Digital Connectivity in Social Isolation
With sports events cancelled globally, television may have taken its most significant revenue blow since YouTube. In parallel, it is reported that the present pandemic may cost the global film industry $5bn in losses.
As people retreat into self-isolation the only channel to grow consistently is digital. The average weekly download of apps in February 2020 increased by 40%, and game downloads by 80%. However, the boom is in social media, wherein some countries reported a fifty-fold increase in digital activity. Malta’s own affinity to social media channels is well documented. We revel in telling the world what we’re eating, seeing, and wearing (or not wearing), at all times. This has developed the idea that everything personal is shareable; but should it be?
This leads to the development of a self-centred world-view which can radicalise us into an echo-chamber culture in which we rarely listen to anyone that disagrees with us, or rarely listen at all. Pariser, argues that we’re speaking (and listening) to less people than we were before the Internet. This begs the question; is social connectivity really social during a pandemic?
The real role of technology in the crisis
Despite all its misgivings, technology remains our best hope for fighting this and future pandemics. Our global connectivity provides a knowledge-transfer method never available to humanity beforehand.
Symptom-checking apps are the most common form of primary diagnosis (rather than doctors) and Artificial Intelligence (AI) models are being used to calculate how patients are likely to spread the disease – and to whom. An app developed by King’s College is aiding in the identification of disease hotspots and prods Government to adjust local preparedness. This big-data helps nations understand the ebb and flow of the epidemic and its trajectory.
Geo-tracking on smartphones is helping authorities determine clusters of citizens which need to be dispersed, and subsequently makes contact tracing more effective (and controversial). The location data is often blended with other inputs such as credit-card usage, CCTV data and social media posts. This ‘live data’ it is extremely effective in limiting spread and minimizing peak, but also introduces new concerns around privacy.
AI is also being used in advanced hospitals to study data of infected patients on thousands of variables (from medical conditions to socio-economic characteristics) and then determine the best recovery path for each. In labs, AI is assisting researchers to find a vaccine for the virus and predict (even before human clinical trials start) what likely success or risk the prototype may present. A subsidiary of Google has published an AI-based prediction on how the coronavirus’s RNA progresses, helping epidemiologists better manage biomedical responses.
Outside healthcare, the role of technology is also key. Robot-delivery services were considered experimental before the pandemic, but are now an important part of the supply-chain. This trend will accelerate as will the present take-up of remote work.
The debate on privacy
Many innovations are being ushered in with haste to aid containment but have the unfortunate (and often intended) consequence of exerting social and political control. Subsequently this erodes basic norms (such as citizen consent) which challenge the privacy models we have espoused so far. China has deployed drones which use AI technology to determine which citizens are not wearing a facemask and subsequently can file an automated report. The success of these measures has a direct correlation to the social acceptance of surveillance in the country. This doesn’t only open a discussion about absolute morality but also about the delicate balance between guaranteeing individual rights and protecting collective interests.
Technology: The next big leveller
A new world order will emerge after the virus: those countries who are able to leverage new technologies to fight the virus and enable economic growth; and those who are unable to do so. The latter revert to quasi-medieval generalised closures reminiscent of the Spanish flu pandemic a century ago with grave political, economic and social outcomes. The countries who are left behind will be those who experience higher levels of inequality, laggard healthcare systems and economic dismay.
This article first appeared in a publication by Seed Consultancy
 Scott Roxborogh, The Holwood Reporter, 3rd February 2020. Accessed 2/4/2020 (https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/film-industry-facing-5-billion-loss-coronavirus-outbreak-1282038)
 Leo Lewis, Financial Times, 20th February 2020. Accessed 2/4/2020 (https://www.ft.com/content/f1704f82-5238-11ea-8841-482eed0038b1)
 Smita Balram, The Economic Times (India Edition), 28th March 2020. Accessed 3/4/2020 (https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/tech/internet/covid-19-impact-social-media-activity-in-the-country-grew-50x-in-early-march-says-nielsen/articleshow/74833596.cms)
 Navingating the Maltese Mediascape, Joseph Borg & Mary Anne Lauri, December 2019
 Pariser Eli, The Filter Bubble, 2011.
 The Evening Standard, 4th April 2020. Accessed 4th April 2020. https://www.standard.co.uk/news/health/coronavirus-uk-testing-symptom-tracker-a4406976.html
 J. Jumper, K. Tunyasuvunakool, P. Kohli, D. Hassabis et al, Computational predictions of protein structures associated with COVID-19, DeepMind, 5 March 2020.
 Bruno Macaes, City Journal, 1st April 2020. Accessed 4th April 2020. https://www.city-journal.org/covid-19-and-technology
Photo 1 by Fusion Medical Animation on Unsplash
Photo 2 by Tedward Quinn on Unsplash