It’s a little over two years now since the world locked down in face of the coronavirus.
‘Normal life’ for many people – the way we worked, played, shopped and socialised – was suddenly and dramatically uprooted. In our droves, those of us who had digital access turned to digital alternatives – home-working, online shopping, video-conferencing with families and friends – as we sat in isolated homes.
There was much speculation at the time that this would accelerate digitalisation. Once the COVID crisis had been overcome, many assumed, we’d stick with new digital ways of doing things rather than going back to what was oft decried as “business as usual”.
But what has happened in practice? What are the policy implications of those outcomes? Some thoughts ahead of this blog’s annual Northern summer / Southern winter break. But, first, an overarching point about the way we think about these things.
Most people who work within the digital community envisage the evolution of the digital society as “progress”.
That’s partly technological: each year sees new advances in technology that build on what’s already there. One piece of kit, one app, one service “progresses” from another.
For many in the digital community, though, it’s also value-laden: innovation’s seen as positive per se; not just the way forward but the right way forward; more efficient, more empowering, more enabling.
As often emphasised in this blog, reality’s more complex, and digitalisation has both positive and negative features for political ‘progressives’. But there’s another point to make here too.
Technology’s development’s not independent of what’s happening in the wider world around it. External circumstances – individual events, changes in the way we live, trends in geopolitics – affect digital development just as much as digital development affects the wider world.
They change the pace of digital development, they change its nature, and they change its impact. For those who think in terms of “progress”, they change what “progress” will contain.
COVID-19’s been one such circumstance, but we see others now around us: war in Ukraine, disruption in the world economy and possible recession, heatwaves this week and longer trends in climate change.
So let’s take COVID
What then of COVID? Two years ago, as I have mentioned, the assumption was that it would have lasting impacts on digitalisation – that it would accelerate the process by which offline turned to online, increase its pace and shift the way we do things towards digital alternatives.
I’d say that there were seven main points in this thinking – most, but not all, seen as positive within the digital community.
First, public health. Pandemics put a premium on information about health. Countries that had more data on citizens’ health and the pandemic’s progress were assumed to have more chance of keeping it controlled. That was bound up with control of infectivity: the ability to isolate those who were infected from those who weren’t but might be.
This wasn’t just a matter of whether data were available, but also of what might be called the social infrastructure round them, including the power of government to influence/manage behaviour and the extent to which society was likely to comply with guidance or instructions from the state.
Second, employment. Digitalisation meant that many office workers were able to work from home during the crisis, in ways that wouldn’t have been possible a decade earlier.
That made government and business more resilient, and much employment more sustainable. It protected office workers – many of them better-off – more than it did those who worked outside. And it was widely assumed that this would bring about a long-term shift towards working from home – a shift that many had long advocated but which had been slower to appear than expected.
Third, e-commerce. As studies from UNCTAD (in which I was involved) soon showed, there was significant growth in online shopping in all regions – though obviously the benefits of this were more available to those with good connections and the finances to pay their way.
As with employment it was assumed this would accelerate a trend towards e-commerce that had been growing for a while. Business models, it was assumed, would need to change; there’d be downsides for businesses that failed to change, and perhaps traditional high streets and shopping malls, but there’d be powerful upsides for businesses that maximised digital offerings.
Fourth, work and social interaction. The COVID crisis forced businesses into replacing physical meetings with videoconferencing. Necessity rendered resistance to that trend, which might have happened previously, unfeasible. There were advantages but also disadvantages (less time commuting but less social networking; less harassment but less collaboration?).
And platforms such as Skype, WhatsApp and Zoom infiltrated video more deeply into social interaction. Families and friends who’d not previously considered it found themselves in deeper contact during the pandemic because of online services. Another trend that most have assumed is likely to continue.
And so to downsides, of which three were particularly prominent.
First, digital opportunities were and are unequally distributed. Those with digital resources (infrastructure, connectivity, apps and the funds to pay for things) were more resilient to pandemic’s impact than those without.
Sure, there was an upsurge in take-up of digital services by those who’d been on the margin of accessing them, but that still left large groups outside the digi-tent. Those who were already marginalised by the mix of social, economic and digital inequality – see this earlier blog – could well see disadvantage grow.
Second, surveillance fears were widely expressed by some digital and rights advocates. Interventions aimed at protecting against the spread of COVID – such as tracking apps – could, they argued, be used for other purposes by businesses and governments that might then exploit them to control or manage citizens after the crisis.
