Mar 10, 2021 - Technology

The pandemic showed the limits of tech's magic

An illustration of a computer wearing a surgical mask

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The coronavirus pandemic gave Silicon Valley's profound self-confidence a good hard shake, presenting technologists with a host of problems that resisted quick fixes in code.

The big picture: Tech's AI-driven, network-powered services stepped adroitly into problem spots around the edges of pandemic life, as offices regrouped into virtual Zoom hives, homebound families ordered grocery and restaurant delivery by app, and e-commerce, led by Amazon, picked up where retail had gone dark.

Yes, but: At the heart of the pandemic sat a challenge — controlling the spread of a virus among humans — that tech was unable to meet any better than other power-centers in American society.

  • Pharmaceutical companies in concert with government did a bang-up job of developing and testing vaccines using novel techniques in record time.
  • But tech, along with our other institutions, failed the challenge of restraining the virus' spread while we waited for that fix — at the price of millions of deaths globally and even broader illness and suffering.

Apple and Google partnered up to develop a contact-tracing system, but without government backing and broad-based promotion, it languished, largely unused.

Between the lines: The pandemic rubbed our collective noses in the hard limits of tech solutionism — the ideology, widespread in industry circles, that tech is the key to solving all human problems, and if we throw enough startups at some aspect of human woe, they will overcome it.

  • The most intractable problems that COVID-19 posed the U.S. and the world were social and behavioral — from getting people to wear masks and socially distance to combatting online misinformation to winning over vaccination doubters.
  • COVID reminded us that the deeper digital technology weaves itself into our social fabric and daily lives, the more important it is for tech companies to involve sociologists, ethicists and other disciplines — experts on human behavior rather than computer science and marketing.

Our thought bubble: A classic science fiction trope shows humanity, confronted by a sudden hostile alien threat, laying aside its divisions and squabbles and uniting against a common enemy.

  • Those aliens arrived last year — they just happened to take the form of a virus — and we failed the test. The tech industry was no exception.
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