Apr 16, 2020 - Technology

The tech world's post-virus agenda

Illustration of a hand holding an 8-bit pixel clipboard.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The industry's pre-coronavirus agenda isn't vanishing — but its priorities have already been reshuffled.

These agenda items have jumped to the top of the list:

Transforming healthcare. Tech has long viewed the healthcare sector as an over-regulated backwater resistant to digital transformation.

  • Clinical medical technology remains a highly specialized sub-industry, but Big Tech was already moving into personal fitness and medical record-keeping before the crisis.
  • Now, big companies are rushing to use their networks and devices to help solve immediate problems — as with Apple's and Google's surprise alliance to provide contact tracing tech via their rival smartphone platforms.
  • Longer-term, they're seeing opportunities in applying AI techniques to everything from personal wellness to disease control.

Distance learning and the digital divide. With schooling at all levels transformed for now into a remote experience, inequities in online access have moved from a long-term ethical concern to an immediate problem.

  • Rural communities don't always have the connections they need. Lower-income cities and neighborhoods lack the devices they need, for both instructors and students.

Network bandwidth and resilience. The shelter-in-place era has stressed networks in new and unplanned-for ways. So far they've held up well.

Misinformation and media polarization. Critics were already blaming big tech platforms for polarizing U.S. politics and spreading election-warping lies.

  • Now we're worried about bad information online that could cost people their lives — whether through discounting the threat of the coronavirus itself, or through buying into dubious or dangerous remedies.
  • So far, the platforms' efforts to clean up medical misinformation have been far more effective than their attempts to police political misinformation and misleading ads.

Meanwhile, these agenda items have lost some urgency:

Antitrust investigations and enforcement. The virus could slow but isn't scuttling efforts by the Justice Department, the Federal Trade Commission, Congress and the states to investigate monopolistic practices by Big Tech.

Consumer privacy. Despite a cavalcade of data breaches and privacy-protection violations, the American public seems to remain ambivalent about the tradeoffs between protecting their personal information and supporting free, ad-supported internet services, telling survey takers that they care about the issue but rarely modifying their behavior.

  • Relatively tough privacy laws are in place now in both California and the EU, but Congress' effort to pass national rules now looks dead in the water until next year at the earliest.
  • A downturn in the ad market could further accelerate online ad overload and intrusive marketing practices, as revenue-starved publishers approve deals they'd previously have turned down.

Screen overload. Before the coronavirus, many Americans feared that too much time in front of screens was rotting our brains and atrophying our bodies.

  • Nothing about the current crisis actually offers a logical excuse for abandoning those fears.
  • But practically speaking, the demands of remote work, remote schooling, and stay-at-home edicts mean that, like it or not, our screens mediate more of our lives than ever before.

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