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Learning Tech & Society The Pandemic

What did you learn in the pandemic?

Any meeting I’ve been to these last few weeks is starting with a version of “good riddance to a bad year!’  December does always bring a strange mixture of reflection on the year past and prognostication about what’s to come. But unlike other years, reflecting on 2020 will stick around a lot longer.  We’ll be weighing in on this annus horribilis for years to come.

2020 made us question a lot of assumptions. Here are a few tenets 2020 shattered and rearranged.

Gaming is Now Good for You 

For years everyone from the American Academy of Pediatrics to the PTA talked about the evils of excessive screen time.

With the pandemic, all time became screen time. What was viewed as wasted time playing video games became an encouraged part of kids’ (and many adults’) lives.  Kids socialized while building Minecraft lands, had birthday parties in Roblox and used Fortnite to get together. Chat windows offered a virtual schoolyard with a semblance of normal conversation.  These games even found their way into the teaching syllabus and their virtues were extolled by parents, teachers, and researchers alike. The growth of the gaming industry has reflected the change.

An idle mind is NOT the devil’s playground

Have you noticed an uptick in cross pollination in your organization?  I just visited an augmented reality tech meetup to satisfy my inner geek, and the audience was filled with artists, producers, filmmakers, and dancers, all anxious to spend their time in captivity learning how to incorporate this new medium into their craft. The admin in your office may find themselves transformed into your virtual events guru. Reskilling, whether you’re a bartender or a mime, typically involves “teching up” your craft and meeting people from diverse worlds. We all need to hone new skills, but without the busy-ness of our pre-pandemic lives, this year we granted ourselves the time and permission to do it.

“Essential” workers assuage our guilt  

Essential turns out to be a nice way of saying expendable. “Essential workers” became the moniker making us feel better about asking low-income workers to travel on public transportation, report to less safe locations and do everything from care for the sick and  elderly to bag our groceries. Hopefully 2021 will reward them with juicy pay raises, but I wouldn’t bet on it in most companies. Banging on pots and pans from our window ledges at 7PM may offer some brief affirmation, but it doesn’t help pay the bills.

Mistrust Becomes the Norm

Sadly, this year we’ve learned to take the world with a very large grain of salt.  From what we read in the news to what we buy to what we’re willing to share with the government, we’re quite broken. This year’s census was a case study in people who for countless reasons did not want to be counted. Early in the pandemic I wrote about why contact tracing in America is a losing proposition. A lack of trust, in government in particular (with tech playing a close second) makes us reluctant to share information even when it might protect us.  And yet we continue to offer personal information to get access to a free account or to peek at some information.  Perplexing.

The Sedentary Life

Instacart, Amazon, DoorDash — anything that prevented us from leaving the fortress was a winner. An app now lets me know if I need to walk to the mailbox or open my door.  My appliances–lights, doorbells, and even water faucets–spring to life when I call their names. My new car virtually drives itself. Sales of large screens and entertainment systems flourished. Couch potatoes settled further in than ever. The bright spot? The great outdoors have never been so well tramped. 

Kids Miss School

“No more teachers, no more books” may no longer be the student rallying cry. Stuck at home, data and anecdotal evidence shows a longing for classrooms. “I never thought that I would miss school, but I do”, said one high school student. “It’s been hard not to see my classmates and teachers. I didn’t realize that all the random conversations in class and catching up with friends at lunch were such a big part of my life.”

Voting Counts

Nearly two-thirds of eligible voters took part in the November election, the highest rate in nearly 150 years.  Still disappointing, though, because mail-in voting made it easier than ever to have your say, but it’s a nice trend. Voters braved long lines, a pandemic, and a confusing set of requirements to participate. The democratic process got its vaccine early.

Introverts in Ecstasy

According to a new Gallup survey, Americans’ assessment of our collective mental health is “worse than it has been at any point in the last two decades.” That seems undeniably valid,   with economic and family pressures mounting, along with the toll of isolation. But, the introverts I know are relishing the freedom of taking a pass on the forced fun of holiday gatherings and other social obligations.  Those who can master the art of spending time alone may emerge with a powerful new skill set.

Tear Down that Wall

Ajit Pai is leaving the FCC, giving us a fresh chance at giving broadband to all Americans, without favoritism towards big business. As too many studies show, the allocation of  connectivity resources is nowhere near equal. The pandemic did not create a digital divide, it just exacerbated it and made it way more obvious. The disconnected suffered disproportionately. The private sector has been lending a hand but the government needs to make connecting everyone a top national priority.

Authenticity is the new black

The politics and business climate of the moment could bring us back to a more honest, transparent time. Everyday stories of good news, unsung heroes, and companies doing the right thing give us tidings of comfort and joy. As we head from darkness into light (Dec 21st is the longed-for solstice) here’s hoping the better parts of the tumult of 2020 stick around and relegate the rest to history.

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