COVID-19 and our (complicated) relationship with tech

In this post, Esther Davies, a recent MA graduate of the School of Sociology and Social Policy, University of Leeds, explores how the recent pandemic has further complicated our difficult relationship with technology. The author has chosen to use a pseudonym to protect her privacy online.

Over the past year, life for many around the world has ground to a sudden halt, with much of our daily activity retreating into confined and concrete spaces. The pandemic, which has dominated our lives for more than a year, exposed just how much we rely on digital technology – for all aspects of our lives. From Zoom conferences to Instagram live workouts to online grocery shopping, techno

logy has kept businesses functioning and helped us stay connected. For the millions of people who live alone, it has been a vital lifeline to the outside world. Even those of us who had once tried to abstain from our devices for fear of an unhealthy screen time, soon gave up on the idea and embraced all that tech has to offer.

The unwavering success of digital technologies reflects just how well they function in quarantine conditions. As lockdown orders forced millions of people into solitude, technology provided us with some replica of normality by enabling sanitary access to other people and the imitation of working and teaching conditions remotely (Austin 2020, Reggiani et al. 2020). Before the pandemic, these devices and services were considered as mundane utilities that we would use as much or as little as we please. But now that being homebound is the primary way of life, technology has become essential to most of our daily tasks.

It is unsurprising then that tech industry’s biggest companies have fared better than most during the pandemic. Recent figures show that Apple and Amazon both accrued $100 billion in sales over the past 3 months – that is 25% more than Tesco makes over the course of a full year (Jolly 2021). The video platform Zoom, a relative underdog before the coronavirus, has seen its stocks rise by more than 600% (Klebnikov 2020), whilst Facebook, Netflix and YouTube have all reported huge spikes in their daily traffic (Miller 2020).

Whilst our dependence on technology has undoubtedly accelerated during the pandemic, some have argued that we had already been living in a tech-like quarantine by default. For instance, Ian Bogost claims (2020) that endless streaming services, same-day deliveries, instant messaging apps and boundless social media have steadily diminished reasons for venturing outside the comforts of one’s home, making almost any activity possible from a laptop, phone, or tablet.

The increased tendency to spend more time indoors has bolstered a successful ‘homebody economy’ (Tiffany 2018) and given rise to terms such as ‘hygge’ and ‘domestic cozy’ (Austin 2020, Jennings 2020) – used to depict the feeling of ‘snuggling in warm clothes, feeling sheltered and safe, enjoying indulgent foods, drinking mulled wine and soft lighting’ (Stieg 2019). Brands and advertisers soon realised that the idea of ‘coziness’ can be made into a highly lucrative business, turning ordinary domestic spaces into perfectly aesthetic consumer enclaves. The very term ‘self-care,’ which was originally used by Audre Lorde to depict a radical political act, has now become synonymous with hip new skincare. In this Instagramable, millennial world of fluffy socks, big blankets, and expensive beauty products, physical space is regarded as both cumbersome and constraining, with the internet proving far more profitable and a lot more convenient.

In many ways, the coronavirus provided the tech industry with the perfect opportunity to demonstrate what they have been claiming for years: that their services are indispensable to the modern world (Foer 2020). When governments struggled to cope with mounting pressures from Covid-19, tech giants came to offer a helping hand, and instead of openly competing with the public sector, they began building an alliance (Ibid).

Public-Private partnerships began cropping up everywhere in the pandemic, with private firms launching contact tracing apps, experimental drug treatments and self-swab diagnostic tests; even Amazon has been using its delivery service to distribute Covid-19 home testing kits (Ahmad 2020). The backlash that had been building against the tech industry prior to coronavirus had suddenly fizzled out and complaints about privacy and misinformation seemed contradictory at a time when so many of us depend on these services (Daly 2020, Levy 2020).

Yet now that technologies infiltrate almost every aspect of our home lives, from work and school to leisure and exercise, many of us are realising that they are insufficient replacements for human contact and the physical world (Yeung 2020). The painful sacrifices that citizens continue to make, and the collective experiences of loss, grief and isolation reveal just how much we value real human bonds and embodied physical connection (Ibid). Using technology in quarantine can come to feel repetitive, and even overwhelming when there is little structure or variety in our daily routines. These tools felt satisfactory when they were used alongside our social interactions, but now that they have become the reigning medium of communication to the outside world, they fail to provide the warmth and emotion that comes with real human contact (Austin 2020). This is because technologies were never meant to be permanent substitutes for quality human interaction and the pandemic has exposed that there is only so much freedom to be gained from a video call or an app (Ibid).

Certainly, the benefits bestowed by digital technologies are undeniable and we should harness their possibilities for improving human life. But we should also question what our public spaces and interactions will look like after the coronavirus. For a start, having access to a laptop and the internet is a privilege and the hi-tech post-pandemic world may accelerate existing digital divides. Our home lives too, may never again feel entirely private as for some remote working becomes a permanent reality as does increased surveillance into our domestic spaces (Klein 2020). Millions of lives and livelihoods will not return after the pandemic, and our high streets, businesses and modes of transport may also never function in the same way. But at the very least, the post-pandemic world presents us with an opportunity to re-think what we want the ‘new normal’ to look like, and instead of settling for a detached and clickable society, we should strive for a fairer and more just world.

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