We are experiencing the most troubling time in our nation’s history since the end of the war.
I almost remember the news about President Kennedy’s shooting. I remember the fall of the Berlin Wall and September 11th. But nothing compares to this pandemic in terms of its effects on everyday life.
But while I’m spending my day videoconferencing with colleagues, spending my son and granddaughter FaceTiming in an apartment all over London, and updating my various social networks, one thing strikes me: what if this happened just before my smartphone in 2005 would have happened? Era started?
Back then, many of the digital tools we used to stay connected, fed, and healthy didn’t exist or were only available to a few.
Facebook was a year old, but still an American college phenomenon that didn’t hit British universities until the fall of this year.
Neither Instagram nor WhatsApp was thought of. And talking about “social media” would have attracted confused looks, although many people rediscovered old friends through Friends Reunited, which was bought by ITV in 2005.
YouTube was born this year, Twitter would be added the following year, and it wasn’t until 2007 that Apple launched the iPhone.
Smartphones are now our main access to the Internet, even when we’re all at home.
Fifteen years ago, about eight million households had a broadband connection. Your desktop computers could access the Internet at speeds of up to 10 megabits per second (Mbps) – which means that downloading an album would take about a minute and a half. Another seven million houses were still crawling on dial-up connections.
This means that all types of services that are currently proving to be important have just started operating.
Skype was started in 2003 by Estonian entrepreneurs, but was still just an Internet telephony and conference call service. A video was only added in 2006.
If you want to video chat with a colleague, you need high-quality, expensive devices. Now we use FaceTime and WhatsApp to see and talk to family and friends.
We also discover services such as zoom and blue jeans. Last week, Zoom, which had been used almost exclusively by business customers, was second only to TikTok in Apple’s App Store table
Today, 96% of UK households have broadband internet access with an average download speed of 54 Mbps. This enables millions of people in office jobs to work from home.
The telecommuting phenomenon predicted for two decades has finally become a reality – but only because enough of us have the connectivity and digital tools to do their jobs effectively.
From my loft, I can face technology leaders in the U.S. or discuss stories with a group of colleagues.
The lockout hurts the economy immensely – but remember how much worse it could have been.
Online shopping services such as Ocado and Tesco.com have been in operation for a few years, but accounted for only 3% of retail sales.
They now make up around 20% of sales and in the past few days we have seen how important the fleets of vans and drivers have become for our way of life.
Fifteen years ago, before cloud computing made it easier for a company to scale quickly, online retailers would have had even greater problems coping with increasing demand than last week.
With millions of children coming home from school, online education platforms are feeling the strain.
While there was a lot of talk about “edtech” in 2005, the focus was mainly on improving school IT systems rather than introducing distance learning at a time when many children at home would not have had a computer or broadband connection.
We are now concerned that healthcare providers do not have access to the technology they need. However, imagine that in 2005 you would try ordering a prescription or examining the symptoms of the coronavirus. The family practices were not online and the NHS 111 service did not exist. So it would have taken hours to wait on the phone.
In terms of entertainment, flat screen TVs were a new development and high definition came, but TVs were not connected to the Internet. This meant that there were no streaming services and there was no possibility that children with Joe Wicks or parents would take an online yoga class.
Maybe they dug up a Jane Fonda exercise video and put it in the VCR.
Neighborhood apps like Nextdoor have proven invaluable in recent weeks and are helping communities organize help for vulnerable people. Mind you, in my street and many other friendly neighbors put leaflets through every door and offer help – the community spirit does not have to rely on the latest technology.
In recent years there has been great concern about what smartphones and social media do with our way of life. We are told that online friends are not real friends, that there is no substitute for personal contact, and that staring at screens all day is harmful to health.
But we can emerge from this crisis with new appreciation for these technology tools that can be extremely useful – and even life-saving – if used wisely.