Mar 10, 2021

Axios Login

Today's Login is a special issue assessing the role the technology industry played — for better and worse — over a year of COVID-19.

It comes in at 1,466 words, a 6-minute read.

1 big thing: Tech's pandemic reckoning

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

A year ago this week, tech companies led the U.S. in sending workers home from offices, helping alert the nation to the seriousness of the looming pandemic. Then they pivoted to providing a suddenly homebound population with the tools to continue working, learning and connecting.

The arrival of COVID-19, as I wrote last March, gave the tech industry — bruised by years of criticism over privacy, misinformation, hate speech and other concerns — a chance to shine.

Tech companies partially seized that moment. A year later, it's clear they further cemented their importance in our daily lives and the dominance of their businesses. But the tide of criticism kept growing, too.

Where tech shone: First and foremost, the industry delivered the resilience and robustness of the internet itself, which has provided sustained employment, education and entertainment for many during a very trying year.

  • Initial worries that the strain of so many learning and working from home would overwhelm home broadband networks proved largely unfounded.
  • Huge swaths of the economy kept calm and carried on, as many Americans found ways to work from home. Even sectors that had eschewed telecommuting found ways to get their jobs done remotely.
  • Less tech-oriented parts of the retail economy accelerated their digital transformation, as restaurants and stores scrambled to add online ordering options.
  • The pandemic proved to be a needed catalyst for telehealth, which had been held back by a combination of regulations and issues over whether insurance would pay for care.
  • Health wearables also had a moment, as researchers found changes in biometric data gathered from smart watches and rings could help spot COVID-19 infection before symptoms were noticed.
  • Technology also allowed families forced to keep their physical distance to stay connected and provided a means for worship.

Yes, but: Tech was a help to many but not a savior for all.

  • Enormous numbers of small businesses shut down during the pandemic.
  • Our collective reliance on the internet highlighted inequalities of access: Many Americans go online via smartphone only, and that's insufficient for remote learning or work. Others lacked sufficient broadband access to support their burgeoning home needs.
  • Misinformation about COVID-19 itself, as well as the efficacy of vaccines, continued to spread online, despite the Big Tech platforms being more aggressive than in the past at taking down false information.

While tech succeeded in many areas, it wasn't able to fulfill some of its most ambitious goals, such as playing a significant role in stopping the spread of the disease.

  • Apple and Google teamed up to offer digital contact tracing, but by the time the U.S. began to think seriously about using it, the virus was already so widespread that the approach seemed impractical.
  • As the vaccine became available, many states, local agencies and health providers established web sites of varying quality and robustness, leading to a great deal of frustration for those seeking to find a shot.

My thought bubble: For all the shortfalls, I harken back to a point I made early on in this crisis:

  • Yes, Zoom calls can be exhausting and annoying, and distance learning is a poor substitute for in-person school.
  • But think how much harder living through a pandemic would have been a decade or two earlier, without those alternatives.
2. The pandemic provided a techlash reprieve

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

As the global pandemic thrust technology to the center of our lives, it also gave Big Tech an unexpected respite from federal regulatory threats, pushing COVID-19 response ahead of other Washington priorities, Axios' Kim Hart reports.

What we're hearing: With the Biden administration fixated on vaccine distribution and Cabinet confirmations, fleshing out a tech-industry regulatory agenda will continue to take a back seat for at least a few more months.

Where it stands: That doesn't mean action has completely stalled. The White House is actively vetting candidates for key roles in the agencies tasked with policing the tech industry — the DOJ, FTC and FCC.

  • But decisions about crucial leadership positions are still a ways off, and close watchers of the process don't expect the key agencies to be staffed up enough to create a policy agenda before late summer or fall.

Flashback: When our reliance on technology tools deepened a year ago at the dawn of the pandemic, some in the industry thought public gratitude for the flexibility and relief tech provided might earn it a reprieve from political scrutiny.

That theory only partially played out. Tech made remote work and virtual classrooms possible — but it was hardly ideal. And as the pandemic dragged on, all our Netflix bingeing, FaceTiming, and Amazon ordering also underscored the power and omnipresence of the biggest tech firms — and the resulting tight grip they have over our data.

  • The November election once again surfaced the intractable problem of misinformation on social media platforms— just as we were all spending far more time in our online social circles.
  • These concerns further revved up tech's critics. Trump's antitrust watchdogs opened investigations, doubled down on calls for renewed competition, and finally brought parallel lawsuits against Google (by the DOJ) and Facebook (by the FTC).

Between the lines: Federal and state investigations and cases can drag on for years, and no meaningful action is likely before 2022 at the earliest.

3. Charted: The pandemic sped the shift to digital media
Expand chart

The COVID-19 crisis drove digital media consumption to new heights, while traditional media stagnated, according to data from eMarketer, Axios' Sara Fischer reports.

What's happening: Even before the pandemic, but especially after, time American adults spent on smartphones and smart TVs skyrocketed while time spent on devices like radio and linear television continued to decline.

Why it matters: Media companies that hadn't already begun to realign their businesses around streaming and mobile were caught flat-footed by the pandemic's digital boom. Those that did have been rewarded.

What to watch: eMarketer predicts that that digital formats, including streaming, digital audio and connected TV, will claim even more daily media time going forward. Traditional TV, social media, tablets and desktops/laptops will likely decrease in usage this year compared to 2020.

4. COVID-19 showed the limits of tech's magic

Silicon Valley's profound self-confidence a good hard shake from the pandemic, presenting technologists with a host of problems that resisted quick fixes in code, Axios' Scott Rosenberg writes.

The big picture: Tech's AI-driven, network-powered services stepped adroitly into problem spots around the edges of pandemic life. 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 half million deaths and counting.
  • Apple and Google's contact-tracing system, without government backing and broad-based promotion, languished largely unused.
  • Social media platforms cracked down on virus-related hoaxes and misinformation. But their efforts couldn't outweigh presidential messaging that first suggested the virus would "miraculously" disappear and then sent confusing signals about how to respond.

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 combating online misinformation to overcoming vaccination concerns.
  • 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 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.
5. Take note

On Tap

  • Roblox is set to go public in a direct listing.

Trading Places

  • Lina Khan, well-known in antitrust circles for her ideas about stopping platforms like Amazon from competing directly with sellers, is being vetted as a nominee for a slot as Democratic FTC commissioner, two sources told Axios on Tuesday. The news was first reported by Politico.
  • The White House has tapped Clare Martorana, a veteran of the U.S. Digital Service, to be its chief information officer.

ICYMI

  • Ericsson said Tuesday it won't be taking part in an in-person Mobile World Congress in Barcelona in June, while Nokia is still weighing whether to participate. (Axios)
  • An international hacking group gained access to around 150,000 live-feed security cameras developed by startup Verkada and used globally inside hospitals, companies, police departments, prisons and schools, Bloomberg News reported Tuesday. (Axios)
  • There are more clouds for the chip sector, this time due to a lack of clouds in Taiwan. (Financial Times)
6. After you Login

If you are looking for something heartwarming, check out this prescription that a doctor gave a vaccinated patient, suggesting that she should go hug her granddaughter.

If you like things a little darker, check out this pandemic ditty that the Marsh Family did to the tune of "Total Eclipse of the Heart." If you like that one, they have more tunes here.