The coronavirus outbreak has the world grasping at straws. With countries going into nationwide lockdowns, the pandemic has left daily lives in disarray and economies crippled. But as people acclimatize to life under quarantine and increasingly rely on the internet for work as well as entertainment, this period of crisis has also emerged as both technology’s ultimate challenge and a glimpse into the future tech giants have long been working towards.
Over the past few weeks, the pandemic’s attendant effects have enabled a reality where tech sits at the top of every food chain. For people across the globe who are indefinitely stuck indoors, online tools have taken the role of their windows to the outside world.
We live in a videoconferencing world now
In this new normal, videoconferencing services Zoom, Slack, and Microsoft Teams have allowed many of us to communicate with colleagues, or even host happy hours with friends. WhatsApp, FaceTime, and more keep us in touch with friends and families. Streaming services and video games provide much-needed entertainment. E-commerce sites help get essential products delivered to our doorsteps. Digital payments have taken precedence over cash. Social platforms like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter are no longer simply social networks — they are now everyone’s foremost communication channels for community updates, news, and more.
The numbers reflect this shift, too. Microsoft Teams added about 12 million daily active users in a week. Facebook says “the usage growth from COVID-19 [the official name of the coronavirus] is unprecedented across the industry” and that it’s “experiencing new records every day.” Internet traffic is off the charts — so much so that streaming platforms had to temporarily throttle their streaming quality.
Although these companies are thriving more than ever, the question that remains is whether the world and, more importantly, tech companies themselves are ready for an online-first economy? Early signs suggest otherwise.
The problem with social media
The coronavirus surge has deepened and further accentuated the fundamental cracks the majority of these online systems have always suffered from.
Despite announcing precautionary measures, social sites like Facebook and YouTube have been inundated with an around-the-clock avalanche of misleading ads, fake news, conspiracy theory posts, and a whole lot more. Google has been found promoting coronavirus-related products on its ad network. Amazon and eBay have been largely unable to fend off opportunistic sellers.
Dr. Ramesh Srinivasan, a professor at UCLA’s Department of Information Studies and author of the book Beyond the Valley, which explores tech’s relationship with politics, economics, and more, believes these social media issues are partly architectural and stem from platforms’ tendency to prioritize provocative information. “Technologies like Facebook and YouTube — and pretty much all the major internet and social media technologies — are ones that reinforce the visibility of information that will grab your attention that is based on spectacle,” he told Digital Trends.
“We need to have a coordinated basis for understanding what should be publicly digestible information, and platforms like Facebook have generally taken zero responsibility when it comes to that issue. So they’re monetizing public engagement and addiction even, I would say. We better deal with it because every time something that requires information, which is almost everything these days, comes [along], this problem recurs. And at this time with this virus, it’s a much bigger issue than I would say than ever before, because now we’re talking about a global crisis rather than merely a national one,” Srinivasan said.
What happens when Big Tech fails in a pandemic
Coronavirus has also disrupted the backbone of the majority of tech platforms to which we’ve grown accustomed: Gig workers, an indispensable cog in online services for companies such as Facebook and Uber. By keeping them at arm’s length as contractual workers, tech giants have refused to take responsibility for what powers their underlying systems.
When entire populations have been ordered to stay at home, gig workers have become a lifeline for delivering food and other essential packages, for ferrying passengers in cabs in times of no public transport, for moderating a deluge of information on social platforms, and more.
All it took was a pandemic for tech companies to understand the many issues surrounding the gig economy. Amazon announced it will hire another 100,000 workers in the United States to deal with surging demand and raise pay for them in the U.S., Canada, and Europe. Uber and DoorDash extended sick pay to drivers who are diagnosed or quarantined. Uber and Airbnb lobbied Congress to include gig workers in the bailout bill passed this week — and succeeded.
There’s still a long way to go, however. Facebook especially has been negligent toward its estimated 15,000 content moderators who are largely contractors. The social media giant recently offered a $1,000 cash bonus to all of its full-time employees, but not contractual workers.
“Gig workers are generally speaking invisible, we know that in many cases they’re exploited,” Srinivasan said.
Srinivasan further believes a tech-first future should pay heed to the glaring issues that have plagued the gig economy. “This is the status quo, but I want us to not just be critical of the status quo, but imagine a better world where people are employed in meaningful ways where their work is creative, where these tech companies are more responsible and hire these people like true employees and really carefully look at what the nature of their work is,” he said.
The sustainability of an online-first world hinges on a range of pillars. Tech companies, in the last couple of years, have struggled to keep their promises and largely evaded crucial discussions around topics such as gig workers, privacy, and more. With platforms such as Clearview AI covertly operating in plain sight and misusing users’ publicly available information, there’s a continued sense that governments are playing catch-up when it comes to regulation.
Technology is the way forward for humanity, but before that happens, laws and policies that address these issues and rethink what kind of role tech giants play in societies will have to be put in place. Until then, a tech-first world edges dangerously close to a dystopian novel.