The freaky video of the New York Police Department’s robot dog owned the internet earlier this month. The minute that DigiDog creepily trotted out of a public housing building, many people decided that the “Terminator” future had arrived — and that humanity was doomed.
Humanity is not doomed. But the hubbub got me thinking about how to assess the future of tech, both the bad and the good, in the wake of the pandemic.
Much like the major changes that raced through American society after the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic (also after World War I), this will be a jarring time. Here’s my take on five of the key arenas we need to be thinking about post-pandemic.
Telecommuting. Work, and specifically its shift from the office to the home, has been one of the most significant changes of the past year. Of course many jobs still require physical presence, but the number of workers who do not have to be analog is vast and growing.
These so-called knowledge workers have realized — even with all the griping about being on Zoom all the time — that it can be both cheaper and more productive to have a work force that is more flexible in terms of place and time.
No chief executives I’ve spoken with in recent months think that their company will have a significant amount of staff in any kind of headquarters at any one time in the future. Facebook said this week that its employees could work at home permanently; this will become increasingly common.
And despite a number of impediments to virtual work — including the very basic human need to connect in person — the reams of data collected over the past year show remote work can be more productive. This information will lead to all manner of innovations — and more remote work.
There is much to worry about here, of course, including the persistent tracking of workers and their effectiveness, at all tiers of the workplace. Also, managers will rely a lot less on anecdotal evidence than actual performance when it comes to evaluating worker productivity, which can be a good thing.
Tele-health. Health care is another area that was ripe for disruption prepandemic, as the industry had resisted tech for many years. A number of giant companies like Microsoft and Google have tried to streamline the consumer health experience, while many others have been part of digitizing the back end, but it’s still a miasma of confusion. The pandemic only underscored the poor state of the country’s health services.
The Covid era is the first time in many decades that the well-off have had to experience the inadequate health services that have long been suffered by marginalized populations. Because of the mess that has been Covid testing and vaccine scheduling, among other examples, huge numbers of people now understand from firsthand experience the cost of our broken medical system.
Questions surrounding the Covid-19 vaccine and its rollout.
No surprise, then, that there has also been a surge in the use of various tele-medicine start-ups, such as mental-health apps. While these bring legitimate and significant worries about security and the efficacy of online diagnostics (there is precious little room for error when it comes to health), those who run our hopelessly complex and expensive health systems will be looking for more cost-effective ways to deliver services.
Retail. Physical retail — including restaurants and bars — has been under enormous pressure for years, as tech companies have increasingly placed themselves between the goods and customers. All the while, tech companies have been building one moat after the next to solidify their strength by providing better service, streamlining delivery logistics and offering better prices.
Companies like Amazon — and to a lesser extent other success stories like Uber Eats, Instacart and DoorDash — have been girded in the pandemic. Consumers have been trained over the past year to use these various services and will continue to choose them over walking to a retailer or restaurant. These companies have established trusted brands, since they have become indispensable.
Again, data acquired over the past year will help these big companies improve service and target users. This means they have big advantages to further develop all manner of products.
People will surely do more in-person purchasing as the pandemic fades. But online commerce might now be ingrained as a daily practice, and innovations related to it are sure to make it even more powerful.
If you think Apple and Amazon won’t be delivering and administering your next vaccine someday, for example, you need to think again.
Tele-education. Online education has not worked out so well in the past year. A reliance on virtual education has taken a toll on our mental health and revealed inequities in internet access. It’s still a problematic experience for most users. Everyone I talk with agrees that it’s been a failure for most students.
As they say often in tech, it did not scale well, in terms of technology, creativity and, mostly, in inspiring a love of learning. I don’t blame teachers for not being able to transform their classes digitally — most tried their best.
But in my house, way too much of the time my kids doodled, texted, played games and watched videos, all on their always riveting mobile phones.
All of this, despite that fact that online education has been around for a while. But developers have largely focused on making more education accessible to more people, rather than providing fresh products and services.
Post-pandemic, I would love to see a huge amount of investment going into making online learning both accessible and engaging. It’s decidedly not — and the opportunity is glaring.
Innovation. The most important thing to come out of the pandemic could be a flowering of innovation, across a wide variety of sectors. After the 1918 pandemic, the 1920s saw a burst of aggressive ideas, most especially with the introduction of the television.
While I can’t predict what the 2020s equivalent of that would be, if I had to guess, I would say we’ll see new breakthroughs related to the messenger RNA technology used to develop the Covid vaccines. Such a thing would be both ironic and fitting, and in keeping with how innovation works: Out of the ashes of great distress comes a major discovery. And the rest is, as they say, history.