posted: June 13, 2020
tl;dr: The Internet is lessening the impact of the pandemic but there are many problems it can’t solve...
It’s a good thing we built the Internet. The Covid-19 pandemic is destructive to people’s lives, livelihoods, and lifestyles, but it would be even more so had it happened in prior decades, given the computing and networking infrastructure at that time.
I’m very fortunate. I made the decision years ago to focus my professional career 100% in the cloud. I and my coworkers at meltmedia can perform our jobs 100% remotely, as all of our key infrastructure exists in the cloud, not in the company’s office. We can communicate with clients and deliver our work output to them entirely over the Internet. It’s all just streams of bits, ones and zeros. Equally as important, our client base also has not been damaged too much by the pandemic. We’re actually hiring.
Things were vastly different at the start of my career in tech. At my first employer there was just one non-networked computer, which I programmed and used. Everyone else used other tools to perform their jobs: landline phones, adding machines, typewriters, and filing cabinets filled with paper.
Had there been a pandemic and government orders to stay-at-home, the company would have had to shut down entirely. I suppose I could have hauled the fairly heavy computer, external hard drive, and printer home, and continued to write programs for a company in limbo. But everyone else would have been out of luck. There was no Internet and no cellphones, so the only way to communicate in real-time with coworkers was to call them on their home landline phone. Few homes had more than one phone line. The company did not have a telephone switch that could have re-routed business calls to people’s homes. Everyone’s documents and records were stored back in the office in filing cabinets. The company also manufactured and sold physical products. There would have been no way to continue to conduct any business.
The employer I worked for at the time was hardly unique. I think almost all businesses would have had to shut down. Schools would not have had any ability at all to attempt remote learning. They probably would have sent their students home with a few textbooks and a reading list. This raises a hypothetical question: knowing that all non-essential businesses and schools would have had to shut down entirely, would the government have issued stay-at-home orders during a pandemic in decades past?
The Internet has helped lessen the impact of the 2020 pandemic-induced shutdown, but the burdens have not been shared equally. So-called information workers such as myself are impacted minimally, although some tech companies have seen the shutdown damage their customer base, thereby damaging the tech company. Information technology, however, is but one sector of the economy. Other sectors have been damaged to much greater degrees. Other businesses and institutions deemed essential are still operating, but workers are running a greater risk of exposure to the coronavirus.
I feel especially sorry for students at all levels of schooling. Hastily-arranged online classes allow some especially motivated students to continue learning, but they are a terribly poor substitute learning environment for many students. They also highlight the digital divide, and other divides, that exist in this country. Not every student has a high-speed Internet connection, a quality laptop, a quiet place at home in which to study, and the reassurance that three square meals a day are going to appear on the table. We’re failing in our mission to provide public education for everyone.
Human beings have not (yet) evolved to achieve bodiless consciousness, perhaps by existing as patterns of bits uploaded into the Internet itself. We still inhabit a physical world and have physical needs, which the Internet and robots cannot come close to fully meeting. We still need food to arrive in our living quarters, and we need our waste products to be taken away. Every week on trash day during the pandemic, as we’ve watched various aspects of civilization get damaged or destroyed, I joke with my family that civilization has not yet ended: they are still picking up the trash. Waste removal is one of the most basic of human needs. The Internet helps with some needs for some people, but there are many pandemic-induced problems that it cannot solve.