In the space between people & tech. User researcher, anthropologist, economist creative, etc.
A CGI view of the underground network of tree roots and fungi. Screenshot from movie Fantastic Fungi.
A deep and complex underground network runs under our feet. This network provides plants and trees with beneficial nutrients, enables them to communicate with each other through chemical stress-signals, and shields them from external pathogens (New York Times 2016).
This is a fungal network, made up of root-like filaments called mycelium. Without this underground network forests would be nutrient-poor, more prone to suffering diseases and each plant siloed from one another.
Can you think of any similar network existing in our lives?
Well, this network is called the ‘wood wide web’ for a reason. It takes its name from the internet for its stark resemblance. Similarly, the internet is a network that enables light-speed and frictionless communication throughout the human ecosystem and provides it resilience against external threats.
As the Corona pandemic quarantined our countries and locked down our societies, the internet is playing a key role in not only tackling the spread of the virus and finding a cure, but in enabling many of us to resume life as usual in these unusual times.
This is true be it in matters of work (the lucky ones started remote working), living and play (the internet has become a main source of leisure — try buying a gaming console these days!), or socialising (it has also become our primary communication tool).
My hope here is to help us appreciate how the internet is serving us in these challenging times thanks to its boundless potential; and and yet to show how much more the internet has to offer.
The US internet economy is roughly 10% of its entire GDP, based on a 2019 study. Unsurprisingly, the Big Tech players are kings of this space and take the largest slice of the pie: Facebook and Google account for approximately 84% of global digital ads, while Amazon accounts for roughly 50% of all online retail spending in the USA.
These figures are usually lower for most other countries, except for rapidly growing emerging countries like China. China’s internet economy represented over 35% of its GDP in 2018.Granted, calculation methodologies may differ so a like for like comparison between the US and China may not be suitable. But one thing is certain:
We are still in the relatively early stage of the internet revolution. A 10% internet economy in the US tells us that there is still a bulk of the economy offline — which would likely benefit from online channels.
So how is our society’s response to the coronavirus pandemic leading us deeper down into the internet rabbit hole? Glad you asked:
As of the 26th of March, over 2.8 billion people have been put in lockdown, that is almost 1 in 3 people worldwide, and are forced to either work from home or not work at all. Either way, this is leading to unprecedented levels of internet usage which, as a consequence, is creating all sort of technical issues. Here are some that I came across:
These qualitative indicators show us that the lockdown has greatly increased our demand for internet tools and services.
We will definitely see a rebound to a back-to-normal way of working and interacting. But this doesn’t mean that all these digital ‘underground’ experiments will have been for nothing.
The virtualisation of our work and social lives will endure as our society grasps the added benefits and value of online tools, and as new tools fit for purpose are built to optimise our experiences.
Let’s look at some of the new tools that have sprung up during the pandemic:
As pre-planned events and social gatherings are increasingly being postponed, cancelled, or going ‘virtual’, online conferencing tools are in high demand. Here are some of the tools I came across in the last month that people are using during the pandemic:
Both tools provide the ability for people globally to take part in these events. Noteworthy is how Remo tries to create virtual places and selves as 2D avatars. And while this feature certainly helps to ‘imagine’ our place in a conference hall, it is still far away from creating the feeling of ‘being’ there.
Whether one might use it for catching up with groups of friends or doing work calls with colleagues (that doesn’t involve being subject to the many Skype glitches) social video conferencing has seen at least two big winners during the pandemic.
These social platforms are easy to use and provide us the instant ability to connect with those we normally interact with in our daily life, be it colleagues, friends and family. They also are beginning to provide a level of interactivity through in-built games.
Be it in events, socialisation or work, online tools have a lot to offer:
Here are some of the main limitations of the tools I looked at:
In the article titled The Computer as a Communications Device (1968), a visionary and pioneer of the computer and the internet, by the name of J.C.R. Licklider, said:
“In a few years, men will be able to communicate more effectively through a machine than face to face. That is a rather startling thing to say, but it is our conclusion”.
These were the 1960’s, and we can safely say that Licklider had it right already back then (let us forget for a minute those glitchy Skype calls!).
While the internet has revealed plenty of its flaws in the last few years — from rampant fake news and nonexistent data privacy — we often forget to look at the big picture view of how crucial the internet and the entire computing revolution have been to advance humanity.
Now, I’d say that the COVID-19 crisis reminded us of the big picture view.
In the midst of this pandemic, the internet connected people with similar interests to meet in virtual conference rooms despite their geographical distance, enabled workers to carry out their tasks remotely, brought friends and family together despite a physical lockdown, gave us the ability to monitor the spread of the virus real-time and forecast its effects in our communities, allowed scientists from all nations to collaborate in search for a vaccine, and much much more.
If there is at all a tech-related silver lining to this pandemic crisis, it must be the collective realisation that society and much of the economy can still function during a global lockdown thanks to the internet.
J.C.R. Licklider saw our relationship with computers as symbiotic. He believed that this was a profitable relationship for humans. Computers, he said, would “augment the human intellect by freeing us from mundane tasks” (Man-Computer Symbiosis, 1960). And here too Licklider had it right.
We might even say that the internet reaches beyond Licklider's vision.
The internet and digital technologies have the ability to free us from our physical limitations: we can re-create what is possible in physical reality and design new scenarios that transcend what is possible in the real world.
Remembering the wood wide web, trees are unable to communicate with each other with their leaves but they are able to do so (with up to 40 trees surrounding them!) through their alliance with fungi. And this symbiosis makes them stronger as a species: as they are able to prepare and prevent against the threat of all sorts of enemies, be they above or below ground.
Similarly to the symbiosis between trees and fungi, our symbiosis with the internet enables us to come together as humanity to fight external threats.
Perhaps, when building the internet and the online services of the future, nature might continue to be a source of inspiration for us.