Thank goodness for video, and the various pieces of software that let people talk to each other face to face during lockdown. In a matter of weeks, tools that many people had barely handled before the pandemic have become everyday necessities. Huge numbers have attended online work meetings and social gatherings for the first time, with video conferencing apps downloaded a record 62m times over 10 days in March. Zoom, like Google, has become a verb.
Some of this has gone pretty well. In a matter of weeks, organisations from big businesses to universities and campaign groups have found ways of doing what they do (or some of it) remotely. Plenty of people still rely on phone calls, emails or messaging apps. But for those separated from relatives and friends as well as colleagues, and especially people who are alone or isolated, video calls have provided a lifeline. Some families have relied on them to keep in touch with those being treated for Covid-19 in hospital.
With busy commuter trains and venues of all kinds likely to remain unattractive, if not entirely off limits, for some time, tech enthusiasts promote the idea of the home office and virtual hangout as the new normal. To some extent, they are probably right. The pandemic has sent us hurtling into a future that was already on its way to meet us, via a younger generation already much more habituated to screen life.
But that doesn’t mean such changes have to be accepted, let alone embraced. Zoom’s chief executive was forced to apologise for the company’s lax approach to data and promised to address security and privacy concerns as a matter of urgency. Other apps, including Houseparty, have also been criticised. Where schools and colleges have moved classes online, there are concerns about unequal access. Not everyone has the equipment, broadband connections or physical space in their home to make virtual work and study possible. Much tighter regulation of technology companies, particularly in their dealings with children, is long overdue. Crucial aspects of communication – body language, physical companionship – cannot be replicated online.
In countries where the virus was effectively controlled, lockdowns are being eased, with gatherings of up to 100 to be allowed in New Zealand as soon as this week. In the UK, by contrast, most people must continue to rely on technology to keep in touch.
More virtual business meetings, and fewer flights, would reduce carbon emissions. Remote and flexible employment suits some jobs and people. Whether or not video technology should play a larger role in our lives must be thought about, while the companies behind it are subjected to scrutiny. But the more pertinent question is when the virus will be brought under control. Video conferences are useful, but they are no substitute for real people.