preventing that techno-scientific solution from truly being successful.
Attempts to talk about the “unvaccinated” are almost inevitably oversimplifications. Indeed, trying to lump too many different people into the “unvaccinated” category flattens out significant differences between members of that group. When we hear about, or speak about, the “unvaccinated” there is a tendency to think only of those who have consumed too much conspiratorial media which has convinced them to never get vaccinated. However, there is more to the “unvaccinated” than just such people (though they make up a vocal part of that group). As of this writing, children under 12 do not qualify for the vaccine, and thus they are part of the “unvaccinated.” While the vaccines are free, this is a message that still seems not to have reached many people who are worried about the cost of the vaccine (these are the types of concerns you get in a country where people go bankrupt due to medical bills). Individuals who need to care for other family members, or who are worried that they’ll lose their job if they take a sick day, may feel that they lack the support they need to go get vaccinated. Though in some areas there are plenty of easy to reach locations offering the vaccines, this convenience is not enjoyed by all. And there are people with genuine medical conditions that make it so that they are not able to receive the vaccine. It is understandable to be frustrated with the people who learned everything they know about vaccines from reading memes on Facebook—but it’s important to remember that those aren’t the only people who aren’t vaccinated.
The vaccines work against the virus. They really do. Unfortunately, the vaccines have a harder time when it comes to fixing social, political, economic, and historic problems. The vaccine will provide protection, but the vaccine itself cannot protect against misinformation. The vaccine will provide protection, but the vaccine itself cannot provide all workers with guaranteed sick days so that they can go get vaccinated and so that they have time to recover from getting vaccinated (should they need to). The vaccine will provide protection, but the vaccine itself cannot reweave social cohesion that has been ripped apart. The vaccine is an impressive techno-scientific solution to the pandemic, but the pandemic is about more than just a virus—it is also about the social, political, economic, and historic forces at work that have exacerbated the virus, and though the vaccine works great against the virus…it has trouble curing those deeper social, political, economic, and historic problems.
It is an unfortunate thing to have to learn in the midst of a crisis, but the pandemic has demonstrated that a techno-scientific solution is not by itself sufficient to overcome a problem that is bound up with social, political, economic, and historic forces.
Many of us are eager to stop having to live our lives through computer screens
Predicting the technological future is a risky game. Of course, that doesn’t keep people from engaging in it. In December of every year it is easy to find numerous periodicals turning to panels of various experts to hear about what technologies to watch for in the year ahead. These predictions often prove to be bluster, or they get recycled from year to year, or unforeseen world events (like a pandemic) disrupt the technologically deterministic worldview that often animates such articles. All of which is to say, it’s impossible to know exactly what the technological future holds—especially as it is not particularly clear when the pandemic will end. Thus, here is less of a prediction, and more of a possibility.
It seems possible that whenever it is that the pandemic ends, we will see something of a turn away from digital technologies. This does not mean that these technologies will be abandoned, this does not mean these technologies will be dismantled, and this does not mean that these technologies will stop being so dominant. What it means is that after more than a year of looking at each other through webcams, more than a year of doom-scrolling, more than a year of sitting inside—it may well be that whenever the pandemic ends, many people will be eager to not stare at a screen. This is not to suggest that there will be (or to argue that there should be) some kind of pastoral resurgence as people flock to reconstruct a romanticized pre-computer past. But it does seem like some of the sheen of our digital technologies has been tarnished. People found hours of Zoom meetings exhausting, students found online education disappointing, and though many people were thrilled to be able to use digital platforms to stay in touch with friends and family the pandemic also seems to have reinforced a feeling that something is lost when we cannot actually gather. There have been numerous predictions that the post-pandemic (which has not arrived yet) will be a sort of bacchanal as people indulge in all of the ways they haven’t been able to while stuck inside—but beneath these predictions of coming debauchery is a quiet sense that some of the things that make life worthwhile are hard to experience through a computer screen.
For years prior to the pandemic there have been ample stories written about how in the future everything will be done entirely online. Yet, the pandemic has given many people a firsthand experience of living almost entirely online…and most of them didn’t particularly like it. Certainly, many of us have tolerated these shifts, have realized that they are necessary, and have understood that there are sacrifices we need to accept in the now if we want the pandemic to end…but it’s also okay to admit that you really miss live music, or that you really miss going on dates, or that you really miss gathering with friends in person, or that you miss being physically in a house of worship, or that you miss actually sitting in a classroom, or that you miss not spending every waking hour staring at a computer screen.
The pandemic made it clear how reliant we are on our digital technologies. That reliance probably isn’t about to change. And yet it might be the case that whenever the pandemic ends many of us will be eager to spend a little bit less time glued to our digital devices. That so many people seem desperate to get back to living their lives, powerfully suggests that there are still some parts of life that can’t be lived digitally.
Of course, it is impossible to know what will happen after the pandemic.
And the pandemic is very much still not over.
Stay safe out there. Take care of yourself, and take care of each other.