Ten months into the pandemic, hundreds of millions of Americans now rely on this tech to work from home, attend virtual school, see the doctor, go to the movies and just get our hands on some toilet paper. Not long ago, most of those were tech pipe dreams — businesses with limited reach beyond bubbles like San Francisco.
The pandemic put Silicon Valley’s boldest ideas for an app-operated life to the test, quickly and at scale. Now it’s time for an accounting of what worked, what flopped — and what’s the new normal.
“2020 reinforced the fact we nerds have known: Network is just omnipresent,” says Om Malik, a venture capitalist at True Ventures. “We aren’t going online. We live online.”
The coronavirus marks an inflection point for nerds and non-nerds alike. By April, more than half of American adults felt the Internet was “essential” to life, according to Pew. Out of necessity, even my septuagenarian mother was ordering groceries on Instacart — and she likes personally thumping melons at the store.
The Zoom video chat app became a noun, verb and adjective. “I have been to a Zoom funeral, a Zoom bar mitzvah and Zoom family reunions,” says Gina Bianchini, the founder of software company Mighty Networks. “Thirty days is what you need to build a habit. We’ve been doing this for months.”
But the future won’t be decided by what’s convenient alone. New online experiences like grocery shopping and streaming first-run movies have yet to find sustainable businesses. We learned Amazon Prime, DoorDash, Instacart and Shipt subject the most vulnerable workers to low pay and punishing rules. (Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.) Despite some groundbreaking industry efforts, our phones and wearable health trackers have yet to play a major role in fighting the coronavirus itself.
And the coronavirus laid bare perhaps the biggest tech failure: Tens of millions of Americans couldn’t show up to school or work because they couldn’t afford broadband or just couldn’t get the flaky WiFi to work.
After a year of living extremely online, here’s what I learned we can’t live without — and what we’d rather leave behind with the rest of 2020.
Working from home
For about 63 million American workers during the pandemic, the Internet made the once-unthinkable possible: wearing comfy sweatpants all day. But white-collar jobs built around Zoom calls, Slack messages and Dropbox files have also changed how work gets done — not entirely for the better.
It has meant longer days. A study of the early weeks of lockdown published by the National Bureau of Economic Research found the average workday increased by 48.5 minutes and the number of meetings increased by 12.9 percent. Management scientists call it a virtual form of “presenteeism”: feeling like you have to show your face for a Zoom just to make people think you’re not slacking off.
Meanwhile, overall productivity has decreased by 2 to 3 percent for most organizations, reports Bain & Co., because of poor collaboration and inefficient work practices.
Nonetheless, some remote work is probably here to stay. When Pew surveyed Americans able to work from home in October, 54 percent said they would still want to work remotely after the pandemic ends.
In a recent Washington Post Live interview, Slack’s chief executive, Stewart Butterfield, told me companies have been able to use remote work as an opportunity to reexamine all forms of office orthodoxy. “What other assumptions, what other kind of practices or processes are we kind of blindly keeping in the rotation when perhaps there are more effective ways to do?” he said.
Workplace tech needs to evolve, too. Some 57 percent of remote workers felt less connected to co-workers, according to Pew. There can also be too much connection: Every time I get a Slack message, I hear it reverberate around my house — on my computer, my phone and my iPad. Keeping a distinction between work and personal time shouldn’t be a constant battle.
Almost any parent can attest that things went off the rails when we had to switch to emergency remote learning.
The problem is most educational technology was designed to help support teachers in the classroom, not for completely remote learning like the pandemic. “It isn’t what anyone hoped or wished online learning would be,” says Betsy Corcoran, co-founder of education technology publication EdSurge, part of the International Society for Technology in Education. “It was like putting on swimming fins and asking people to run a sprint.”
How many hours can you expect young children to sit in front of a screen? The tech took away the fun parts of school, like recess and seeing friends, and just left the academic parts.
So are the kids all right? A study by McKinsey & Co. published in December estimates that going to remote school in the spring set White students back by one to three months in math, while students of color lost three to five months.
Even more worrisome is that even after schools had the summer to adjust and make sure students had computers and WiFi, online learning has continued to leave many behind. Districts report a surge in failing grades; sometimes students are just not turning in assignments.
When the pandemic is behind us, almost nobody wants young children to continue to go to school primarily through screens. But we have learned what online tools are capable of. Online summer school programs like Cadence Learning have shown potential for using student data and personalization to provide tutoring. A generation of kids that’s adapted to Zoom school is going to be a lot more open to incorporating video and apps into learning in the years to come.
Most of all, teachers and parents say virtual education reminded us of everything school actually provides, including meals, day care and social development. Adapting to how students feel is a technology problem, too. As a fifth-grader named Luke Pages told my colleagues Hannah Natanson and Laura Meckler, the virtual school day is “like a roller coaster of emotions.”
Online grocery shopping
Scrambling to buy toilet paper was a defining act of 2020. We spent hours in the spring downloading new grocery apps and trying to secure delivery slots. Some 43 percent of shoppers surveyed by industry consultant Mercatus reported they had tried shopping for groceries online in 2020, almost twice the rate from two years ago.
But there’s not much evidence we’ve made a permanent shift. Overall, e-commerce accounted for just 7 percent of grocery shopping in 2020, up from 5 percent in 2019, estimates Forrester Research. Over the summer, some people became comfortable returning to grocery stores.
And many of us had terrible experiences trying to buy groceries online. Stores needed time to adjust to the surge, but it left customers in the lurch. There were frequent stock outages, and personal shopping services such as Instacart could be hit-or-miss. (Asks my mom: How could they pick the out-of-date milk?)
