I’m glad to see you alive and well. How do I know that? Because you wouldn’t be reading this column if you were dead, now would you? (Although if you’re reading it while sick, I hope it brings you some comfort, and wish you a speedy recovery.)
Social distancing for the corona virus pandemic has forced our everyday behaviors regarding technology to evolve. Which of these changes will we keep when it’s over?
The first major evolution I see is the rise of telemedicine. Before the pandemic it was limited to a few small trials. Now it’s become mandatory for all non-emergency care. We’ve been forced to solve the problems that previously held it back – streamlining state licensing issues, providing insurance reimbursement, and so on. Some things work well in the new model – I recently had a good discussion with my own doctor about some long-term planning. It was better than an in-office visit in some ways: she wasn’t distracted by multitasking, and she didn’t turn her back on me to type data into her PC. OTOH, some things won’t work as well – the digital prostate exam that men over 50 get with their routine physical is going to be tricky.
Now that medical visits have become remote, I foresee the rise of a standard instrumentation device for patients to keep in their homes – sort of a medical tricorder. It could measure and transmit blood pressure, temperature, oxygenation, stethoscope sounds, maybe high-resolution pictures. These devices always suffered from the chicken-and-egg problem – who would build the devices without the online visits, but who would start the visits without the devices? Now that remote doctor visits have been forced on us, I expect these devices to pop up as a high-end Christmas gift this year, with rapid commoditization to follow.
Online education will continue to grow. Almost all colleges switched to remote instruction for the second half of the spring term. Harvard recently announced that all of their summer sessions, including mine, will be remote. They are gearing up to run the fall term online, while hoping they don’t have to. The public schools have been trying to run online this spring, but according to my daughter, haven’t fared well. That doesn’t surprise me. The prison-industrial-complex of the modern public school was always more about baby-sitting than teaching anything, and that’s harder to do online.
Online shopping will skyrocket. Despite all the hoopla about e-commerce killing brick and mortar stores, it has only about an 11% market share today (source), so there’s a lot more to get. Half of that belongs to Amazon (source). Grocery shopping, especially, hadn’t moved online very much. But once you experience the convenience of having everything delivered to your door, or at least picked out and loaded into your car, you won’t go back. I defy you to show me a single person who will miss in-store checkout lines.
The same applies to public libraries, as I wrote just a few months ago. Most of my readers replied that they preferred paper books. But with libraries now closed, they can’t borrow them. Their choice is between borrowing free e-books, or paying for paper books. I’ll bet that they’ll at least try the free e-books, and then I’ll bet they’ll like them better. In particular, anyone over age 40 who bumps up the default font size by even a point or two will be instantly hooked.
Online connections will shape our family and social interactions too. My parents recently moved to assisted living, which is now locked down, with no visitors in or out. So we brought all the generations together over Zoom for a maple sugar party (Figure 1 below). Is this as good as live in-person? No, but it’s perhaps 60% as good with 5% of the effort. I think we’ll keep doing these, even when we don’t have to. I’m really loving these virtual coffees I’ve been having with you and my other friends. I intend to keep these going. I should have done this before.
The pandemic is forcing us to evolve. The sooner we recognize this, and choose the adjustments we want to keep, the better.
PS #1: I hate to say it, but readership of this column has been declining since my final MSDN column last November. If you’d like me to keep writing, please do this right now: forward this column to 5 people who you think would enjoy my warped view of the world, as you do, and encourage them to subscribe. I thank you, and I hope that they’ll thank you.
PS #2: I’ll be teaching two courses at Harvard Summer School: Developing Cross-Platform Mobile Apps with Xamarin starting June 23, and Advanced User Experience Engineering starting June 22. Both are project-based, hands-on, live on-line, and open to the public. I hope I’ll see you there.