March 4, 2024

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The pandemic, which officially hit the one-year limit on Thursday, has shown just how much we need technology – but also that this is probably not the solution to our greatest challenges.

Here are three things I’ve learned over the past 12 months: Technology has shown its usefulness in helping people and businesses weather a crisis. Our increasingly digital life has also created new problems that will be difficult to fix. And the most important thing has nothing to do with technology.

Let’s talk about each of these topics.

First, I’m grateful that technology has helped millions of us move through work, school, and family. It also kept us updated when it made little sense.

I’m glad my apartment became On Tech’s headquarters. I chatted with digital books and streaming videos, and stayed in touch with friends and family through screens. I chose to shop at local businesses based on whether I could place orders online and reserve a time for pickup. Technology has helped many of us maintain a bit of normalcy in a pandemic.

A big question, as my colleague Steve Lohr wrote this week, is how much the pattern of work and consumption has changed over the past year. (The most honest answer: who knows?)

People who follow technology and people’s habits pretty much all say that the pandemic made up some digital behaviors out of the blue, but that it mainly fast-forwarded digital trends that had already leaked.

More and more people were learning to order their groceries online, trying and enjoying restaurant delivery services, connecting with friends through video games, getting used to meetings through Zoom, and video-calling appointments with their doctors. Much of it was necessary, but digital life had helpful aspects. Shops, gyms, and many other businesses have had to adapt faster to consumer demands.

I hope we can get the most out of these new behaviors and attitudes. I also worry that those benefits came with profound drawbacks – and that the benefits weren’t shared equally.

It is my eternal rage that so many Americans, especially blacks and Latinos and people who live in rural areas, cannot access the Internet from their homes. And we don’t exactly know the size of the problem.

And the technology that promised to bring more income to restaurant owners, product sellers and job seekers during troubled times also created new and undesirable addictions on digital middlemen like DoorDash, Amazon and Uber. The influence and economic power of the big tech superpowers is becoming even more apparent. It will be a failure if the new digital economy – like the old economy – doesn’t work for everyone.


March 12, 2021, 7:49 p.m. ET

And my lasting memory of the past 12 months is that technology often doesn’t play a big role.

People and human-run institutions ran the presidential election last year with few problems. The people were also largely responsible for undermining the credibility of the election result.

People who take care of each other, as well as the decisions of policy makers, were the most important factors in keeping people safe during the pandemic – or not. And the magic of the coronavirus vaccines and the protests calling for a fairer country had little to do with what we consider technology.

It’s been a long, terrible year and we hope the next 12 months will get brighter. And let’s also remember that people, not technology, change the world.

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We’d like to learn about a tech habit you started during the pandemic. Let On Tech know how it helped you manage the past year or unleash your creativity. What do you like (and hate) about your new virtual behavior? Do you see yourself doing it?

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  • The core problem of Facebook: An MIT Technology Review writer wondered why the Facebook team, which is responsible for ensuring fairness in computer-aided decision-making, didn’t change the automated rankings of posts that polarized people. Your question led to this nuanced article on the basic problem of Facebook to maximize our attention.

  • China can’t get enough of Elon Musk: China’s tech workers feel pessimistic about their industry and disaffected with the country’s tech tycoons. Instead, according to my colleague Raymond Zhong, Musk has become the current technology figure in China.

  • Yes, Netflix knows 10 friends have the same password: The company didn’t want to mess with people who share passwords, but they are now testing a way to get some people to get their own account, reported The Streamable.

“I told him my name is Tony, to which he sarcastically replied, ‘like Tony Hawk haha’.”

The most famous skateboarder in history met a kid in a skate park who didn’t recognize him. It was wonderful. (It did so in 2019, but the whims of the internet made Hawk’s Twitter thread popular again this week.)

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