Love In the Time Of COVID-19 : Social Separation, Adaptive Technology And You
Much is to be said about the benefits and downfalls of technology in the age of a global pandemic and how individuals adapt to either the availability of it or not. It’s easy to say to those who have the luxury of having Internet access and the time to read this article have it “easy” in the more colloquial sense. We take for granted the interconnectedness of everybody in a digital society, but there still exists a separation between the haves and the have-nots, and in situations that we find ourselves in globally now, there exists an existential risk to that grouping and stratification.
I consider myself very lucky that I have a life where technology access and use is a cornerstone of my day to day life, but with it does have some unexpected issues. I’m always attuned to the news, I can go on line and express an opinion or feeling when it strikes me, and if I’m searching for something, I have access to the information in under a few short clicks. I use technology as a decision support device, a social tool, entertainment, augmented intelligence, and even a space saver – using digital libraries, cloud storage, and other capabilities.
However, I laughed, years ago in 1998, when professors of mine, Robert Kraut and Sara Kiesler authored research on the Internet being a social technology that reduced social involvement and psychological well-being, and then a decade later updated that research, but with nearly the same conclusions. When put under stress, one could easily come down on both sides of the assessment of being a good but also harmful technology. A friend of mine, within the time of developing the abstract for this article has used social media as a release valve for some struggles they are fighting. However, short of messages back, kind and supportive words, or even a voice chat, there’s not much a remote person can do, making friends feel just as helpless.
Conversely, due to economic inequities and some infrastructure complexities here in the United States and elsewhere around the world, universal access to modern digital technology is severely lessened. The market tends to favor the middle and upper income levels with offerings, pricing out not only initial new technologies, but even those generally considered utility and basic in nature. In fact, touching back on college, my engineering and public policy course had a class thesis project to examine Internet access for low income communities… in 1996. It has, maybe, gotten marginally better in that time, but has very much not kept pace with access to never and innovative technologies, and the gap has widened.
Addressing this in the developing world, I look back to research I did while at The Walt Disney Company and their desire to expand into those new markets, but ran into a number of technical and societal issues that weren’t as present in major developed markets such as North America, Europe and part of Asia. Of course, in many cases, traditional high-speed networks weren’t in place, and if they were, they were limited to high density population centers, leaving communities who were more rural or extra-rural and remote without certain levels of service. Sure, while there is often cell phone coverage in these areas, covered via multiple column inches by journalists in articles, it is often 2G and 3G networks only, which are still limited to the types of content available.
In other cases, when we look at the flow of information and how it impacts social interactions, involvement with communities, and general situational awareness, you must also be acutely aware of some political situations that influence this as well, and individuals motivations for free and trustworthy instances of that information. Some regimes severely limit the types and scope of communication between its citizens and the outside world, including the content and sources of information. They also may resort to false narratives and propaganda, internally and to external parties, to control an ongoing incident or point of view, regardless of the truth or ongoing harm it may cause. This is an extremely problematic variable in cases such as a global pandemic we find the world dealing with now. However, these techniques can also be leveraged by even more democratic institutions if they find their control and ability to deal with problems under duress or slipping away from manageability.
So, how does this play with the issues evolving out of the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting calls for social separation and physical isolation as tools to abate the spread of the virus?
For societies that are purporting to be open and democratic, information and data generally flows freely and unencumbered, but with that comes the risk of misinformation and even disinformation which can be more detrimental than helpful. As we’ve seen the effects of disinformation campaigns on recent US elections, in much more fluid situations such as crises, to stem panic and anxiety, having clear, consistent and correct information is paramount. For groups that aren’t as wired in as some more privileged groups, it may cut both ways, as misinformation gets passed via more traditional oral or other means, and correcting it is slower and may not keep up with a more organic spread through traditional and electronic means.
In the aftermath of more restrictive movements being asked of the general population to “flatten the curve”, we are leaning more on services driven by technology, delivery apps, on-line product shopping, just-in-time supply chains, telemedicine, video conferencing, and of course social media. This will bend, and occasionally both break infrastructure and those service providers, both virtually and physically, as those prior strategized use models change quickly to what were considered “edge cases”. Some are more elastic, but there’s never an endless supply of resources, nor endless suppliers. There’s some entropy to support how things will fail and when will be highly unpredictable, runs on certain resources, logically or not, will quickly exhaust and consumers will turn to other sources if available and begin to oversubscribe either due to convenience or the lack of marketplace diversity.
