Contributed by Ronald Baecker, who is an Emeritus Professor of Computer Science at the University of Toronto, author of Computers and Society: Modern Perspectives, co-author of thecovidguide.com, and author of the forthcoming Digital Dreams Have Become Nightmares: What We Must Do.
My blog post of May 18 suggested that some of the COVID-forced changes in work will survive past-COVID: “Large companies will shrink their office space footprint. Landlords will suffer economically, spaces will be vacant, and prices will drop. Many employees will work at home far more frequently than they did pre-pandemic. Many employees will no longer have a permanent desk; rather, they will grab a free desk when they are in the office. There will be less business travel, with more business conducted via teleconference. Progressive conferences will allow for both on-site and virtual attendance. Reductions in travel by [land and air will help] the environment.”
It now appears that there has been an even more profound change. For two decades now, the stresses of modern competitive, driven life have been magnified by technology, by the inability to escape work resulting from total connectivity via laptops, mobile devices, and email. COVID seems to have been the breaking point for many, as a record four million American workers quit their jobs in April 2021; many of them are knowledge workers. The pandemic’s extra stresses on working women with family responsibilities also has taken its toll. Two million left the U.S. workforce in 2020, bringing female participation in the workforce to its lowest level since 1988.
COVID has forced changes to far more than work. These changes will reverberate through the future.
COVID has kept doctors out the office. It has delayed billions of medical procedures worldwide. This has caused many deaths not officially attributed to the pandemic. Yet our realization that more medical diagnosis and care can be done at a distance is a positive development for the future. Physicians, especially your family doctor, will have to be more available via email and for video consultations, with more rapid diagnosis of disease, reductions in the spread of infections, and fewer days of parental work lost. Pre-COVID trends for more therapy to be done virtually have been magnified during the pandemic. There are entrepreneurial opportunities here, for new and better telemedicine technologies.
The past year and a half featured the world’s biggest unplanned and uncontrolled experiment in online learning. Many students have suffered significant losses in educational advancement; students of colour have suffered disproportionately. Yet it is miraculous and mostly positive that teachers, most of whom were totally unprepared to teach online, were able to do so with a patchwork of hardware, software, telecommunications, and home environments. Future schooling will employ improved virtual learning environments in a more disciplined and thoughtful manner and likely with better results.
Families have been kept apart by COVID, but have used technology to stay connected. My blog post of February 11 shared the account of four people who, despite COVID, have preserved and in some cases enhanced family connections and communication using teleconferencing technologies. Future family events — holiday celebrations, weddings, even funerals — will as in the past be mainly for those who can attend in person. Yet enlightened and caring families will put a seat at the table for those who are far away, bringing joy and comfort to virtual attendees.
Finally, how about travel? So long as COVID is circulating in the world, many vulnerable people will hesitate to go far from home. The motivation to be somewhere will need to be compelling to entice them to risk their safety. It is plausible that people fearing infections in distant places will do more virtual travel. Here also are entrepreneurial opportunities, see for example, https://drisit.com.
FOR THINKING AND DISCUSSION
Do you agree with my conjectures? Why or why not? Are there aspects of these developments that concern you?