Second-best: Thinking about tech in a pandemic
Welcome to life on lockdown. We’re inside a lot, and everyone is on the internet more than usual (which was already always for many).
Self-isolation measures are in place across the world and economies are paused as countries brace for the worst outcomes of the COVID-19 pandemic. The world is changing. How it changes, and what changes remain after the storm, however, are not set in stone.
In a recent newsletter, Drew Austin observed that this period of social isolation occasioned by the virus will likely push society in one of two directions.
Many have speculated about whether this quarantine period is a catalyst for the remote work future that was already developing, and while I’d put my money on the opposite outcome—once we return to a semblance of normality, we’ll crave in-person interaction like never before—quarantine at least proves that we can move everything online when we must.
Will more of life gratefully move online in the wake of heroic (and necessary) efforts to keep the countries and economies, albeit at reduced capacities, running? Or will we come out of this time thankful for the internet, but disabused of the inflated value of digitally mediated life?
As I approach the prospect of celebrating Easter at home, alone, together with my wife, I suspect the answer will be a strange mix of both/and. Some big tech companies will likely emerge stronger post-virus or, at minimum, benefit from reduced scrutiny. It’s hard to believe government regulators won’t back off at least in the short term, given the way digital/social media ease the demands of self-isolation. Still, it’s important to remember: insofar as digital social media are useful during this time, the demands of the moment strain the digital promise.
Online society is palliative at best.
Hear me when I say that I am thankful that my parents and grandparents can get their groceries delivered and that we can see each other's faces at unflattering angles. These are good things in a crisis, but they have only ever been second best. Virtual connection does not become better for being necessary.
Memes about introverts being born ready for this time notwithstanding, no one is living their best life right now. People are adapting. People are muddling through and keeping on, but are also realizing that we've too often chosen what is second-rate.
Whether you’re taking classes online or checking in on family and friends, “We are waking up to how many dimensions a conversation has, and how many of those are beyond simulation” (source). I will watch my church live-stream Easter celebrations, and I will sing from my couch. I will meditate on the joy that is there because I know life — full and abundant — is coming. But for now we would all do well to remember how far all this is from perfection, and lament. Let’s long for better things.
The tools and services that serve the measures to spare our health systems from collapse are stopgaps. They are only good insofar as the alternatives are much worse, but let’s not fool ourselves. We wouldn’t be much worse off if we lived in the technological world of the 1990s, despite what cultural myopes may think. (Disagree? Put it in the comments, and we can hash it out).
In the weeks and months ahead, even the most (Big) tech-skeptic will be online more, and we should all be thankful for the tools that provide connection and comfort, impoverished or not. But we should also stay wary of the language of inevitability as if proving that more people can work remotely means more of life should be carried out remotely. L.M. Sacasas, an insightful scholar and critic, kept a quote from Marshall McLuhan above all his posts on his blog (The Frailest Thing, now collected here) and it’s more important than ever:
“There is absolutely no inevitability as long as there is a willingness to contemplate what is happening.”
Lockdown is no reason to stop thinking. Social isolation is no reason to stop reaching for better things, much less longing for the best.