The Pandemic is Deepening our Symbiosis with the Internet
digital anthropologist, economist, ux researcher, toxic hodler, etc
A CGI view of the underground network of tree roots and fungi. Screenshot from movie Fantastic Fungi.
The pandemic is helping us appreciate the key role of the internet in our lives and a reminder of how much more there is to build on it.
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.
- John Hopkins COVID-19 global monitoring data has been the world-wide real-time interface for monitoring the status of the virus.
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 big picture of the internet economy (spoiler: it’s still small)
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:
The lockdown pushes people online
- Steady state internet economy growth represented in black, and the new steady state curve being created by the pandemic-led lockdown in grey. This is a conceptual graph so does not represent real data.
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:
- Microsoft Azure Cloud seems to be “having issues”. Azure’s corporate clients are reporting reliability and capacity issues, which doesn’t seem to be scaling quickly enough to accommodate peaks in demand.
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:
Virtual events and conferences
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:
- Remo.co, see picture above, is a new conferencing tool that enables people to ‘see’ themselves in 2D virtual spaces, while also video-conferencing. It enables people’s 2D avatar to sit in virtual tables alongside other attendees, while listening to the speakers, whose avatars take the stage.
- CrowdCast is also growing in usage, providing event builders and broadcasters the platform to post their events to specific guests or the general public, and to request payments directly on the platform. Once users join the event, only the hosts appear on video and users can provide feedback and comment through a communal chat.
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.
Social distancing & video conferencing
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.
- Zoom, as you’ve probably noticed, has become the de facto group communication tool during the Coronavirus lockdown. To the extent that it features as being the ‘culprit’ of the virus in a number of memes. It makes it much easier to invite people on conference calls, provides a seamless video conferencing for up to 300 users, free video conferencing for calls up to 40 min. long, and, some would suggest, fun backgrounds.
- HouseParty is another social media phoenix emerging out of the pandemic’s ashes. It is a quirky app, designed for younger audiences, that enables users to form social circles, move in and out between them, and interact with others by playing games, make drawings, and more. It has definitely managed to carve its own unique place between social media (like Facebook) and video comms tools (like Skype or WhatsApp).
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.
Benefits provided by these platform experiences
Be it in events, socialisation or work, online tools have a lot to offer:
- Making communication super easy and quick: It takes the click of a mouse (or the downloading of an app) to instantly connect with others.
- Shrinking geographies: People sharing similar interests can now join global conferences from their living rooms. To be participative and engaged, it no longer matters where in the world you’re located.
- Expanding features and possibilities: Online platforms are highly elastic and mouldable to be fit for purpose. Think it’s creepy how HouseParty allows users to spy on who their friends are talking to? (Me too). But this feature was designed in an effort to make their younger users interested in joining their friends’ parties (and, who knows, maybe also to allow their parents to keep an eye on the party from outside its virtual door). The point being: it’s easy to plug in and repurpose features to these apps so they better serve us as our way of using them evolved. Thank the APIs!
- Increasing interaction through intuitive interfaces: Although there is a need for growth here (as we’ve seen communication tools are mostly video-based which are fixed and offer a limited interaction potential), the online solutions we looked at are beginning to display in-app interactivity through integration of games, drawing boards and creative background. This creates the possibility for richer social dynamics more fit for purpose.
Limitations of these platforms
Here are some of the main limitations of the tools I looked at:
- Lack of a feeling of virtual place: While video conferencing tools provide a person to person view, we have seen scenarios like events and conferences where users might expect to ‘feel in place’. Perhaps this is something that Virtual Reality (VR) can help with. Tools like VRChat, Altspace, Decentraland, and Hubs are proving successful in their own right, so it’s a matter of applying them to the right use cases — be they virtual conferences or workplace roundtables. Interestingly, virtual places don’t necessarily have to represent real places, nor do you necessarily need a human avatar of yourself — places and selves may be as realistic as the purpose of your interaction requires. Example: if you are having a meeting with colleagues all that needs to be transferred is your voice, and the image of your mouth and eyes (which help to decode the voice), but beyond that it’s all up for grabs! You might as well give the option to do a videoconference as a potato (see above).
- More interaction with virtual objects: In Remo.co we saw the possibility of moving one’s 2D icon around the virtual conference, and in Houseparty one can play games and make drawings while on the call. I am sure we all agree that so much more can be done here. Material objects in the real world are really important, they help us to ground our experiences and make more meaning out of them. Example: in the face-to-face meetings I have with my colleagues we often use the whiteboard to write down ideas and represent our thoughts visually. Now, virtual objects fit for purpose could enable many possibilities and greater experiences in specific realms of our work and social lives.
The early vision of the internet
“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.
The human-internet symbiosisAnother CGI view of the underground network of tree roots and fungi. Screenshot from Fantastic Fungi.
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.
- The Uncensored Library in Minecraft houses a massive protected library in which anyone can come and visit censored stories from around the world. I find this to be a powerful symbol of the places we can build and inhabit on the internet (Bleeding Cool).
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