Concerns about the balance between social rights (to life, to health) and individual rights (to privacy) arising from this fed into existing arguments about data privacy and exploitation, and the benefits and detriments of automated data gathering and management.
And third, disinformation. Concerns about the spread of propaganda and disinformation online were significant before COVID, but the crisis has exacerbated them. Before the internet, information flows within society were much more mediated/edited.
It’s much easier today for anyone to have a say, and for that say to be manipulated. The context of the virus demonstrated how easy it's become for online content also to go viral, including content with the potential to cause harm to individuals affected by it.
How to handle problematic content, and its potential influence, has become more prominent in public discourse. Governments, businesses and rights advocates have struggled to balance expression rights and health protections in the wake of anti-vaxxing content and the spread of false (and possibly harmful) remedies. Another trend exacerbated by pandemic.
And what has happened since?
Two years on and it should be possible to take stock of what’s arisen. I think some conclusions can be drawn but that we’re short on monitoring and on understanding the different trends that have occurred in different places with different experience of the pandemic and different styles of governance.
Some of the expectations I’ve just mentioned have been realised in part at least. Digitalisation trends that were underway beforehand have indeed accelerated.
Regular meetings that I used to attend in person, at some inconvenience, are now online with no intention that they should revert to physical. Families and friendship groups have become habituated to gathering on Zoom (it’s been the main way that I’ve got to know my young grand-daughter).
Many people like working from home and hybrid office-working modes (half-in, half-out) have become quite common since lockdown ended, encouraged by some employers, not by others.
Amazon has been one of the biggest winners from the pandemic; online food deliveries have also gained more traction. And there are clearly quite substantial losses on the high street that result from this, including (in my country) the end of many long-established brands that weren’t able to switch business practices in ways that could compete with online retailers.
But, again in my society at least, those impacts don’t seem quite as strong as had been first envisaged, for two reasons.
Being forced to do things digitally has reminded citizens of what they like about “old ways” of doing things: the pleasure of browsing in book and clothes shops, the camaraderie of office working, meeting up in restaurants and clubs when work is through, live entertainment, the serendipity of social interaction on the street or in the park.
And, likewise, being forced to do things digitally has shown the limits of today’s digital alternatives. Family gatherings without physical embraces simply aren’t the same.
As importantly, government in my country has been putting pressure on employers and employees to get back full time into traditional workspaces.
One reason for that is symbolic. Return to work implies the crisis is now over, or at least under control. It represents apparent government success: time to move on.
But there are other reasons too. City centres, full of shops and bars and restaurants, depend on office workers’ footfall to be viable. If office workers don’t come back to town, there’s a risk that city centres will spiral downwards, with more and more empty premises making them increasingly unattractive to new businesses and returning office workers – in what might become a vicious cycle of decay.
So “business as before” has attractions for citizens and businesses and governments that digital alternatives aren’t able to provide. The trend to digital continues, but the pandemic’s not led to digital ways of doing things displacing older ways, and may not have accelerated that trend as much as was anticipated.
Perhaps what we have gained (or can gain from better data) is better knowledge of what makes certain digital alternatives more popular or less – and better understanding of the broader challenges that may result from the growth of digitising such as online shopping or telecommuting.
It would certainly be helpful if those trends were seen more clearly from economic and transport policy perspectives, not just thought of in terms of what’s best for making a more digital society.
Two final points, about analysis.
The first is that we need more data on what’s happening in practice. A fair amount of data gathering was done during the pandemic’s early stages, though much of it was undertaken by those who wanted to promote digitalisation. I’ve seen much less by way of data on more recent trends, as lockdowns have been ended and the chance to return to business as before’s become more general.
We need to know more about what’s happening as the pandemic recedes and about how that differs place to place.
The second goes back to my starting points. The digital society’s development doesn’t stand alone, outside wider economic, social, political and cultural trends. It’s influenced by external factors. The COVID crisis has been one acute example. I’ve mentioned others.
We can and should learn what we can from COVID’s interaction with digital development about the nature of this interface, not least because it should help us to avoid assumptions about digital ‘progress’ that are more aspirational than evidenced. It won’t give us definitive answers, but it may make us more sceptical when corporations offer digital “solutions” to challenges that are far more than digital.
Inside the Digital Society will be taking its annual Northern summer / Southern winter break for the next six weeks. It will return at the beginning of September.
Image: Illustration by Andrea Estefanía.