Inside the Digital Society: Digital COVID - Looking back and forward

I’ve been looking back over the pieces I’ve written about COVID’s impact on the digital society, present and future. Before this blog enters its Northern summer / Southern winter break, I thought the time had come for some reflection on how that has been going.

A great reset or back to BAU?

I’m prompted to do this by a clear shift that I can see in the goals of governments, businesses and citizens.

In the pandemic’s early days, there was much talk of opportunity for what might be called ‘a great reset’ in ways of doing things. Times were going to be difficult, it was understood, but the opportunity was there to ‘build back better’ – smarter, cleaner, greener, with remodelled public services and different ways of working. The UN Secretary-General’s urged this; it’s been in the rhetoric of many governments and many commentators.

Now, as the pandemic grinds on, and some countries plan for post-pandemic days, I sense there’s more determination to get back to business as it was before the crisis: to return to normal rather than find the ‘new normal’ that had been described.

In my country, for example, where vaccination rates are high (but infection rates are rising), the government is urging people back to work in offices, back to football stadia and nightclubs, back to holidays abroad, as soon as possible. More going back than building better.

To see why this is happening, it’s useful to go back to the beginning.

How things looked in March last year

Three themes were evident in discussion about the COVID impact in its early days, the first and second quarters of last year.

First, it was clear this would be big and would set back economies substantially. That’s obviously happened, as lockdowns and border controls have constrained production and trade, and cut back incomes. Progress towards Sustainable Development Goals (or SDGs) has been reversed in many areas. Economies have shrunk and inequalities have grown.

Second, it was evident that progress towards a digital society would accelerate as analogue ways of doing things became restricted. Digitalisation offered ways of bypassing traditional modes of communication, production and exchange. Many could work from home in lockdown; e-commerce could supply the place of shopping (at least some shopping, for some people); connectivity could step in where school was out (likewise for some, not all).

And third, there could be lasting changes coming from this. Some would be structural, such as the growth of online businesses at the expense of furloughed offline competition, such as increased reliance on a few big global corporations. Others were more speculative, even optimistic: new ways of governing, new roles for multilateral agencies, more commitment to building back better with cleaner technology.

and how they have evolved

As the pandemic’s continued, and digitalisation’s role in it’s enhanced, we’ve been able to put flesh on the bones of how things looked back at the start. I’ll pluck out six.

First, infrastructure held up better than expected. It wasn’t always easy, but far more people did far more things online than they’d done before, and there were few breakdowns.

Second, impacts were unequal and exacerbated inequalities. Those who could do things online did so, while those who couldn’t couldn’t. Office workers could homework while manual workers worked at higher risk, were furloughed or lost their jobs entirely.

Third, different folks experienced the pandemic and digitalisation differently, according to different mentalities and different circumstances. Some could Zoom better than others. Those with space at home, and without children, could work from home more easily than those in cramped surroundings and with new childcare responsibilities (such as home schooling).

Fourth, some sectors proved more sustainable, some more adaptable than others. E-commerce, as noted above, took a significantly higher share of domestic shopping across the board. Producers of electronic kit did well. Hospitality, tourism and cultural sectors, by contrast, were badly impacted.

Fifth, there were significant new challenges of governance. Digital information sources were valuable but undermined by digital disinformation. Cybercriminals were quick to spot new opportunities for fraud as more people did more things online. Digital systems to track, trace and reduce numbers of those infected (or at risk) required measures to balance individual and collective rights, raising debates about data protection and discussions about digital identity.

Sixth, digital and non-digital impacts have shown their inter-relationships. What digital could do, should do or needed to do was intertwined with the trajectory of the pandemic, the development and deployment of vaccines, consent within society to changed behaviour norms. In some countries, notably the USA, responses to the pandemic were highly polarised; in others there was a stronger sense of common goals.

Four sets of issues

By the turn of the year, as people grew increasingly accustomed to living under new conditions, I suggested that three sets of issues had emerged for those thinking about digitalisation and the pandemic. Later I added a fourth.

The first set of these issues concerned what digital technologies could do to mitigate impacts of the pandemic now, while it was happening. Where could they act as sticking plasters, enabling economic, social and cultural life to continue as near as possible to how they’d been before, and limit negative impacts on individuals and communities?

