Published 5:37 PM EDT May 2, 2020
Computers have made the coronavirus house arrest more tolerable for many. The lack of computers has made it even worse for some.
I am writing this column on a personal computer in the den of my Swain County home. When I complete it, I will email it to the Citizen Times. My task will have been completed without close contact with any other human being.
I have been working remotely for 20 years now, so the virus has made minimal change in my lifestyle. For many, however, it is a new way of life that may prevail after the virus is gone. For some, it puts them even further behind.
Millions of people who used to go to an office now work from home. Educational institutions all over the country have gone to virtual instruction. All of this is made possible by the ubiquity of home computers and laptops.
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I recall in the 1980s trying to get some work done while waiting for an airplane. I was using the first laptop, a Radio Shack word processor with a memory of 16 thousand bytes. That translates to roughly 16,000 letters or 3,000 words. I was interrupted constantly by people wondering about that strange machine on my lap.
Today, of course, laptops are everywhere. They also are a lot more powerful. The computer I use at home and the laptop I use while traveling each has 8 billion bytes of memory. Of course, they do a lot more than word processing, though this continues to be a major use for me.
There is hardly a business that has not been revolutionized by computers. In newspapers, the composing room is a thing of the past. Editors now can prepare pages for the press right at their desks. Those editors often are based in different cities or states from the one in which the newspaper is published.
A society is never the same again after an upheaval. It instead settles into a new normal. The post-coronavirus new normal will include even greater use of computer technology.
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Many of those working from home will continue to do so. Such arrangements are more convenient for the employee and less expensive for both the employee and the employer. The trend toward online sales will accelerate, reducing store employment.
Virtual learning has its drawbacks; there is something to be said for interacting with an instructor who is in the same room. Still, there are some cases in which a virtual class makes sense, as in delivering specialized instruction to a remote area, or in one of those lower-division college courses that often are taught to an auditorium full of students by a graduate assistant.
There is, however, a dark cloud behind all these silver linings. Millions of families still are without access to high-speed internet. In some cases, they simply cannot afford it. In other cases, especially in rural areas and more so when signal-blocking mountains abound, the service is not available.
One in eight homes in the Asheville metropolitan area is without internet access, and many more have access that is either inconsistent or too slow for interactive uses. In the rural counties the percentage is higher. One option is creation of wi-fi hot spots. SkyWave, a Bryson City-based wireless internet provider, has set up 27 of them in Swain County.
Families can download school assignments at a hot spot, if necessary on a device provided by the school system. “Absolutely not ideal that folks are having to do their homework in their car, but that is one of the ways we’re trying to be creative,” said Karen Cook, technology director for Swain County Schools.
If the virus has taught us nothing else, it is the importance of internet service. The next society will be even more dependent on that service than the one we know now. The new normal should include a commitment toward universal access.
This is the opinion of Bill McGoun, a contributing editor on the Citizen Times Editorial Board. He lives in Bryson City.