December 1, 2023

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One promise the technology makes is that it’s a great equalizer. But the reality wasn’t that simple.

The introduction of technology into more industries is a factor that divided the American workforce into promising jobs with good salaries and low-wage jobs with fewer opportunities for advancement. My colleague Ben Casselman recently wrote about the pandemic that is causing more and more companies to adopt automation, which could cut jobs and undermine bargaining power, especially for lower-paid service workers.

Remote working could widen the gap if it persists as another legacy of the pandemic. Professionals with desk jobs may have the option of leaving a physical workplace at least part-time. But you can’t slaughter cattle, look after children, or re-pave a highway with Zoom.

Apple has plans for a new pilot program that could show that there could be a more democratic way to work remotely. The company said it would experiment with partially having its retail employees work off-site, Bloomberg News reported last week. Even before the corona virus, more customer service jobs had at least temporarily shifted from call centers to remote.

It’s a fascinating sign that technology could bring remote working capabilities to more than just professionals, who are a minority of the American workforce. Only about one in six US employees worked remotely during the pandemic.

I admit that Apple could be an outlier and that working for one of its retail stores is different from other types of personal work. Apple Store employees can offer technical advice or complete online sales without being face to face with customers. It’s not that easy for people who work in most other retail jobs or in healthcare, manufacturing, construction, and hospitality.

But one thing we should take away from this pandemic is that it most likely won’t be the last crisis to disrupt normal life. It is good if more people, companies, governments, and technologists are now thinking about how to temporarily do more activities online – not as a nice accessory for the few, but as a necessity for all.

That will require tackling the unequal and ineffective internet system in the US and changing the way employers and employees think about work outside of the workplace. And it could take technology to rethink remote working for more types of workers. Schools were forced to go online in an emergency and things didn’t go very well for many people. But we may not have a choice if future pandemics, climate change-related forest fires, or other emergencies disrupt school, work, and life.

The good news is that technology has already made such a leap – from the professional class to everyone. In the past, computers were limited to beige boxes on desks. Today almost every company and employee relies on technology in some form or another every day – for better and sometimes for bad.

To prepare for a future that could be tarnished by further crises that are forcing us apart, we should focus on technologies that allow people to be apart and still do the best they can online.

Tip of the week

Unless you accidentally broke your phone during the holiday weekends, buying a new smartphone now might not be a good idea. Brian X. Chen, New York Times consumer technology columnist, explains why.

Now is the best time to wait to buy a shiny new phone. Similar to clothing, technical products have seasonality. Companies typically release their major phone upgrades in the fall, before the holiday shopping season.

That said, if you bought the current iPhone 12 or Pixel 5 today, you might be disappointed in a couple of months when Apple and Google roll out the successors to these phones and cut prices on earlier models.

There are some safer purchases out there right now. In general, anything that has been published in the past six months will likely not be updated until next year. Apple, for example, usually launches new models of its tablets in the spring, so now is a good time to grab a new iPad. But it can still be better to wait as vendors often cut prices on tablets during Black Friday.

My advice: keep your credit cards in your wallet. In the meantime, you can revisit my column on how to make your technology last longer by taking steps like installing a new battery, doing a thorough cleaning, and clearing out your data. You might end up changing your mind about buying something new.

  • The Chinese government is the boss. Didi, the major on-demand amusement ride in China, was removed from the country’s app stores because China’s internet regulator said it was concerned about the company’s handling of customer data. My colleague Ray Zhong writes that orders involving Didi and two other tech companies that recently went public in the US show that China’s authorities are in charge of the business.

  • Where there’s a will (and money) there’s a way: My colleague Erin Woo reports on startups that are pushing companies to use technology to make office jobs easier or more productive. A start-up makes an owl-shaped loudspeaker that steps in for a remote employee during a meeting and “automatically zooms in on the person speaking”.

  • The snapshots of text on your phone aren’t just pointless mess. “When memories make us human, our screenshots tell a story about who we are in the digital age,” writes Clio Chang for the New York Times Magazine.

Amazing catch, kid! Thank you to an On Tech reader – Scott Lewis of Ellensburg, Washington – for pointing out this highlight from a recent baseball game in Pittsburgh. Here’s more about this talented fan, 11-year-old Christian Gale.

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