The second set concerned what they could do to prepare the ground for, then enable, recovery from the pandemic. How could they stimulate and accelerate economic revitalisation, address the inequalities exacerbated by the crisis, regain progress towards the SDGs, restore education and help children recover from lost time at school, reduce hospital waiting lists that had extended while clinicians dealt with COVID cases, and so on?

The third set concerned the underlying issues on which the crisis had been overlaid – the challenges of unequal and inadequate development, social and gender inequality, environmental degradation, poor governance, racial discrimination, international and ethnic conflict, geopolitical rivalries that preoccupied us before the virus spread. How had experience within the crisis enabled us to improve approaches to those larger challenges?

And my fourth set of issues concerned the impact of new technologies on individual lives: the extent to which, as individuals, we would behave differently from how we’d done before, and the cumulative effect of that on our communities – for instance, whether changes in work patterns would undermine the viability of city centres, or switching to digital entertainment would change the economics of theatres and cinemas, musicians and film-makers.

A testbed for the digital society

At the start of the pandemic, I suggested that it could be a testing ground for digital technologies, and particularly the aspirations expressed by digital enthusiasts for what a digital society might be. Where would digitalisation prove itself emphatically better than its analogue alternatives, and where would it be less effective? What would it enable to continue, and what would be curtailed despite it?

We have a good deal more evidence about this now. Not surprisingly the outcomes vary, between countries and economic sectors. Within countries and economic sectors, too. The adaptiveness of individuals and individual businesses has played its part in deciding whether digital resources are adopted and whether, if/when adopted, their adoption is successful.

Increased digitalisation has shown both the potential and the limitations of ‘digital transformation’. Relatively few new ways of doing things spurred by the crisis, however, seem to have been seen as clear improvements in many people’s lives long-term.

Substitution, as I put it in one of my earlier blogs, isn’t replication. Zoom’s not as good a way to chat with friends or colleagues as conversation in the coffee shop or at the water cooler. Online theatre’s not as good as sitting in the stalls. Streamed music can’t replace the excitement of live gigs. There’s more gained from browsing in a bookshop than trawling through whatever ‘likes’ are thrown up by algorithms on Amazon.

And this is why, I suspect, as the pandemic has continued, there’s been a wish by many – not just by governments and businesses, but citizens as well – to get back to how we were before rather than rush ahead with digital innovation. Why we may end up with more of the old normal than the new.

Two final points

I’ll leave this blog with two thoughts that arise from this.

The first is my perennial appeal for more research, with greater granularity. We’ve gained a good deal of experience over the past eighteen months in what digital technologies can do in many areas of life: in the economy and trade, the workplace, health and education, culture and governance, equality, identity and rights.

We’ve the opportunity to learn from this about the benefits and vulnerabilities of digital dependence which, like it or not, is going to increase. We should take advantage of this opportunity to improve our understanding of the policy options that we have and the policy choices we can make.

To do so, though, we need two things. We need greater granularity: not health in general, but health in all its different guises; not education as a whole but education for children with different backgrounds, capabilities and opportunities. And we need modesty on the part of the digital industry: finding out what’s working rather than – or at least before – promoting its products and services.

The second’s to reiterate something that I said as the year turned: that, when we seek to learn these lessons, we should be pragmatic. We should focus, in the short term, on recovery, on restoring levels of prosperity and social welfare that we’ve lost - as well as thinking how we can ‘build back better’ than we built before, especially where environmental outcomes are concerned. We shouldn’t lose the opportunity of resetting in the haste to normalise.

Both of these require a focus on the contribution that digital technologies can make towards recovery and ongoing development, rather than an emphasis on digital ‘solutions’; on the interaction between the digital and the non-digital rather than displacement of the latter by the former.

Inside the Digital Society will take its annual Northern summer/Southern winter break for the next few weeks. It will return at the beginning of September.


Photo by daveynin via Flickr.

David Souter writes a weekly column for APC, looking at different aspects of the information society, development and rights. David’s pieces take a fresh look at many of the issues that concern APC and its members, with the aim of provoking discussion and debate. Issues covered include internet governance and sustainable development, human rights and the environment, policy, practice and the use of ICTs by individuals and communities. More about David Souter.
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