It’s December. We’re nearing the end of a year that has uprooted lives and livelihoods around the world. One that’s seen a global health crisis bring economic recession and set back progress towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
A year that’s marked another stage in the emergence of a digital society. Two blogs left to take stock of that. This week, asking what’s happened. Next, what ought to happen next.
Testing digital potential
It’s common commentary that the pandemic’s tested the mettle, and potential, of the digital.
Societies around the world have been disrupted and economies slowed down by lockdowns and other measures intended to protect the public health.
I took a first look at what that’s meant for the digital society in May. I called it then ‘a testbed for the extent to which digital technologies can substitute for established ways of doing things, and how they can do so effectively.’ A lot would depend, I suggested, on ‘the duration of the crisis and the extent to which people feel online alternatives are as good as (or better than) offline equivalents.’
Back then, many countries were easing out of their first lockdowns. Since then, two things have happened:
the pandemic’s struck back with a vengeance, with infections at record levels and many countries facing second waves;
light’s emerged at tunnel’s end through the development of vaccines, a huge achievement for medical technology.
But I’d say those May conclusions stand. Let’s take another look at them.
What’s happened to the use of digital
It’s common commentary, again, that the pandemic’s accelerated digitalisation in many aspects of our lives – cramming change that might have taken five years into one or even less.
Those who can work from home but haven’t, despite digital capacity to do so for the past decade, have taken to it now with varying levels of enthusiasm. There’s been a surge in take-up of online entertainment services that were already gaining market share, from Netflix to gaming platforms.
I’ve been looking at e-commerce, where online shopping’s taken up the slack left by shops that have been closed in lockdown and by shoppers’ fears of catching the coronavirus. (More on this in new year.)
The technology to do all this has proved more resilient than many had expected. Networks have not collapsed under the strain of more demand. Societies and economies have been badly hit by the pandemic but many aspects of them have continued functioning far better than they would have done ten years ago because of digital technology.
There are lessons to be learnt from the ways in which network operators have achieved this, and the ways societies adjusted. These will especially enable businesses to target markets more accurately – with further reach, greater precision and more profit than they’ve done to date – think of the increased data volumes, in testbed contexts, they now have to test out business models. Those lessons should spur governments as well, in looking out for future policies (and how to manage digital development for public interest).
What’s happening because of use of digital
But, as I suggested back in May, the pandemic’s also illustrated limitations of digitalisation: two in particular.
Substitution isn’t replication. Many of the things that people now do digitally they’d still prefer to do offline. Working from home is fun for some, acceptable for many, impossible for most. Watching films or football on the sofa isn’t the same as seeing them in cinemas or stadia. My first grandchild was born last week: I want to see her in the flesh, not just on Zoom.
As the need for health controls recedes, what will people do? How far will they stick with the new digital normal many are experiencing now; how far will they return to old ways of doing things? That isn’t clear as yet and won’t be for some time.
It’s generally agreed, second, that the pandemic’s increased inequality and that digital inequality’s exacerbated this impact. Money, security and digital access tend to go together. Prosperous office workers with secure jobs, in all countries, tend to have more money and more digital access than poorly-paid manual workers with precarious jobs.
The combination’s what’s given them a better outcome. It’s taken, rightly, as meaning that more must be done to provide affordable access (as well as digital skills) for all, but it also poses an immediate problem about inequality today, in the absence of such equitable access. And it underlines that there are underlying problems here, not just problems of pandemic.
The digital within society: three sets of issues
Three sets of issues are thrown up, in short, by the relationship between the pandemic and the digital:
There are short-term issues, concerned with the pandemic now. How to protect the vulnerable against infection; how to manage health resources; how to provide income support to businesses and individuals. In our context, how to use digital resources to mitigate the impact of the crisis.
There are long-term issues, concerned with the pandemic’s coming legacy. How to expedite economic recovery; how to restore progress towards the SDGs; how to improve resilience against future pandemics. In our case, how to use digital resources to contribute to these goals, and address potential problems that digital transition may cause, for instance for employment and in retail-losing city centres.
And there are underlying issues, concerned with long-term economic, social and environmental challenges that the world faced before coronavirus and will continue to face in its aftermath, with the added problem of reduced resources. Inadequate healthcare and education. Economic weakness and inequality. Unsustainable environmental threats from pollution and from climate change. Poor governance. Insufficient global coordination. Polarising politics.
Our current digital environment has proved valuable in dealing with the short-term issues, but it’s been more sticking plaster than solution. It’s not ‘the answer’ to pandemic or recession – ‘answers’, if we’re to use that word, lie with medicine and economics – but it’s played its part in mitigation.
Digitalisation has obvious potential to contribute to addressing long-term issues. In which context, digital policy needs to seek both positive contributions to resilience and revitalising economic dynamism and ways to mitigate potential downsides such as those related to employment, equality and the risk that some (and maybe many) may be left behind.
Those underlying issues are, though, bigger challenges than those posed by the pandemic or addressable by digital. They’re problems that decades of development policy have not resolved, that the SDGs are meant to match, and that the UN secretary-general and others refer to when they say that we must ‘build back better’ after the coronavirus, rather than returning to the status quo beforehand.
The policies and programmes to address these are social and economic, medical and educational, political and ethical. Digitalisation has its part to play in them, with them, alongside them. Making it integral to overall development, rather than seeing it as ‘the solution’ (or as an existential threat), should be the biggest issue in digital governance. Starting to make progress towards that will be one theme of next week’s blog.
A final counterfactual
I’ll end with an important counterfactual that we should be asking here. (A counterfactual’s a question about what might have happened to us if something in our past had been other than it was).
The issues we’re grappling with today concern the impact on society, economy and digitalisation of a physical virus. We’re seeing how that’s accelerated digital presence in many aspects of our lives. We’re expecting many of the digital impacts that we see to become permanent.
But what if this had been a digital virus that got out of hand rather than a physical one? What if it had been digital malware that had closed down shops and offices, that reduced the quality of life, that brought about recession? That would, surely, have had the opposite effect: decelerating digitalisation just as the physical virus has accelerated it.
Those who think about the future might have said, two years ago, that the risks associated with a breakdown in digital systems weren’t that much different from those posed by a potential pandemic; and they haven’t gone away. Cybersecurity becomes more important with every step digitalisation takes. The vulnerabilities we faced in January because of lack of planning for a physical pandemic could well be replicated by lack of planning for its digital equivalent. Digital’s resilience this last year should not make us complacent.