With millions of schoolchildren (including my own) stuck at home and relying on screens for education and entertainment, you don’t hear so much worrying about kids’ screen time. Instead, you hear about how ill-prepared teachers were to hold classes online and the shortcomings of the few digital education tools. Don’t blame educators. If adult wariness of children’s screen use hadn’t been so entrenched, there might have been a better-developed marketplace for interactive digital classrooms.
Many remote workers, meanwhile, are discovering that videoconferencing tools such as Zoom and Google Meet hardly meet all their needs. The tools’ functions aren’t intuitive, users complain about glitchy performance, and, especially with Zoom, security problems have become a subject of concern.
Too bad so many bosses once resisted allowing employees to work from home — even though research has found that remote workers are more productive, take shorter breaks, take less time off and stay with their companies longer. That resistance inevitably limited the marketplace for video tools, leaving only a few options available when the pandemic crisis struck.
Unfortunately, that’s how things tend to go with new technologies. Fear leads to smaller markets, reducing investment by innovators.
This story has repeated itself across time and culture. Screen-time opponents advise kids to pick up a good book — but novels, when the popularity of fiction boomed in the early 19th century, were equally villainized. In 1818, Thomas Jefferson wrote that reading novels leads to “bloated imagination, sickly judgment, and disgust towards all the real businesses of life.” It doesn’t take a bloated imagination to think that, given the opposition, many creative geniuses of their day would express their talents elsewhere.
Such resistance tends to dissolve over time, but it can take generations. Culture adapts. We find new things to worry about: The terrifying novel looked innocent compared with the radio, which itself was considered a menace to young minds until television came along, and so on. Some scary future tech will eventually make parents nostalgic for iPads and Instagram.
But the novel coronavirus pandemic has presented a unique opportunity. Suddenly, within only a few weeks, millions of people radically shifted the way they use technology — and the change in culture happened immediately. Zoom went from 10 million users to 300 million users, and now many companies talk about maintaining remote workforces after the crisis ends. And innovation is blossoming: The company Around recently launched a videoconferencing tool that just shows your colleagues’ faces floating in small circles on your screen, not covering up your other work.
Telemedicine is also improving. Many people didn’t trust the service before, and government regulations made it cumbersome and less financially rewarding for doctors to offer. But with demand up, regulations are being wiped away and innovation is kicking in. The company OhMD, for example, originally offered a platform for patients to text with their doctors, but when demand suddenly spiked for video, chief executive Ethan Bechtel tells me, “our engineers were in a full sprint on nights and weekends.” They got the product out months ahead of schedule.
With incentives changing, the effects could be profound. One immediate change could be an accelerated rollout of super-fast 5G wireless technology (even as technophobes baselessly allege that its waves cause cancer; now some claim that 5G also spreads the coronavirus). That could lead to radically new kinds of digital tools and far greater accessibility. Rural communities that today don’t even have access to broadband Internet could suddenly experience a shift in culture and economy.
How will we handle the next wave of innovation? That will be our greatest collective challenge. The pessimists will surely have something to say. It would be good to think back to this moment, recalling the many ways that feared technologies came to be seen as a blessing. Then we can encourage something that really does improve lives. It isn’t resistance to change. It’s change.