This article is part of the On Tech newsletter. You can sign up here to receive it weekdays.
This will sound weird coming from a professional tech writer: Technology will not end a pandemic. People will.
There has been both hype and hand-wringing about tech that turns people’s smartphones into disease sentinels. Governments, health care authorities and companies around the world are using information about where we go to help locate coronavirus hot spots or notify potentially infected people.
There are good elements of this location-tracking technology, and serious shortcomings. Mostly, though, I’m concerned that citizens, companies and political leaders will fixate on this technology at the expense of more helpful but difficult policy choices.
If so, we’ll waste money, risk lives and provide an opening for technologists to oversell what they do.
It’s not all worrisome. To my surprise, the big American technology companies have been sensible and responsible about how our smartphones should track where people infected with the coronavirus have been.
But the perfect should not be the enemy of the good. Location data is likely to be a useful tool in a large pandemic-fighting toolbox.
Notice what I said. ONE tool. Technology is not magic. We need to focus more on unglamorous, human-powered tactics.
Andy Slavitt, the former director of Medicare and Medicaid in the Obama administration, wrote on Twitter that early in the pandemic he worked to see if Google and Apple would collaborate on smartphone tracking. “I was looking for silver bullets,” he tweeted. “But I was lying to myself.”
Slavitt changed his focus. He teamed up with Scott Gottlieb, a former head of the Food and Drug Administration under President Trump, to help write a pandemic-fighting proposal that emphasizes low-tech solutions.
They said the United States needed comprehensive, coordinated coronavirus testing, and tens of billions of dollars in government spending to isolate and compensate infected people to limit spread among family members. They said a couple hundred thousand people may be needed to do the laborious work to identify infected people.
I’ve written before about assessing both the effectiveness and creepiness of technology. What if location-tracking technologies like these are creepy AND don’t work?
Endless focus on the merits and drawbacks of technology to fight the coronavirus isn’t going to solve our problems. Less technology, please, and more competent humans.
Some competent humans in technology
So, technology can’t fix everything! But there are tech companies and tech people deploying their skills and resources in helpful ways during this pandemic.
I asked two technology leaders I trust for examples that might otherwise fly below the radar. I’ll be returning to this topic again.
Roy Bahat, who invests in young tech companies with Bloomberg Beta, mentioned U.S. Digital Response. The group, organized in part by the technology executive Raylene Yung, matches local governments with volunteer technical assistance. The volunteers are helping build websites that would help small businesses request loans, coordinate meal deliveries to homebound people and create health assessment screenings and other digital government services.
Julie Samuels, executive director of the nonprofit industry group Tech:NYC, highlighted a similar tech assistance volunteer program from the New York State government. (Google has also said it helped put together a website for unemployment assistance applications in the state, which, like many, has been overwhelmed by demand.)
And Bahat talked up the work of the technology executives Joe Wilson and Eric Ries, who are coordinating an umbrella group of companies, volunteer groups and health care providers working to supply personal protective equipment to hospitals and states.
Before we go …
Facebook drama: The company pushed out some of the people responsible for finding and stopping hackers. My colleagues Sheera Frenkel and Mike Isaac write that some of the affected people believe they’re being treated unfairly. Also, The Wall Street Journal traces Mark Zuckerberg’s sparring with board members who felt their views were being dismissed.
Anime with a side of Marx: The Communist Youth League and other Chinese government-sanctioned groups have been flooding Bilibili, a popular online hub for animation and video games in China, with coronavirus-related conspiracy theories and nationalist messages, Bloomberg Businessweek reports.
A raccoon banker runs the Bank of Nook: In a perfect deadpan tone, The Financial Times writes about interest rate cuts by the fictional central bank in the “Animal Crossing: New Horizons” video game. “The bank’s raccoon-like manager, Tom Nook … apologised for ‘any inconvenience’ and offered a compensatory gift of a floor mat shaped like a bell.”
Hugs to this
“I think you’re muted?” “Look at your little cat!” The things we say in our work-from-home days, smushed into 45 seconds.
We want to hear from you. Tell us what you think of this newsletter and what else you’d like us to explore. You can reach us at email@example.com.
Get this newsletter in your inbox every weekday; please sign up here.