Sep 8, 2020 - Technology

Why tech couldn't save us from COVID

Illustration of a first aid emoji in a text marked "not delivered"

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Tech's biggest, richest companies have proved powerless to help stop or stem the pandemic — largely because the companies' own products have destabilized the public sphere.

The big picture: When the greatest public health disaster of our lifetimes hit, the industry, despite earnest efforts, found that the information environment it had shaped via the internet and social media was profoundly vulnerable to misinformation, partisan division, ignorance and fraud.

  • In that environment, tech could generate all the innovative quick-fixes and agile solutions that it specializes in, but they would never have a chance.
  • No one expects tech companies to develop vaccines or promulgate quarantine policy on their own, but in a crisis U.S. political and business leaders today turn to the tech industry for resources, innovations and problem-solving muscle.

Flashback: Silicon Valley saw the crisis as a moment to shine.

  • It provided an opportunity to reverse years of negative publicity around data privacy, misinformation and hate speech, and charges of anti-competitive practices — and to apply its engineering prowess to a collective threat.
  • During the first wave of lockdowns in the U.S. in March and April, the tech industry, moving into a leadership vacuum left by the federal government, mobilized to enable remote work and schooling and began building systems for virus tracking.
  • "The government has flailed in its response to the pandemic, and Big Tech has presented itself as a beneficent friend, willing to lend a competent hand," as Franklin Foer wrote in The Atlantic.

Tech was among the very first business sectors to shut down big events and send workers home.

But the pandemic itself became a slowly cascading train wreck in the U.S. that shows no signs of ending. It has already left nearly 200,000 dead and put the economy in a coma.

Be smart: You can thoughtfully design contact-tracing tech to protect individual privacy and generate useful data. None of that will matter if the public — distracted by conspiracy theories, partisan propaganda and discredit-the-experts campaigns, all amplified by ill-defended platforms — doesn't believe contact tracing is needed or distrusts the institutions behind it.

The industry's failures fall into three categories:

(1) Data distrust. Tech's mindset is data-driven, and the public health field traditionally works behind a "politics ends here" cordon.

  • But coronavirus data became a partisan flashpoint early on, as the Trump administration — fueled by a populist resentment of experts — sought to downplay the pandemic's impact.
  • Even as Silicon Valley thought leaders set up smart visualizations of real-time virus data, the president and his supporters were using the industry's own platforms to challenge the validity of the numbers.

(2) The limits of incrementalism. Tech's preference is to break big, "hairy" projects down into small pieces and tackle those fast with "minimum viable products."

  • That's a great roadmap for tackling daunting technical challenges or taking the first steps toward a moon shot.
  • It doesn't work well with a problem like the pandemic, with its tangle of "human factors" and social complexities that don't cleave easily.

(3) The consensus-building blind spot. Public health campaigns depend on building trust across social, economic and geographical divides to persuade people to follow medical recommendations or get vaccinated.

  • The social media universe built by Silicon Valley, with its libertarian-individualist roots, efficiently breaks the public down into targetable chunks and amplifies divisive voices.
  • It's never been good at bringing people together or helping form a consensus.

Our thought bubble: Everything that tech could do to help mitigate the pandemic — and there was plenty — depended on the presence of strong national leadership committed to a fact-based response to the crisis.

  • When the Trump administration instead chose a response that questioned science, politicized public-health controversies and left each state to chart its own course, the tech industry had no plan B.

The bottom line: The tech industry, buffered by enormous cash reserves and record new levels of user demand, has used the long coronavirus siege to bet big on acquisitions and risky new investments.

  • But for tech CEOs and employees still motivated by the call to make the world a better place, the pandemic has been a humbling demonstration of their systems' inadequacies and limitations.
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