COVID-19 has materially changed the way the world works. For the time being at least.
The impact of the virus has been felt across the world, with many countries enforcing stringent lockdowns to help ‘flatten the curve’ and improve the chances of ‘beating’ the virus.
We have fundamentally been rocked to our core.
But all is not lost.
Technology is here to save us!
Well, is that strictly true?
I’m a technologist at heart (specialising in how we can use data to improve decision making) but very aware, I have only a fraction of the knowledge needed to really do justice to the term.
I know that technology has a very important role to play in today’s society, and whilst understanding the merits, am deeply worried about how we employ this tool in our current hour of need.
Technology can be used for both good and bad.
Just look at the mayhem caused by Donald Trump using Twitter.
The completely unfettered access to millions means he is able to tweet unrestricted (& often nonsensically) to those who follow him. This access was unavailable to many previous US Presidents.
Further evidence of technological wrongdoing can be seen by the snooping scandals, whereby tech Giants such as Google we capturing data recorded on smartphones without our approval.
Couple this with election interference by companies such as Cambridge Analytica, there is a growing distrust of large companies and technology as a whole.
Conversely, the good that technology can do is evident from the world coming together over Zoom (or other Video Conferencing platforms).
The fact Captain Tom Moore was able to raise coming up to £30m by walking 100 lengths of his back garden at the spritely age of 99, would have been harder without social media.
This is without looking at the direct impact on situations such as genome mapping, vaccination testing and infection modelling.
I am absolutely of the belief that technology can change the world. And for the better.
But I am really worried.
When times are tough, we see both the best and worst of people.
Those individuals who use technology to profit from the pandemic e.g. the person who bought gallons of alcohol hand gel to sell at enormous mark-up rates – thankfully he was blocked by Amazon and now sits on wasted money and a shed load of hand gel.
The dilemma I see us rushing headlong into is:
Advancement vs Profit vs Ethics
Yes, we need to push the boundaries of modern science and the ability to benefit millions, but how do we weigh this up with the ethical question of “should companies profit from such a dire situation?”
The capitalist approach as started by Adam Smith means there will always be those looking to make money in any given situation. In the past, Hedge Funds have received a bad rep for profiting in severe situations, but I do believe it is no longer restricted to those investment vehicles.
Advancement means we push the boundaries of what is possible – going to where others haven’t been before.
It was reported in the UK press last week that initial vaccine methods, which usually take 9 months to complete have been achieved in the best part of 4 weeks.
This is staggering.
And I take my hat off to everyone who has worked 24/7 to make this happen.
I truly hope this monumental effort by a select few, on behalf of millions, will save lives and help return life to (some sort of) normality.
Technology has undoubtedly help achieve this.
The advanced calculations, the modelling, the intricacies which, in years gone by would have taken months, have been completed in record timing.
Conversely, on the other side of the same coin, someone will profit from it.
When the vaccine is finally created and distributed to the world, will the pharmaceutical companies pass it on for free?
My guess is probably not.
This is a vaccine the world needs and should be available to everyone who needs it. No ifs or buts.
The sad part is I don’t believe this will happen.
Someone somewhere will make a fortune from this vaccine. And in some way, I can’t blame them as it boils down to supply and demand.
But is it right to profit from others misfortune?
The question of ethics should ring loudly in the ears of politicians, chief execs and other senior statesmen and women.
We cannot and should not ignore ethical considerations.
With the world on lockdown and many businesses (both large and small) struggling to cope with the screeching halting in trade, ingenuity and panic have started driving decisions.
The livelihoods of millions have been negatively impacted.
We cannot underestimate the devastation this has caused which will take decades to resolve. The UK Government has committed to support businesses and the self-employed but the funds being used will need to be repaid.
We will all be paying for this for many years to come.
But it is necessary.
The trouble is how do we weigh up the cost of lives versus the economy?
Donald Trump is itching to reopen America to the detriment of many who are ill and sick. With current estimates stating the UK economy is losing, according to The Times, circa £2.4bn per day (whilst the economy is effectively shut), what is the tipping point to reopen?
I can only imagine the impact on the US and worldwide economies!
Weighing up the need to reopen, albeit on a phased basis, is becoming increasingly pertinent for every day a country is closed.
As a result, it is interesting to see how people have reacted.
Jeff Bezos of Amazon fame had started to step away from the day to day running of the Amazon empire, instead to focus on the ‘side businesses’ and more philanthropic ventures. CoronaVirus has forced him into an about turn.
Along with companies like Apple, Amazon has the ability to change the world. Not only from a financial viewpoint (each having vast stockpiles of cash) but also from a reach perspective.
How Amazon reacts during this period will determine Bezos’ legacy.
Does he want to be viewed as the person who didn’t do all he can to save the world? Will this materially impact the value of the Amazon brand in years to come?
Time and public sentiment will tell, but suffice it to say, he is now aware of this more than ever.
The FANG companies (Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google) have a moral responsibility to use the platforms they have built to do good for the world.
Historically, mistrust of large tech companies has been rife:
- through the use of personal data (e.g. Cambridge Analytica),
- snooping (apps which capture data in the background without permission e.g. Google), or
- targeted advising (Russian influence in elections e.g. Facebook).
If I said to you, which individuals come to mind for using technology for good, what would you say?
I’m sure many would say Bill & Melinda Gates.
The funding, support and vigour with which both have tried to address the world’s biggest problems is hugely admirable.
Whether it is tackling the lack of sanitation in developing countries or trying to rid the world of polio, these are monumental challenges.
What is most pleasing about the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is the fact they are taking action. They have not sat back with such enormous wealth and thought “not my problem”.
I know there’s a story whereby Bill Gate’s mother said she did not raise her child to be selfish, and as one of a few people who can genuinely change the world, he should use his money and influence to do so.
Yes, they are the figure heads of philanthropic endeavours, but they are putting their money where their mouths are.
In recent days, Jack Dorsey from Twitter has pledged over $1bn of Square stock to #StartSmall in an effort to help beat COVID-19. These are significant sums of money which will (hopefully) expedite the vaccine process.
I am acutely aware of many others who are supporting amazing causes which are either not in the public eye or less publicised. And to all of them, I thank you.
But we must ALL do what we can.
To Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg et al. this is your time to step up. Please don’t f about. The world needs you.
You have been gifted an incredible opportunity to influence the world for “even better good”, so please don’t pass it up.
Technology has given you this foundation.
What you do with it now will be captured in history and analysed for years to come.
The ability of a few to impact the many is now more prevalent than ever before. It would not be unfair to think ‘where does profit rank in the minds of these tech leaders?’
I’m hoping they will help put lives first, but it is not always an obvious conclusion.
So, the question now is “how do we resolve this no-win situation?”
I believe technology can help, but we must use it for good.
The speed at which information travels now is many times quicker than in the past, the complexity we can deal with in modelling and science advancement is progressing at a staggering rate, and the improvement of lives through smart assistants is evident.
I truly hope the direction of travel remains positive and for the benefit of the masses.
Technology has an increasingly important part to play, but this is only one part.
Those who command and control vast resources are the lynch pins. It is their time to shine, show they are in this with us, and make the world a safe and ultimately, better place.
But what happens when things do begin to get better and we begin to regain some of the freedom lost to COVID-19? Will we remember the lessons learned during the crisis?
I hope so, but I fear not.
Only time will tell as in 12 months’ time, will we be incorporating the lessons learned from this unprecedented experience to make life better or will we be reverting quickly back to type and ignoring the lessons learned?
If the financial crisis of 2008-9 is anything to go by, the pessimist in me believes we won’t have learned anything. But I sincerely hope I’m wrong.