By Kevin Urie
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the world was rushing headfirst into an impersonal digital persona-driven future powered by AI We all could see a future driven by an online world, a world where digital replaced most physical experiences, and AI was going to take over a vast swath of jobs in the economy. When this pandemic hit, this future was thrust upon us almost overnight, and we were able to experience a beta version of our future. Is this a future we still want, and if not, what have we learned that needs to be changed, and what should we do about it?
Since the start of Friendster, MySpace, and MMO’s like Club Penguin and World of Warcraft, people have been trying to develop community online. Users of these platforms and newer ones such as Facebook and Instagram have been trying to make the digital world experiences similar, if not better than that of their real-world experiences. They use these technologies to connect with others, join communities, and feel a part of something that makes them feel more valued. And this new online community technology did what technology always does; it made something hard a little easier. These and other social platforms make it easier to connect with others and to find people of like mind and interest. It allows us to communicate with a larger group of people than we could ever do online. It also gave everyone an audience. A place where what a person contributes to a community could be judged by others based on follower counts, likes, or connections.
The upside of the social revolutions is immense, people can now make online connections regardless of location, and even discover similar interests with a neighbor they would have never discovered before. This technology allowed us to find groups of people that were interested in the same things as us no matter how obscure. If you have a passion, it is almost guaranteed you can find a like-minded group of people that have that interest as well and are waiting to talk with someone about it.
This led to vast amounts of information being shared online, on almost any topic. So much information that search engines could barely keep up and social feeds got overwhelmed with streams of information. We simply had too much data and information, so once again, technology was looked to for the answer. The answer was to create solutions that could help us sort through all this vast information and to give us what we were looking for. So A.I. came in and started curating our searches and our social feeds. Instead of us seeking and deciphering through the data, the AI did it for us.
Where we are today is a siloed AI driven world and we were on track for it to get far worse before COVID-19 hit. We had in store for us a future where our communications, connections, and economy were to be driven by an AI figuring out how to make those things more efficient. These online technologies and AI systems are focused on removing disorganization, chaos, and inefficiencies. Here lies the major problem, however. This very disorganization, chaos, and inefficiencies technology is trying to eliminate are breeders of creativity, innovation, and the serendipitous moments we crave. I’d go on to say these very inefficiencies are precisely what makes us human and a life without them creates a siloed soulless life experience without creativity.
And that is the exact path we were headed, and maybe still are. One of ultimate efficiency, almost a Wall-E future where technology continues to steer us to what it thinks we want so it can make our life easier. To a place where not just our communities are only online, but our jobs, our thoughts, our relationships and anything that takes real effort is optimized to a point where the very need for us to actively work at them has been replaced by technology.
Well, that is until COVID-19 came along.
Over the past few months, we have been forced into seeing aspects of this future. A more curated living where serendipity is removed and replaced by calculations and planning. Where our life online is almost our entire life. It has come to a point where some of the most material things we still participate in, such as connecting with friends for happy hours or even getting married, are now done via Zoom.
Before COVID-19 we were slowly heading in this direction without much thought about the consequences. It was much like the boiling frog fable and this technology was slowly overtaking us like a frog in water gradually coming to a boil. Then COVID-19 hit and almost overnight, the water went to boiling, and people have been shocked awake and are for the first time evaluating what truly matters to them.
You can see it all around. People are in somewhat of a shock and are longing for a bygone era. One with face to face connections, of bumping into someone at a bar, or striking up a random conversation with someone at the grocery store. They miss the conversations at the water cooler, and the random innovative idea they have because of what someone sitting next to them on the bus said that morning.
You can see this awakening happening all around you. At parks you will see more families hanging out together than ever before. Families are connecting around board games more than ever with sales off the charts. People that are trying their best to follow quarantine rules are willing to break them to meet with their friends outside somewhere. Neighbors are connecting more than ever outdoors, not only offering to help each other, but also meeting up for happy hours outside, and making friendships that would have never happened before this disaster. People are striving for real physical relationships again.
Even Generation Z, which you’d think are physically attached to their phones, are now craving physical connections. They are pushing for physical graduations, even doing things such as car parades and using other social distancing practices simply to get an in-person glimpse of their friends and have that in-physical connection.
COVID-19 has millions of people across the globe that once strived for as much attention as they could get online, realizing that physical connections with just a few are far more valuable. They understand that the awkwardness, spontaneous, and accountable relationships they have with people face to face are indispensable. People have been awoken by the change, and I think our future looks a little better than it did before because of it.
Will we put our online life back in the box? I don’t think so, nor do I think we should. Will travel, restaurants, retail, commercial real estate, and other in-person businesses go back to pre-COVID-19 levels? No, and I don’t think they should. What I do know is that right now, people value physical connection with others more than I can ever remember. Because of that, we as a society are going to shift our behavior. Because of COVID-19 we are going to value real physical connections more than we did before. We are going to spend more time trying to get to know the people around us and not our online communities. And if we are lucky, maybe we will even try to make those online communities offline communities as well.
The COVID-19 pandemic has awoken people up to the boiling water of an online life around them. Now it is our job to take control of the future and strive for a balance of the physical and online world, instead of a replacement of one for the other.
Well, at least I can hope…