COVID-19 and the direction of digital transformation

This is a critical moment to shape the world’s digital future. The “response to the response to COVID-19” is already underway. This website tracks it..

last edit: 4/21/2020. An earlier version was posed on Medium.

The COVID-19 pandemic is a global crisis, a once in a century event. Grief and sacrifice are everywhere, and the world’s immediate responses have been as massive as they are diverse. There is hope that communities will recover from these events, not without pain and loss, but despite them. 

And yet, if and when the most acute parts of the crisis end, the world is not going to be the same as it was. Just as “100-year storms” change ecosystems forever, 100-year pandemics change societies. This may be particularly the case for the evolving relationship between societies, economies, and digital technologies, and is as much the case for the Global South as the Global North.

But what we want to stress here is that this is also an important moment not only for the acceleration of digitization but also for its trajectory. This crisis is an important moment in which behaviors, norms, and policies can shift as much in a few chaotic months as they did in a more stable decade. It is also a moment in which deliberate pressures, applied now, can determine whether further, accelerated digitization leads towards inclusion and fairness and shared community, or not.

To stretch this idea with a metaphor: You many have seen one of several movies with a spacecraft hurtling along in space. After weeks or years of constant travel, it approaches a planet or a sun - a body with a mass and gravitational influence much greater than its own. With this interaction comes the need to avoid a catastrophic crash, and with it, the prospects for relatively sudden change. At these critical moments of interaction, small, deliberate steering adjustments can be amplified by interaction with the gravitational pull of the object, to change the ship’s speed and trajectory.

David Shortt, Gravity Assist, Planetary Society

COVID-19 has a mass like few others; terrifying, tragic, and not compliant to mankind’s will or wishes. Yet at this moment, the nudges of policy, philanthropy, advocacy, and even grassroots technology efforts have the potential to drastically impact the trajectory of humanity’s digital future. For example::

  • The deployment of disease surveillance, digital immunity certificates, and contact tracing (as floated by Google and Apple on April 10th),  will change the ways societies accept and rely upon digital identity. Who will guide these deployments?
  • The divergent fortunes of face-to-face retail and digital delivery will change digital livelihoods for millions, inside and outside the “gig economy”. So too, will changing terms of international trade and aid flows. Who will advocate for workers in a more digital economy?
  • The pressures placed on news media and digital platforms to fight (or accept) disinformation and encourage (or undermine) trustworthy official channels will impact the emerging digital public sphere. Who will help set the new rules for mediated, democratic discussion?
  • The emergence of new businesses, and new ways of innovating in collaborations between business, civil society, and governments may change the digital political economy. The conditions under which the Internet as we know it have become central in all elements of everyday life. Who can help improve these models?

Adding to the conversation about the digital future after COVID-19

There’s a lot of analysis available about digitization and COVID-19 already. It comes in a few forms, each valuable and important in different ways:

“What is happening”

There is extensive documentation of direct interactions between COVID-19 and digitization. “People are using delivery services”; “people are turning to social media for advice” “Zoom is the new conference room”. These are appropriations of exiting technologies, reflections of how deeply intertwined societies and technologies already are.

And there is an equally voluminous documentation of the current role of digital ‘solutions’ in the crisis, how tech is helping save lives and livelihoods. ‘Apple deploys a contact tracing app’ or “Country X uses mobile money payments to deliver livelihoods relief”. Many of these analyses reflect a general optimism. And, when the vaccine is released thanks in part to AI, or the contact tracing app perfected, there will be well-deserved celebration.

“What will happen”

Some draw on these interactions and deployments, making projections about how this moment will change society. From the death of retail and travel to the rise of a few transnational data platforms, there are lots of trends in digitization to discuss.

“What should happen”

There’s less of this, but here’s where analysis involves discussion of the nudges, the deliberate choices made to change the trajectory of the spaceship .

In these early days (March/April 2020), most of the available analysis takes the form of suggestions and policy prescriptions. Suggestions about how to preserve privacy in contact tracing, how to distribute aid to the right parts of an economy to include gig workers, how to save the newspaper industry, etc. There are implied or explicit priorities in many of these documents.

In a few cases, articles are beginning to detail actions and responses to COVID-19 linked specifically to an articulated vision of a post-COVID-19 digital future. Though not as voluminous as the other genres, we are interested in identifying and categorizing these critical nudges, asking:

Who is pushing on the digital present (COVID-19 responses) with an eye specifically on the digital future? How are they doing so, and why? How will their actions, in aggregate, alter the direction of digitization and make digital society more fair and inclusive after COVID-19?

This project site

This project website will track these actors and actions as they emerge over the next months of the response to the pandemic. It will also identify key analyses of the digital future after COVID-19 and how it is being shaped today. 

There’s more to be written, of course, but even more to be done, with no time to waste. These these steering moves by policymakers, advocates, philanthropies, and technologists, are critical now. They are also worthy of scrutiny and, sometimes, celebration and replication. Please browse the site and contact us with suggestions and ideas.