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by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Jason Snell

Pandemic tech good and bad

So it’s Week 7 of our local “shelter in place” lifestyle. I’ll assume you, dear reader, have been under similar restrictions. This global pandemic has given all of us a lot of time to ponder so many things.

As I was saying to my wife yesterday while we were walking the dog, I was already leading a lifestyle where I’m lucky to get out of my house once a day for a walk. I guess I was already leading a shelter-in-place lifestyle, though I could really use a haircut.

Here’s one of the things I’ve been pondering, though: The tools that allowed me to do my job for five years while more or less sheltering in place are the tools that so many of us are using these days. This is a difficult situation, but when I try to imagine how difficult it would be if we didn’t have our 21st-century level of connectivity, I’m baffled.

Some people (including me) can do their jobs remotely, even if they usually work in an office. I’m hopeful that when this is all over, some companies will realize that they don’t need to force all their workers to commute into tiny open-plan offices in expensive city cores. Of course, not everybody can really convert their job to a completely digital one. My wife is a children’s librarian, and while she has found ways to connect to her community remotely, it’s just not the same as being there in person.

But even if your job can’t exist on the Internet, at least we have it to help ease some of our isolation. Between Slack and Zoom and Skype, we’ve managed to keep in touch with people during these seven weeks. Regular extended-family Zoom sessions have made me think we ought to keep doing them even after the worst of this is over. And of course there’s Netflix and YouTube and Hulu and Kindle books and Apple Music and Spotify and podcasts and… we have a lot of ways to get entertainment in many forms without going outside.

With that all said, this experience has also called out a bunch of places where our technology has either let us down or is being asked to do more than it’s really capable of. I have two kids at home, and while I’m fortunate that they’re teenagers and can feed themselves, I’ve also had to witness just how frustrating distance learning can be.

I don’t want to run down distance learning as a concept—I actually think online school can be a good thing. But we’re not seeing it at its best, by a long shot. This is distance learning being conducted by teachers who’ve never done it before, who are themselves isolated and probably caring for their own families at home while trying to do a job they weren’t asked to do and haven’t been trained for. Meanwhile, many of their students have never experienced an online class and are understandably feeling their own frustrations at being pulled out of school and isolated with their families.

It’s not a recipe for success. The longer this goes, the more likely things will get better—I’d imagine that education is going to contain major online components for a while, and they’ll figure a lot of this stuff—but right now it’s a cocktail of frustration and sadness.

If I’ve learned anything in the last couple of decades of writing about technology, is that tech is just a tool. It can be used for good and bad. It can be carelessly misused and cause great damage. It can also do great good, in the right hands and circumstances.

This pandemic has brought that into sharp relief. Overall, we’re so lucky to have the Internet during this time of isolation. But there are limits, of course.

I hope this newsletter finds you well. Stay healthy, and be careful out there.

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