The highs and lows of tech
Over the past few months, gloom and doom prophecies have gained many followers — with good reason. A virus, COVID-19, has spread globally, with a speed and intensity not seen in our lifetimes. In India, we have had a spiralling increase in the number of cases and also of deaths. The lockdown, intended to save lives, destroyed livelihoods and threatened life itself for millions of daily wage workers as jobs and incomes evaporated.
The already-prevailing economic slowdown was exacerbated by the lockdown, and credible forecasts indicate negative growth for the year. To add to this already full cup of woe, two cyclones — one in the east and the other in the west — battered parts of the country, leaving behind a trail of death and destruction, especially in West Bengal.
Amidst all this, if there is a winner, it is technology. It led or underpinned much of the efforts to counter the adversities that beset the nation. Satellites, radar and other sources provided the data for computer models of weather which enabled fairly accurate prediction of cyclone intensity, landfall and arrival. This enabled evacuation, and other safeguards and preparations. Post-cyclone, it was satellite phones and communication networks which helped to convey assessment of damage and specific needs, and to speed up relief efforts.
The plight of the migrant workers, desperate to return home since they had no jobs, no income and no savings, was made worse by their forced incarceration following the shutdown of all public transport at four-hour notice. When, finally — after days of public images of whole families trying to trek home — the authorities decided to provide buses and trains, millions sought information about their point of origin, destination and departure time. The simple technology of an SMS on a mobile was the saviour.
The most extensive tech applications have been for the epidemic itself: diagnostic tests, production of ventilators and personal protective equipment, data analysis for decision-making, apps to indicate availability of hospital beds — all used technology. The Aarogya Setu app — possibly the fastest one to reach 50 million downloads — created especially for contact tracing, has great utility, despite privacy and safety concerns. Meanwhile, deeper technological research is underway globally for developing a vaccine and finding a cure.
In India, young entrepreneurs are working on a variety of interesting and possibly disruptive technological ideas. These range from quick diagnostic testing to low-cost, quick-assembly cardboard beds for emergency quarantine facilities. Many more ideas will doubtless emerge.
With the sudden lockdown, offices were forced to close, schools and universities had to stop classes before the year’s syllabus could be completed, going out to buy essentials became difficult, and social interaction ground to a halt. At this time, technology came to the rescue, making commonplace what already existed. ‘Zoom call’ has now become a generic name for all video calls and ‘WFH’ (for work from home) has entered our day-to-day lexicon as working remotely became widespread. ‘Virtual’ classes became as regular and intensive as being in a classroom. Everything from vegetables, milk and meat to clothes and vacuum cleaners could be ordered online for doorstep delivery. One could “meet” electronically with dozens of friends, practically at the click of a button — and that too at no cost. At the peak of the lockdown, these seemed like wondrous technological solutions to the problems of work, learning, shopping and socializing.
As we move towards the inevitable end of the lockdown, and life begins to get back on track, a new routine will set in. This is likely, in the near future, to see a continuation of at least some degree of WFH and online classes. Despite the technological ease of enabling these and the additional applications that new technology will create, there are some serious drawbacks.
First, access to devices: how many, even among the urban middle class, have a computer? Many would own one (though data is not quite reliable), but how will a family meet the simultaneous needs of a father or mother (or both) in WFH mode and of children who need a computer to attend online classes? Middle-class households can hardly afford dedicated computers, or even tablets, for each family member at prices of `50,000 and `30,000, respectively, for a proper model. So, who and what activity gets priority? Smartphones, as an alternative, are hardly realistic for hours of work or classes over video. And what of those who cannot afford any of these devices? Clearly, work and learning from home are easier for the rich and will add greatly to the already-large inequity in society.
Then, there are the social problems of trying to work or study in a crowded household in a small home, with many activities, noise and disturbances galore: hardly conducive to any degree of concentration. If one magically overcomes all this, there is the issue of unreliable and varying-bandwidth internet connectivity, resulting in sudden interruptions and audio or video that breaks up, even in cities. Pictures of children sitting on rooftops to get connectivity tells the story as far as rural areas are concerned.
Even in the best of circumstances, can WFH ever replicate the casual conversation in the cafeteria which sparks an idea or the serendipitous solution that comes from a water-cooler chat in the office? What about the learning that takes place amongst students interacting in the school bus or the team spirit imbibed on the football field: how will online courses replicate these? If work and study, as also entertainment, are only at home, what about “me time” for each family member? What of the health impact of looking at a screen for hours every day? Will minimal social contact lead to a feeling of deprivation and depression?
The wonders of technology have provided many solutions, but will have to contend with such social, economic, professional and pedagogic problems if we move to a more at-home world. Techno-evangelists and policymakers need to take note of these travails before blindly leaping into a technological era.
Kiran Karnik is an independent strategy and public policy analyst. His recent books include eVolution: Decoding India’s Disruptive Tech Story (2018) and Crooked Minds: Creating an Innovative Society (2016).