Since my university has gone online, I’ve been teaching remotely. The tools are excellent. I conduct my classes using Socratic methods, and when I call on a student, everyone in class sees his or her classmate at the center of the screen, answering my question. When I lecture, students see me front and center. I have not sensed any loss in participation from the move online. To be sure, some virtual classes at other universities have been crashed by online intruders. For the most part, though, the learning that happened before the coronavirus continues much as before.
Online work is not only occurring at universities but also throughout the nation’s economy. Many professional-services businesses have moved online seamlessly. Even the legal system is going online, with some courts now holding arguments by teleconference. The Supreme Court has not joined in, perhaps from fear that holding arguments by video will increase pressure to televise arguments—a prospect that unites our divided justices in horror. Industry dependent on physical presence, like automobile makers or other manufacturing, has been most disrupted by the shutdown, as well as hospitality services, bars, and restaurants, which have all been devastated.
This online transition would not have been possible a decade ago, and probably not even five years ago. It is the direct result of the march of computational technology, which encompasses the relentless growth in computational power, the software that makes use of it, and the Internet that distributes it. One hears many complaints about computational technology—that it has not done much beyond letting people send out polarizing tweets; that the leading companies that deploy it, such as Facebook, Amazon, and Google, are unduly concentrated; and that it harms the social fabric. We will likely be hearing less of those complaints after the coronavirus subsides, because computational services generated by technology have become our lifeline.
Shelter in-place orders risk social isolation and boredom. But with Skype and social media, we can connect with friends and family. I can read almost any great work of fiction or history on my Kindle. We also have available the vast range of great cinema at our fingertips. Our four-year-old daughter, now home from daycare, has delighted in the mastery of Fred Astaire, an opportunity that I wish I had at her age.
The presence of social media and streaming is not just a matter of maintaining friendships or keeping us entertained. It helps with flattening the curve of the virus’s deadly exponential spread. The more people who can work online, the less of a hit the economy takes and the more time a lockdown can be sustained. The less socially isolated people feel, the more they will comply with the sometimes-draconian strictures on daily life.
Amazon—another business propelled by computational technology—has seen a dramatic increase in orders and deliveries, necessitating massive new hiring. The ubiquity of this “store of everything” also helps people stay at home. The Amazon option may mean the difference between life and death for vulnerable people, such as the old or sick.
Computational technology has been at the heart of attempts both to model Covid-19’s spread and to find new drugs and vaccines to arrest it. The genetic code of the virus has already been cracked; as a result, some promising vaccines are already in the offing. Computers are mapping hotspots, helping the federal government make decisions about where to send supplies. And the Internet is keeping scientists in touch with one another around the world. Its interconnectivity is a force multiplier of the individual discoveries facilitated by the ongoing computational revolution.
Bill Gates, who has made more money from computational technology than anyone else, is using his foundation to set up seven factories to manufacture the most promising vaccines so that they can be tested at the same time. Even the profits from big tech are being plowed back to fight the virus.
Sadly, the world will likely suffer hundreds of thousands of deaths because of the coronavirus. But it won’t be the tens of millions of deaths of the Spanish influenza of 100 years ago. A big reason will be the difference in computational technology and the businesses that it has enabled.
The success of computational technology during this crisis will have long-term effects on education, business, social life, and politics. It will give a boost to online-education programs and reduce the demand for residential colleges outside elite campuses. It may also help American educational institutions by increasing their reach oversees, because students will not have to get visas to travel here to take advantage of our superior higher education system.
Businesses are likely to be more decentralized, with a rise in telecommuting. Task automation will be accelerated so that the next crisis doesn’t halt the manufacture of physical goods.
The virus’s long-term political effects are unpredictable, but politicians of the Left and Right are likely to reduce their attacks on technology companies, at least for a while. Even the easy-to-vilify pharmaceutical companies are likely to benefit in the public eye, assuming, as is likely, that they find and deliver a workable vaccine.
Indeed, after the crisis ends, pro-technology policies may emerge as an attractive political platform. The program could include streamlining regulation to allow technological progress to proceed more rapidly, while providing better income protection for those economically dislocated by these transitions. By harnessing technology for the good of humanity, we can buffer ourselves, to some degree, from the shock of future catastrophe, whether it’s the next killer virus or disasters of the natural world.
John O. McGinnis is a contributing editor of City Journal and the George C. Dix Professor in Constitutional Law at Northwestern University.