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The pandemic, which officially hit the one-year mark on Thursday, showed how much we need technology — but also that it’s probably not the solution to our biggest challenges.
Here are three things that I’ve learned in the past 12 months: Technology showed its utility by helping people and businesses manage through a crisis. Our increasingly digital lives have also created new problems that will be hard to fix. And the most important things have nothing to do with technology.
Let’s talk about each of these.
First, I am grateful that technology helped many millions of us muddle through work, school and family life. It also kept us informed when little seemed to make sense.
I’m glad that my apartment was able to become On Tech’s headquarters. I entertained myself with digital books and streaming videos, and I stayed in touch through screens with friends and family. I chose to shop at local businesses based on whether I could place online orders and reserve a time for pick up. Technology has helped many of us retain shreds of normalcy in a pandemic.
One big question, as my colleague Steve Lohr wrote this week, is how much this past year has permanently changed work and consumption patterns. (The most honest answer: Who knows?)
People who follow technology and people’s habits pretty much all say that the pandemic invented some digital behaviors out of the blue, but that mostly it fast-forwarded digital trends that had already been percolating.
More people learned to order their groceries online, tried and liked restaurant delivery services, connected with pals over video games, became used to meetings over Zoom and had appointments with their doctors by video call. A lot of this was by necessity, but there were helpful aspects to digital life. Stores, fitness studios and many other businesses have been forced to adapt faster to what consumers want.
I hope we can keep the best of these new behaviors and attitudes. I also worry that those benefits came with profound downsides — and that the upsides haven’t been shared equally.
It is my everlasting fury that so many Americans, particularly Black and Latino people and those living in rural areas, cannot access the internet from home. And we don’t really know exactly the size of the problem.
And the technology that promised to bring restaurant owners, product merchants and job seekers more income during challenging times also created new and unwelcome dependencies on the digital middlemen, such as DoorDash, Amazon and Uber. The influence and economic might of the Big Tech superpowers become even more glaring. It will be a failure if the new digital economy — like the old economy — does not work for everyone.
And my lasting memory of the past 12 months is that technology often does not matter very much.
Humans and human-run institutions pulled off last year’s presidential election with few problems. Humans also were largely responsible for undermining credibility in the election outcome.
Humans looking out for one another as well as policymakers’ choices were the most important factors in keeping people safe — or not — during the pandemic. And the magic of coronavirus vaccines and the protests that demanded a more fair country had little to do with what we think of as technology.
It’s been a long, awful year and let’s hope that the next 12 months will be brighter. And also let us hold in our minds that people, not technology, change the world.
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Before we go …
Getting to Facebook’s core problem: An MIT Technology Review writer wondered why the Facebook team responsible for fairness in computerized decisions wasn’t changing the automated rankings of posts that polarized people. Her question led to this nuanced article about the root problem of Facebook seeking to maximize our attention.
China can’t get enough of Elon Musk: China’s technology workers are feeling pessimistic about their industry and disillusioned about the country’s technology tycoons. Instead, my colleague Raymond Zhong reported, Musk has become the tech figure of the moment in China.