As much as we are expecting those services and capabilities to be flexible and resilient, we need to be so as well. Humans are the apex species on Earth because we have mastered the art and science of adaptability. Realize there are limits to both “virtual” and “physical” systems as they rely upon one another, that Amazon package you ordered on-line, required a robot and human stocker, picker and packer, a sorter, and eventual physical delivery to your door -it didn’t happen by magic. Knowing you have humans, people, backing these systems means learning to be kind, extending what it means to be human by extending comparison to them, your neighbors, friends and families.
This is also a psychological test for many, even when we can hop on a chat server for a game, FaceTime or Zoom somebody, or even just get into an SMS thread or Twitter DM, you will still need to understand how somebody will receive the message, and maybe even think about what they have or are going through. There’s a ton of unknowns and intangibles in moments like this that folks tend to keep private or hidden because those concerns may not have been triggered until, say a health crisis or emotional switch happened. As I noted earlier, humans are inherently social herd animals, where we derive (even if you call yourself an introvert or ambivert) some energy from social interaction.
To see another human face to know we, too are still human. To be honest, there’s only so much I think my kittens are willing to hear, and this is why I’m glad I can drop in on my spouse in their office and chat, or even watch YouTube videos or TV with them. Others who are separated by distance from family, they are leveraging these tools in lieu of a family gathering such as a birthday, wedding or other event, and it will seem weird and odd, but it’s become the new normal for the time being. Even others are possibly alone, at the intimacy level, outside of a roommate, or maybe the first time a young adult left home for school or their own life. I know many folks tend to poke a lot of fun at dating apps, mocking the “swipe right” of Tindr and others, as a market-based relationship model, but those are probably being relied upon more, less for a “hook-up” but maybe just trying to find some coping mechanisms to the isolation. Other cases, the constant closeness may strain relationships that were already stressed, or in some extreme cases such as domestic violence, put people within harm’s way even further into a dangerous situation. Leveraging technology to help those most vulnerable should be a goal for any technologist trying to figure out what to do with their excess time not in traditional social situations.
Along with the help needed to assure safety of those who may be in challenging situations, including those without advanced technology access, we need to think about our own mental and emotional health. The use of telepresence and telehealth will help with strategizing for those who are on the front lines of the pandemic, but much like doctors and medical staff are a finite quantity (as in, we can’t just scale up and mint more) our mental health care system, already at a stress point will be overwhelmed shortly if not already. It would be disingenuous to prescribe others to be patient, but even those traditional consumers of such services will be joined by the non-traditional consumers as these changes stress people in all sorts of new ways, and during and after this we will see interesting innovations or some horrific failures. These are all tools, but not everything available toolbox, and work with others to find what will work for you, and for new consumers, they will need to learn from those who were already in the system and join with learning coping and other mechanisms to process what they are dealing with.
One thing technology won’t solve is depression and grief. While the use may provide some endorphins from things such as gaming, some social interactions, even shopping it’s not going to be a substitute when the hardest of the hards hits. Even before I became a “computer nerd”, when my mom passed, I didn’t know how to process grief, having an iPhone or Internet access or Facebook wasn’t going to help, even with all the virtual hugs I could muster. This pandemic is going to touch everybody,it’s just a statistical probability. I’m transgender, and that makes me 0.6% of the US population that self-identifies. The mortality rate estimates for COVID-19 ranges from 1-6% depending on which country you hail from, and at least a 1% infection rate, and sometimes higher depending on the models, which, given that 0.6% means this could literally wipe out a number presenting a minority population. When you exist in a population that sits under a curve like that, the magnitude of the amount of harm, physically and emotionally it can cause is breathtaking.
Okay, now that this has spun into some doom and gloom, I want to make the reminder that, like any tool, like you would find in your garage, shed, kitchen drawer, sewing box, whatever, it’s a matter of how you use it that makes it effectively beneficial. Rely on it to “help” but not be the “only”. If it’s not helping, step away, take a breath and recenter. If possible, use other means to help you realize the actual value of the use of technology can be rather than taking it for granted and abusing it. We will get through this, it will take time, we will survive, find love, seek happiness, see another day. Be a human. Be kind, be gentle, be loving. Speak up, listen, help, think. Be the person you want others to look up to when they are having a rough time because they could be the ones who need to be there for you.