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Covid-19 and technology: ‘This time has shown me that analogue life has its advantages’ – The Guardian


Julia Carrie Wong, senior technology reporter, Guardian US: Good morning from Oakland. To kick us off, I’d love to hear how tech reporting has changed for you since the lockdowns began?

Alex Hern, UK technology editor: Well, on the positive side, it’s got a lot more efficient. Stripped of the ability to invite me halfway across the city for a “friendly chat”, the largest companies in the world are now easier to get hold of on the phone, which saves everyone some time and me the cost of a tube fare.

Thankfully, for me at least, offline reporting has never been that important for tech. I probably have more trusted sources whose names, let alone faces, I don’t know than the average journalist, but at least they’re as easy to get hold of as ever.

There have been a greater-than-normal number of tech stories that break out of the bubble in this period, too. First we had the wave of concern about Zoom’s security problems, and then the focus on the UK government’s test and trace app – first positive, as everyone wanted to know when it would come and how it could save us, but gradually turning sour as it became clear that the Department of Health had embarked on a costly, hubristic mission to build its own app instead of relying on technology provided by Apple and Google. More recently, the Facebook ad boycott and the renewed fears over TikTok, Huawei and Chinese influence have also become front-page news.

The biggest problem for me has been immersing too deeply: it’s easy to forget that the whole world isn’t deeply obsessed with the text-generation capabilities of the new GPT-3 AI when you haven’t met a normal human being for several months.

How about you? Does Oakland feel as central to the tech world when you can’t leave your home? And more generally, do you think all these new normals around tech – hours on Zoom, a newfound reliance on online shopping, an awful lot more time on video games – are they going to stick around?

JCW: Before the pandemic, I often felt that Oakland (where I live and where the Guardian’s west coast bureau is located) was very much not in the centre of the tech world. It’s not on the straight line from San Francisco to Silicon Valley and while there are a few startups and tech companies here, it’s generally better known as a place where tech companies don’t end up coming (eg Uber) than a place where they do.

Now that we’re all working from home, that feels incredibly silly. The centre of gravity has shifted to where people live instead of where they would commute for eight hours a day, and that has really thrown into relief how stark the differences between the places where we live are and how much we live on the internet. Different counties, let alone states and countries, are having completely different material experiences of the coronavirus, and talking to friends or family a few hundred miles away really reinforces how local our lives have become. At the same time, I think it has really thrown into relief how important digital spaces are, and raised the stakes for the debates and battles over how those digital spaces should be governed.

Has this experience changed your perspective on any aspects of the tech industry or tech reporting? What have you been most surprised by?

AH: I’m surprised at how much of the tech backlash seems like a distant memory. The first few months in lockdown really opened up a well of goodwill towards the largest technology companies: from Amazon delivering Covid tests in the UK, to Google, Microsoft, Apple and Zoom becoming cornerstones of our social lives, it feels like the idea that we could ever feasibly boycott these companies is from a different era.

That early period was one of wild growth in the most unlikely areas. I’m usually the one introducing my friends and family to new services, but the viral growth of services like Houseparty took even me by surprise. Our lives were turned upside down in a moment, and everyone was willing to try new things as a result. Some of those were, in hindsight, flashes in the pan (I’ve not used Houseparty in two months) but others look like they’ll stick around.

That said, the shine is clearly starting to wear off now. Where Apple and Google’s exposure notification service was once welcomed with open arms, for instance, it’s now starting to raise uncomfortable questions about the two companies’ desire to overrule elected governments. And the BLM protests in the US threw Facebook in particular back into crisis.

Oakland has obviously been heavily involved in that wave of dissent. Does it make tech feel like a distraction, or are there links between the movement and our beat that you’ve enjoyed drawing out?

JCW: I don’t know that the goodwill that tech giants were able to accrue during the early days of the pandemic was as pronounced here in the US, though perhaps my memory is clouded. Certainly our reliance on tech giant services has increased, but I also think that there has been some shine coming off the idea that tech companies are competent. We tend to be more suspicious of government than private companies in the US, so when Trump announced that Google was going to fix all our testing woes in the early weeks, it seemed like a classic American solution to a massive societal challenge: let the private sector innovate our way out of this mess. But the reality of what Verily was able to provide was far from what was promised, and five months later testing here is still a mess that neither Alphabet nor our government has fixed.

Meanwhile, Facebook courted good press with its supposedly aggressive stance toward coronavirus misinformation, but I think we’ve all seen that even when Facebook is willing to set aside its (supposed) principles about free expression, the company’s enforcement is so lacklustre that misinformation is as bad as ever.

As for Oakland and Black Lives Matter, it’s been interesting to reflect on the roots of the movement, both locally and in social media. The phrase #BlackLivesMatter was coined in a Facebook post by Alicia Garza, a local activist, seven years ago this month. I used to do some activism work with Alicia back in those days (before I was a journalist), and it’s truly incredible to see how her influence has grown and how her words have helped define and propel this global movement. Part of that is down to the revolutionary power of the internet, but a huge amount of it is down to the organising work and sustained struggle of activists like her and so many others.

During the early days of the George Floyd uprising, I covered a youth protest in downtown Oakland that ended when the police, with almost zero provocation, deployed a huge amount of teargas against an overwhelmingly peaceful crowd. I ended up walking a long way through Oakland that evening to get back home, while helicopters overhead blared an announcement that I was subject to arrest for breaking curfew. It was an uncanny and somewhat frightening experience, and one that pushed me to try to tease out all the different ways that the internet and social media have created this new reality.

Has the social unrest around BLM and coronavirus changed how you think about tech?

AH: How could it not? One of the biggest, and scariest, examples for me was seeing what happened when an entire nation got forced into living an Extremely Online life. I, and I would imagine you as well, have spent a good chunk of my spare time communicating on the internet since I was about 11 years old, and I like to think I’m quite good at it. But for a lot of people – objectively, people with a healthier social life than me, really – online socialising is just a small part of their life. Or was, until lockdown hit.

Misinformation online is nothing new, and I’ve been covering the hoaxes and scams around 5G for well over a year now, but the whole thing kicked into a new gear in April, and it was upsetting to see. I spoke to some telecoms workers who had been attacked in the street for “poisoning” people with 5G (they weren’t actually working on 5G of course) and we saw a spate of firebombings across the nation.

I had thought that the more people were online, the better. Even despite all the ills we’ve both reported. But this period has shown me that, well, the analogue life has its advantages too.

But if I’m looking for an upside, BLM has shown one obvious one: handing every single person in America a camera that they carry on their persons at all time is transformative in holding power to account. Black people have been killed by police for years. But it took the killings being caught on camera again and again and again and again for a nation, and a world, to finally admit that these weren’t one-off events, but were signs of a serious, and deadly pattern, that needed to be confronted and ended.

One last question for you: what’s been your ray of light in the past four months?

JCW: I’m grateful for the resilience and strength of the people who continue to protest. I also joined Nextdoor expressly to follow the intense drama over an aggressive wild turkey that menaces visitors to a local rose garden and well, that was worth it.

How about you?

AH: The most low-tech pleasure imaginable: I set up a bird feeder in the window next to my desk. I was worried it would be for nothing, because it’s so close to me that I assumed no bird would brave it while I was sitting there, but so far I’ve had blue tits, robins, sparrows and even helped fledge a family of great tits. I’ve even entertained thoughts of moving out of the city for good, on the assumption that some level of homeworking becomes the norm as we move out of this period.

Though I’ve also become extremely good at the battle royale video game Apex Legends, so it’s not all pastoral loveliness.



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