Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Connectivity's Consequences

Today my home country (New Zealand) is going into a 4-week nation-wide lockdown.  Only essential services and businesses will be allowed to operate and everyone is required be live in isolation 'bubbles' at home or another place of residence (i.e., in student dorms for international students).

Other countries are already in lockdown and others are heading in that direction it seems, so we are not alone in this 'grand social experiment.'  With our normal social contact and the physical dimension of connectivity (trade, travel and tourism) enabling the spread of the deadly Coronavirus around the world, our radical isolation efforts force us to rely on technical connectivity at a rate and extent never seen before.  These times reinforce the notion that connectivity isn't everything, but it's almost everything.

What this means for many of us is an overnight shift from co-located work environments to working from home, or wherever we have chosen to self-isolate (or shelter-in-place). While working from home is nothing new, what's new is the sudden scale and scope of such arrangements.  Whole companies and institutions working remotely brings with it an extra emphasis (and stress) on the 'technical' aspects of socio-technical (also known as sociomaterial) systems.

The unthinkable, improbable, but possible technical risk is that the Internet breaks. This seems far-fetched, but in 2006, an article in MIT's Technology Review, titled, 'The Internet is broken,' reviewed the potential weaknesses in a system that miraculously, but organically grew rapidly without much redundancy designed into it.  And, that was before we understood what havoc hackers can cause.

The social 'experiment' is living with social distance and, in many cases, isolation.  For many of us, this represents an opportunity to embrace solitude (as opposed to isolation), to simplify our lives and reconnect remotely with friends, family and neighbors.  It is nonetheless stressful, as family or apartment units are not always based on 'natural' social boundaries, i.e., we're sometimes 'stuck' with folks we're not that comfortable with and miss those with whom we have more in common.

The 'experiment' part is that very few of us have encountered situations that demand so much time with so few people around us.  Like any experiment, we need to try things out, reflect on what works and what doesn't and then try something else until we get our systems and approach refined to what works best for us.

We can, of course, share what we've learned with others, which brings me to the other element of this experience.  This is perhaps one of the greatest 'shared experiences' of our time, if not all time.  Wars are impactful on the whole population of the nation states who wage them or engage in them, but less important to those not directly affected.  The irony of the pandemic is that it is both a consequence of globalization and a salient symbol of the unity of humanity, as we all share its consequences on our health, our economies and our lives.

As with any experiment, we do not know how this will all work out.  We hope the accelerated uptake and applications of the tools of digital connectivity don't let us down, and perhaps lead us to discover new ways of work en masse.  And, hopefully we will discover that the population of this small planet can use the social fabric of our cultures as a protection against harm and a shield against ignorance and the forces that would disconnect us from each other.

Stay safe and go well.


Nick Muller said...

Nice one!

Unknown said...

Well one consequence of the physical hurly burly shutting up shop is that I have ventured into Connectivity Corner :)