COVID-19’s societal pressures kick up a Digital Dust Bowl

Evolving business activity and social interaction have been on a collision course with dated public policy best practices for decades

Three years ago, TBR put out a report called The impending Digital Dust Bowl: Mitigation, survival and interdependence, in which we evaluated the social, economic and political arenas and examined how the pivot to digital business and social interactions was disrupting society. In the interim, we have discussed what seems to be transpiring as a societal rebirth, arguing that while there would be pain involved as a normal component of bringing about new life, the end result would be a better world because of what the technology industry can enable the world to do. Big changes are on the cusp of commercialization as blockchain ensures data accuracy, machine learning addresses new queries, and quantum provides the compute horsepower needed to tackle the world’s most intractable problems.

Three years ago, in discussing AI’s impact, the historical comparison we settled on was the Great Depression, fueled by manufacturing automation, which appeared to be a reasonable analogy. Henry Ford launched his first assembly line in 1913; Watson beat a human on “Jeopardy!” in 2011. These were the comparative touchstones.

At this juncture, we may view that historical comparison as a best-case example and may find mechanization in the early to mid-1800s as a more appropriate parallel. The mid-1800s radically transformed agrarian economies, and that disruptive impact spurred the revolutions of 1848 in Europe and was a contributing economic factor to the U.S. Civil War.

Few conversations today are held without discussing the implications of COVID-19 on our daily lives. Technologists and other pundits talk of the accelerating trends the pandemic triggers. Whether social, business or political trends as we know them, COVID-19 has certainly quickened the rate at which those trends are being felt by virtually everyone around the globe. It is a unique time and highlights the need for career technologists to step forward and participate heavily in the dialogues occurring throughout society on how to remediate the dysfunctional aspects of modern life on which COVID-19 has shined a very bright light.

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