“It’s just really hard logistically,” says Forrester analyst Sucharita Kodali. By her estimates, online grocery fulfillment and delivery tacks about $20 onto a normal purchase. When you’re not going to the store yourself, that means more labor for someone else to pick the products, put them into bags, drive them to your house and keep the fresh stuff cold before it goes into your fridge.
Shopping apps hide the human cost of employees — frequently gig workers — who do that work for low pay and under harsh conditions. I started calling it “Amazon guilt”: that feeling when you watch someone else drop packages at your door while you’re safely inside. During the pandemic, all we could do was leave little thank-you notes or amp up tips when that was an option. After the pandemic, do we want this kind of gig working to become a permanent fixture of the economy?
The math works better for two specific kids of grocery shopping. One is purchasing nonedible shelf-stable goods like soap and paper towels, shipped from faraway fulfillment centers without the need for refrigeration. And for fresh food, one form that could be here to stay is curbside pickup services, where you order online and drive to get the packages yourself, saving groceries a big chunk of the logistical cost.
When the pandemic began, tens of millions of Americans didn’t have broadband Internet. Ten months later, it’s clear an Internet connection is essential to American life — a utility on the same level as water or electricity.
One frustration is we still don’t know the exact scale of the “digital divide.” The Federal Communications Commission reported 21.3 million Americans lacked access to broadband (wired or wireless) at the end of 2017. But those numbers probably undercount the real problem; in February, research firm BroadbandNow estimated 42 million Americans don’t have the ability to purchase Internet access.
Physical infrastructure like fiber-optic lines is just one part of the problem. Millions of Americans simply can’t afford the access available in their communities, including nearly a million New York City residents. While Consumer Reports estimates the average American spends $65 per month on access, in some areas companies with a near monopoly can keep prices higher.
There have been some efforts to fill the gap. In July, New York announced a plan to extend access to 600,000 residents over an 18-month period. Comcast voluntarily extended a program called Internet Essentials (originally a requirement from a merger agreement) to offer some access for just $10 per month.
And to the surprise of many advocates, more help could be on the way. The stimulus bill passed by Congress in late December included $7 billion for broadband access in 2021. That includes up to $50 each month for eligible low-income households to cover broadband bills — or up to $75 for people who live in tribal areas.
“With the new administration, there’s going to be a real focus on the question — which is a much bigger investment than even $7 billion,” says Jonathan Schwantes, a senior policy counsel for Consumer Reports.
Doctors have been talking for decades about replacing some in-person patient visits with virtual house calls. When the pandemic shut non-emergency clinics, it finally happened. As of May, McKinsey estimates 46 percent of American consumers were using telehealth to replace canceled health-care visits. Between mid-March and the summer, over 9 million Medicare beneficiaries used telemedicine, a more than 5,000 percent increase from the prior three months.
“The telemedicine genie is out of the bottle,” says Seema Verma, the administrator for Medicare and Medicaid.
Patients liked the convenience and the access to care, particularly in rural areas. Many doctors, too, report there’s a lot they can do just by seeing and talking to patients on a screen. It can be useful to see what people’s homes look like, and even talk directly to caregivers who might not be around during in-person visits.
“Satisfaction was higher for some telemedicine visits than in person visits,” said Bob Kocher, a venture capitalist at Venrock who serves on the boards of several insurance and digital medicine companies. “I can check on you every day for a couple of minutes, which is unbelievably helpful because you can tell if somebody’s looking better or worse if I see you every day.”
Still, making telemedicine stick faces hurdles. Lawmakers moved quickly in the spring to temporarily loosen rules and allow Medicare to reimburse for virtual care, but those would have to be made permanent. There’s also going to be resistance from traditional health providers that rely on in-person — and high-margin — tests like X-rays to turn a profit. They’re not entirely wrong: Good medical care requires long-term continuity you can’t get just by opening an app whenever you feel ill.
Streaming first-run movies
The pandemic gave us all a lot more time to watch movies at home. What’s surprising is that Hollywood was finally willing to let us stream some of the good ones.
It started with “Trolls: World Tour” and then “Mulan,” when theaters closed under stay-at-home orders. 2020 marked the first time studios began experimenting selling marquee movies online at the same time they hit theaters — or instead of the big screen. For years, even as streaming has gone mainstream, big-budget films have been the exclusive domain of theaters, where they tapped audiences for $9 tickets before making their way to Blu-ray and then, eventually, streaming apps.
Then in December, Warner Bros. sent shock waves through Hollywood by announcing all of its 2021 films — yes, all of them — would debut simultaneously in theaters and on its premium streaming service HBO Max, including the much-hyped “Dune” and “The Matrix 4.”
But don’t write a eulogy for movie theaters just yet.
Most studios are still holding their biggest movies for post-vaccine theater runs in 2021. The dramatic announcement by Warner Bros. was as much about a new distribution model as it was the priorities of the studio’s owner AT&T, which wants to prop up its flagging streaming service HBO Max.
It’s unquestionably more convenient to watch movies at home, even if you have to make your own popcorn. Netflix has primed us to get what we want, right away.
I was one of the people who paid $30 for an at-home digital ticket to Mulan — but there’s little evidence many other people did. It’s unlikely Disney even came close to making back its $200 million production costs by selling premium tickets. (The studio never released numbers, but it’s revealing they haven’t tried a repeat.) For most Americans, I suspect a family night out at the theater — even if it costs more — seems like a better value than a streaming ticket.
The reality, as my colleague Steven Zeitchik has written, is there’s just not enough money in streaming to support the way blockbusters are made. If we still skip the theater after the pandemic is over, prepare for a future filled with more of the low-budget wonders Netflix has come to define, like Adam Sandler’s “The Wrong Missy.”
Correction: PowerSchool said the data it provided about students missing from virtual school was erroneous. It was unable to provide a correct figure.
Read more tech reviews and analysis from Geoffrey A. Fowler: