As the writer of a weekly post that tends to look at the intersection between human behavior and technology, I’ve found the past 18 months interesting. And by interesting, I mean a twisted ride through gut-wrenching change unlike anything I have ever seen before.
I can’t even narrow it down to 18 months. Before that, there was plenty more that was “unprecedented” -- to berry-pick a word from my post from a few weeks back. I have now been writing for MediaPost in one place or another for 17 years. My very first post was on Aug. 19, 2004. That was 829 posts ago. If you add the additional posts I’ve done for my own blog -- outofmygord.com -- I’ve just ticked over 1,100 on my odometer. That’s a lot of soul-searching about technology. And the last several months have still been in a class by themselves.
Now, part of this might be where my own head is. Believe it or not, I do sometimes try to write something positive. But as soon as my fingers hit the keyboard, things seem to spiral downwards. Every path I take seems to take me somewhere dark. Precious little has sparked optimism in my soul.
Today, for example, prior to writing this, I took three passes at writing something else. Each quickly took a swerve towards impending doom.
I’m getting very tired of this. I can only imagine how you feel, reading it.
So I finally decided to try a thought experiment. “What if,” I wondered, “we had gone through the past 18 months without the technology we take for granted? What if there were no Internet, no computers, no mobile devices? What if we had lived through the pandemic with only the technology we had, say, a hundred years ago, during the global pandemic of the Spanish Flu starting in 1918? Perhaps the best way to determine the sum total contribution of technology is to do it by process of elimination.”
Let’s get the negatives out of the way. First, you might say that technology enabled the flood of misinformation and conspiracy theorizing that has been so top-of-mind for us. Well, yes -- and no.
Distrust in authority is nothing new. It’s always been there, at one end of a bell curve that spans the attitudes of our society. And nothing brings the outliers of society into global focus faster than a crisis that affects all of us.
There was public pushback against the very first vaccine ever invented, the smallpox vaccine. Now granted, the early method was to rub pus from a cowpox blister into a cut in your skin and hope for the best. But it worked. Smallpox is now a thing of the past.
And, if we are talking about pushback against public health measures, that’s nothing new either. Exactly the same thing happened during the 1918-1919 pandemic. Here’s one eerily familiar excerpt from a journal article looking at the issue: “Public-gathering bans also exposed tensions about what constituted essential vs. unessential activities. Those forced to close their facilities complained about those allowed to stay open. For example, in New Orleans, municipal public health authorities closed churches but not stores, prompting a protest from one of the city's Roman Catholic priests.”
What is different, thanks to technology, is that public resistance is so much more apparent than it’s ever been before. And that resistance is coming attached to faces and names we know. People are posting opinions on social media that they would probably never say to you in a face-to-face setting, especially if they knew you disagreed with them.
Our public and private discourse is now held at arm’s length by technology. Gone are all the moderating effects that come with sharing the same physical space.
Try as I might, I couldn’t think of another “con” that technology has brought to the past 18 months. The “pro” list, however, is far too long to cover in this post, so I’ll just mention a few that come immediately to mind.
Let’s begin with the counterpoint to the before-mentioned con: the misinformation factor. While misinformation was definitely spread over the past year and a half, so was reliable, factual information. Those of us willing to pay attention to the facts were able to find out what we needed in order to practice public health measures at a speed previously unimagined. Without technology, we would have been slower to act, and -- perhaps -- fewer of us would have acted at all. At worst, in this case technology probably nets out to zero.
But technology also enabled the world to keep functioning, even if it was in a different form. Working from home would have been impossible without technology. Commercial engines kept chugging along. Business meetings switched to online platforms. The Dow Jones Industrial Average, as of the writing of this, is over 20% higher than it was before the pandemic.
In contrast, if you look at stock market performance over the 1918-1919 pandemic, the stock market was almost 32% lower at the end of the third wave than it was at the start of the first. Of course, there are other factors to consider, but I suspect we can thank technology for at least some of that.
It’s easy to point to the negatives that technology brings. But if you consider it as a whole, technology is overwhelmingly a blessing.
What was interesting to me in this thought experiment was how apparent it was that technology keeps the cogs of our society functioning more effectively -- but if there is a price to be paid, it typically comes at the cost of our social bonds.