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Tech's hits and misses during the pandemic

A year ago this week, tech companies led the U.S. in sending workers home from offices, helping alert the nation to the seriousness of the looming pandemic. Then they pivoted to providing a suddenly homebound population with the tools to continue working, learning and connecting.

The arrival of COVID-19, as we wrote last March, gave the tech industry — bruised by years of criticism over privacy, misinformation, hate speech and other concerns — a chance to shine.

Tech companies partially seized that moment. A year later, it's clear they further cemented their importance to our daily lives and the dominance of their businesses. But the tide of criticism kept growing, too.

Where tech shone: First and foremost, the industry delivered the resilience and robustness of the internet itself, which has provided sustained employment, education and entertainment for many during a very trying year.

  • Initial worries that the strain of so many learning and working from home would overwhelm home broadband networks proved largely unfounded.
  • Huge swaths of the economy kept calm and carried on as many Americans found ways to work from home. Even sectors that had eschewed telecommuting found ways to get their jobs done remotely.
  • Less tech-oriented parts of the retail economy accelerated their digital transformation, as restaurants and stores scrambled to add online ordering options.
  • The pandemic proved to be a needed catalyst for telehealth, which had been held back by a combination of regulations and issues over whether insurance would pay for care.
  • Health wearables also had a moment, as researchers found changes in biometric data gathered from smart watches and rings could help spot COVID-19 infection before symptoms were noticed.
  • Technology also allowed families forced to keep their physical distance to stay connected and provided a means for worship.

Yes, but: Tech was a help to many but not a savior for all.

  • Enormous numbers of small businesses shut down during the pandemic.
  • Our collective reliance on the internet highlighted inequalities of access: Many Americans go online via smartphone only, and that's insufficient for remote learning or work. Others lacked sufficient broadband access to support their burgeoning home needs.
  • Misinformation about COVID-19 itself, as well as the efficacy of vaccines, continued to spread online, despite the Big Tech platforms being more aggressive than in the past at taking down false information.

While tech succeeded in many areas, it wasn't able to fulfill some of its most ambitious goals, such as playing a significant role in stopping the spread of the disease.

  • Apple and Google teamed up to offer digital contact tracing, but by the time the U.S. began to think seriously about using it, the virus was already so widespread that the approach seemed impractical.
  • As the vaccine began to be available early this year, many states, local agencies and health providers established Web sites of varying quality and robustness, leading to a great deal of frustration for those seeking to find a shot.

Our thought bubble: For all the shortfalls, tech really has made the pandemic bearable.

  • Yes, Zoom calls can be exhausting and annoying, and distance learning is a poor substitute for in-person school.
  • But think how much harder living through a pandemic would have been a decade or two earlier, without those alternatives.

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