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Technological dependency in a post-COVID-19 society

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For reasons I can only guess, Zoom has graced me with a five-second delay from the pressing of unmute to my voice being audible to other meeting participants. By week eight of this quarter, all the members of my Thinking Matters discussion section, including my professor, were well aware of this audio lag. This situation translated into a somewhat bizarre process of me trying to guess the length of my Zoom delay as well as the amount of time the person currently speaking would take to finish their thought to ensure my audio would kick in at the appropriate time. Though I can never be quite sure if my estimate is correct, so I supplement with the phrase “Sorry, is my audio working?” a bit too much for comfort. 

In the instances when I wanted to contribute to class discussions but had not timed pressing my “unmute” button exactly right, I ended up relying on the other members of my class to create space for me to talk. I needed to indicate that I wanted to talk and hope that someone else would bring this to the attention of the rest of the group. Then, everyone would pause the conversation in order for me to respond. 

Pushing aside the fact I should have sought out a long-term solution earlier, I’m fascinated by the general implications of this system of dependencies, which, at its most basic level, resulted from my own technological deficiency. Even if I had looked for technological support, in doing so I would still have to place my ability to communicate in someone else’s hands. 

Though varying degrees of technological skill is nothing new, the stakes of finding yourself on the lower end of this gradient have increased tenfold in the past six months. Technology no longer supplements our real-life interactions. Rather, real life supplements our technological interactions. If we don’t have the technology, don’t know how to use it or are unable to troubleshoot difficulties that arise, we can lose out on our primary mode of human interaction. Thus, the role of technology in our lives has shifted recently with the result that those who don’t (or can’t) keep up experience significant disadvantages. We’ve seen this same effect historically in the wake of technological advancements, but never before has technology had such a monopoly on our interactions. The threat associated with failure to adapt is much greater; if someone loses out on online communication, they have far fewer real-life interactions to fall back on. Considering this mounting risk, I think it’s worth examining the implications of technology-based dependency on a societal level. 

Technology, due to the economic motivations of its producers, puts the onus on individuals to “keep up,” rather than on the people with technology to make adjustments on their behalf. In my very small-scale situation of technological disadvantage, I was lucky enough that my classmates adjusted, but if technology continues to grow in the direction of replacing in-person communication, I doubt people in all circumstances would be similarly willing to make personal sacrifices to accommodate the technological have-nots. In our future technological landscape, there could be new applications and products that drastically improve online communication for those who buy in. 

Historically we have valued technological skills only insofar as they are monetizable. Acquiring basic technological abilities, which allow us to troubleshoot any malfunctions and optimize product functionality, has been an opt-in process, especially below the college level. Students with a natural proclivity or ability for the discipline lean in with the hopes of building the foundation for a future career while others can easily avoid it. But the more we use technology for communication, the more tech know-how becomes a life skill, comparable to learning how to cross the street. 

Now, we require a more comprehensive technological curriculum available and mandatory for everyone, not just students at particular private secondary schools and colleges. I don’t want to rely on my classmates to pause for me to talk; I want to be self-sufficient enough to resolve technological issues myself. And, more than that, I want to ensure that technology expands communication rather than erecting more barriers.

Contact Katie Reveno at kreveno ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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