Technology in a time of Covid-19

by Sarah Firisen

I’ve been telecommuting on and off for over 17 years. I first started working from home because I’d moved 150 miles away from the company I’d been contracting for over the previous 4 years. Back then, I worked in a small team that was part of a larger team in a huge corporation. My immediate boss was very supportive of my new working arrangement, but he had a peer, who even though she had no responsibility for my work, felt the need to have her say to their mutual boss. Her thoughts went along lines of, “how do we know she’s really working when she never comes into the office?”, to which my boss said, “well someone is getting all the work done, so if it isn’t  Sarah, who is it?”. This conversation seems almost quaint nowadays, when even before the current pandemic, a decent amount of the white-collar professional workforce worked at least occasionally from home. And now of course, we’ve all been thrust into a great social experiment to see just how productive, perhaps more rather than less even, the entire workforce will be working remotely. Everyone else is now catching up to what I’ve known for a long time: it’s pretty nice to not have to deal with the daily commute and that time can really be used more productively than fighting for space on mass transit; you have to be at least somewhat disciplined to make sure you only go so many days working in the same pjs you’ve been in all week; working from home can give you a lot of time to multitask life stuff like unloading the dishwasher while you’re listening to a conference call, but it can also be harder to draw boundaries between home and work life, and this takes some practice. 

As difficult as quarantine and social distancing are for all of us, I try to imagine how much harder it would be without the technology we now have. As the brilliant creator of parody videos Randy Rainbow puts it in yet another genius creation, we’re not being asked to go to war, we’re being asked to stay home, sit on our couch, watch Netflix and order from Grub Hub. Yet imagine if we couldn’t do those things. One of the real silver linings I’ve found (and I know I’m not alone in this), of the current situation is that I’ve been doing video chats with friends and family around the world. I’ve now run two group chats with women I went to elementary and high school with who now live across three continents. Some of these women haven’t seen each other for over 30 years. And the constant refrain when we chat, and when I chat with any of the other friends and family I’ve been doing video chats with recently is, “why on earth didn’t we do this before?” Because, of course we could have; the technology has been literally at most people’s fingertips on their phones for a long time. Maybe it was the difficulty of scheduling in our busy lives, particularly with time differences. Of course, this isn’t a problem now that none of us have anything better to do than to stay home and now that we’re all starved for company and novelty. Of all the covid related wonders, I just had a video chat with my techno-phobic uncle Michael and his lady friend Jenny on the app, House Party. He doesn’t have a smartphone and is doing it on his laptop. That app doesn’t do notifications so he says “if you want to talk with me, contact Jenny and she’ll phone me and tell me to get on”. Baby steps! As he said, he is most comfortable in the 19th century.

There’s abundant evidence throughout human existence that crises often spur innovation and technological progress, “If the history of pandemics is a guide, this contagion, like all others, will spark a wave of innovation, proportional to how it alters the shape of society.” And of course, it’s not just companies who will be forced to innovate but also the government and individuals. In the US, we may need to fix our voting system and bring it up-to-date with an urgency that was never felt before. Telemedicine’s potential is only starting to become apparent as hospitals are overwhelmed, “Almost overnight, telehealth providers reported an upswing in demand… as key barriers to widespread telehealth usage vanished, including consumer awareness and physician and consumer acceptance”. While there’s clearly a limit to what can be done virtually, we are now going to have an opportunity to challenge that limit and push it as far as it can go, and that has to be a good thing for innovation in the medical provider space. 

A few years ago virtual reality, VR,  was the it girl of the tech movement. VR and it’s cousin Augmented Reality, AR, have since inevitably dropped from the Gartner Hype Cycle’s Peak of Inflated Expectations into the Trough of Disillusionment; “The top five VR headsets only sold 913,000 units between them in Q4 2019. Data from Q4 2018 suggested 1.4 million from just Sony and Facebook VR headsets. That’s a grim drop in sales in the category as a whole”. But this pandemic may be what’s needed to lift these technologies back onto the Plateau of Productivity. Indeed, Facebook, early movers in this space with Spaces and its Oculus headset, is now creating a new social VR app, Horizons, for interaction in the virtual world and perhaps the time really has come for VR. As we’re all searching for ways to maintain social distancing while socializing, virtual worlds could be the answer. 

When VR and AR were really at the peak of expectations, there were some interesting examples of virtual attendance at concerts and sporting events. With an increasing number of big name musicians live streaming music to entertain us all as we sit in our living rooms, the idea of putting on a headset and having a more realistic concert experience seems like an idea whose time has come. 

Of course, if this self distancing is for just a few weeks, we may all quickly go back to the way we used to live, work and play. But if it goes for months, maybe even longer, we are going to need to find new ways of interacting with each other, with our friends, families, co-workers, customers and patients. Will it all really just go back to the way it was before? Given that there seems to be real evidence that our decreased human activity is having a positive impact on the planet and nature, there’s good reason for us at least to try to keep some of these new ways of living and working. Companies that have claimed that workers will not be as productive when working remotely are now having that claim challenged. And many of those remote workers are also having to home school their children. If productivity doesn’t dip dramatically given all this, it will be hard for these companies to continue to deny workers the ability to work from home and maintain better work/life balance, at least some of the time. Of course, conversely, there are many people who are realizing that working from home isn’t for them and who can’t wait to get back to an office environment. But hopefully, at least people will have more of a choice after this. And I hope that all the friend and family video chatting continues even once we can meet in person again. 

And what other innovations, technological and otherwise, might come out of this challenging time? Human beings are resilient and creative. I believe we will look back on 2020 as not only a time of great crisis, but a time of exceptional inspiration and innovation.  At least I hope so.