What Can We Learn from COVID-19? Reflections from the SCE Community

In a recent essay in the Guardian, author Rebecca Solnit reflects on what we can learn from this current moment. “The outcome of disasters is not foreordained,” she states. “It’s a conflict, one that takes place while things that were frozen, solid and locked up have become open and fluid – full of both the best and worst possibilities.”1

At SCE, we’re settling into our sixth week of remote work. As this starts to feel like our new normal, we’re beginning to leave “crisis mode” and start thinking about what our world will look like in a month, a year, or a decade. COVID-19 has broken open our frozen, solid, locked-up world, and as we pick up the pieces, we must also consider how to build the future we wish to see.

We’re particularly curious about how this crisis will impact our relationships with technology and the social-emotional development of our young people. So we reached out to the SCE community: nonprofit leaders, researchers, teachers, designers, and experts in youth development.

We asked them three questions: What is this crisis illuminating about the human-tech paradigm? What is this crisis illuminating about our relationships with others? And what will the world look like in one year—or five?

Here’s what we learned.

The crisis hasn’t changed the positives or negatives of technology. What it has done is amplify tech’s influence.

We have been debating the merits of technology since long before COVID-19 arrived. Depending on who you spoke with, technology could be either the saving grace of humankind or its downfall. As we see it, technologies are tools—tools with the potential to connect us and divide us. Our challenge has always been to understand those technologies, so that we can build relationships with them that are both powerful and purposeful.

COVID-19 hasn’t made tech better or worse. It has, however, made tech’s influence much more prominent. “The positives and negatives of technology have been amplified by the pandemic,” says Emily Weinstein, Postdoctoral Fellow at Harvard University’s Project Zero. “We’re seeing the power of social media for so much good—humor, connection, mobilizing resources, staying informed—but also how the buzz of a New York Times alert can evoke immediate anxiety.”

When we asked our community about the impact of COVID-19 on the human-tech paradigm, they were split on whether technology was making their lives better, worse, or both. Some expressed gratitude for the videoconferencing technology that helped them connect with their loved ones, and for the medical technology that literally keeps people alive. Others lamented how video chats felt like incomplete substitutes for “the real thing” and worried that they turned to the internet and social media as “numbing agents.”

What everyone did agree on was that this crisis magnifies the prominence of technology in our lives. As we depend on tech as a lifeline, we have an opportunity to re-examine how we want our relationships with tech to be. “We really want to maximize the benefits of tech, and there are many,” says Tracy Foster, Executive Director of Stand Together & Rethink Technology. “We need to create norms around how to minimize the side effects.”

COVID-19 has highlighted the “digital divide.” When we imagine a post-COVID world, we need to do so with an equity lens.

For Calvin Stalvig, Director of Youth Programs at the Beam Center, a single moment illustrated a stark disparity that the pandemic brings to light. “When a shopper delivered groceries so that I could eat, I felt shame and guilt that his body was the one standing in for mine. My comfort and safety have been sustained by people who have no choice but to risk their health in order to avoid eviction or hunger.”

Many have framed the pandemic as a crisis that affects us all equally. It’s not. Due to decades of discrimination and under-investment, people of color and people living in poverty are more likely to have the underlying health conditions that make the disease deadly. These same communities are far more likely to have jobs that can’t go remote, meaning that they’re exposed to the disease more frequently. And young people in these communities are less likely to possess the technology that makes online learning possible—meaning that when schools go remote, those children risk falling behind.

In times of crisis, disparities like these become impossible to ignore. As we begin to envision a post-COVID world, we need to confront this inequality head on. The digital divide is a great place to start. “It’s imperative that we build a much more intentional equity focus into every element of systems design in this digital and tech-centered age,” says Lisa Guernsey, Director of Teaching, Learning, and Tech at New America. “That ranges from redesigning how we set up our healthcare system to designing educational and learning ecosystems that enable anytime, anywhere, learning.”

We’re beginning to notice patterns emerging from the current crisis. These patterns help us envision a post-COVID world.

When we first realized the magnitude of COVID-19, our collective reaction was one of crisis management. The more privileged grappled with how to transition to remote work, ensure that their kids could learn online, and manage the well-being of their families. Meanwhile, healthcare professionals focused on keeping us alive and essential workers made sure that we could all meet our basic needs. For those workers and the millions of Americans who now find themselves out of work, crisis management continues.

For the rest of us who are getting used to a “new normal” of extended social isolation, we’re beginning to notice patterns emerging from this worldwide realignment. In an era of unprecedented uncertainty, those patterns give us stability and hope.

Dr. Megan Moreno, adolescent medicine physician and professor of pediatrics at the University of Wisconsin, has noticed an increasing connection between technology and well-being. “We are currently seeing patients via tele-health and it is so wonderful to reduce risks for them as well as for ourselves,” she says. “I really hope this incredible progress continues when we are on the other side of this pandemic.”

Stalvig adds that tech has already altered our education and political systems. “In five years, we will take online learning more seriously, as well as the degrees that it affords,” he predicts. “In five years, we will vote in an election online.”

COVID-19 is a crisis unlike any we’ve ever seen—for our physical health, for our mental well-being, and for the economic futures of millions around the world. But as it lays bare our society’s flaws, it also offers opportunities to redefine what we thought was set in stone.

This pandemic will leave indelible marks on our society. It’s up to us to decide what we want those marks to be.

1. ‘The impossible has already happened’: what coronavirus can teach us about hope, Rebecca Solnit, The Guardian

2. Photo by Anthony Tran on Unsplash