On Pandemic and Technology


As I wrote about technology and online learning earlier, this pandemic is condensing the Hype Cycle and, within a few short weeks, establishing what technology may or may not do for us. Observations that would have taken a full career cycle otherwise - from the claim that everybody will soon be doing online learning to the admission that the server can only take a thousand people at a time to the realisation that there are too many operating system versions out there in the world - are all happening right in front of us. 

But this is not just for online learning. Our claims and assumptions about technology ecosystem have been tested quickly and thoroughly as the pandemic brought the world to a sudden stop. In many ways, this is quite a predictable pandemic: A respiratory virus, with similarities with the ones we have seen before, following an infection route mirroring the pattern of global commerce. But Big Tech could do little in anticipating, tracing or responding to the pandemic. I am sure the January travellers out of Wuhan saw on their Social Media adverts about Milanese attractions and New York restaurants, but the chatter in Chinese chat rooms and their travel data remained in two different boxes.

Sure, we are now looking to see how technology can solve some of the problems. South Korea seems to be successful with contact tracing and notifications and those solutions will also come elsewhere. The governments have, though belatedly, swung into action and may use their treasure trove of data more meaningfully. Going forward, remote work and remote learning may become normalised and we may get better at them eventually. But there will be costs too: Suddenly, the gig economy does not look as attractive as before, coworking spaces look like infection stores and online learning struggles to establish its value. Life may not get back to normal, but it's wrong to assume that technology will be business-as-usual as well.

I am not claiming here that technology is going to go away. Rather, I am saying that this is a wonderfully sobering moment when technology will become normalised. If anything, some of us are now missing things we never thought we would: Shopping trips, Office meetings, the rude landlord of the pub next door! The people who are saving us are those nurses and doctors at the NHS, the people driving buses and stocking supermarket shelves, and not those bankers and coders who we worshipped as saviours and messiahs.

There are many areas where a correction, both of ideas and of practice, is now needed. It's good to start with the admission that despite our massive prowess in data gathering, analysis and predictions, we failed to spot the trends that would change our lives forever. That should focus our minds on the obvious: That technology is ideological, that it's not the tools but the priorities we set matter more. Also, it's time to recognise that big tech is too much of establishment furniture and, as it stands, it's more useful at the time of continuity than of change; in fact, it's too entwined in the existing mental models to shape the fundamental changes that would be necessary. In one stroke, all the disruption literature has been disrupted with a real disruption, obsolescence has caught up with the supposed future. At the same time, a broader conception of technology is emerging: The usual, the unglamorous, the day-to-day technologies are emerging into view and their impact on our lives are suddenly more serious and more visible.

The point, though, is that even if this restores the balance in real life, it's harder to restore the balance in ideas. Usually, policymakers remain, as Keynes knew, under the spell of one dead economist or another. The poverty of ideas is already clear as we try to find a way out of the lockdown: We may discuss all options and throw massive pots of money to bail out the stock markets, but reconsidering the commitments to national health services will remain beyond the pale. When ideas about a Universal Basic Income were briefly discussed in Britain, a former Minister and influential ideologue in the ruling party objected as this 'will encourage idleness', completely missing the point that enforced idleness was precisely the objective. The lack of debate about the 'normality' means, despite the enforced changes in the way we live, failed ideas may continue into the post-Corona world.

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