A A deep and complex underground network runs under our feet. This network provides plants and trees with beneficial nutrients, enables them to communicate with each other through chemical stress-signals, and shields them from external pathogens (New York Times 2016).
This is a fungal network, made up of root-like filaments called mycelium. Without this underground network forests would be nutrient-poor, more prone to suffering diseases and each plant siloed from one another.
Can you think of any similar network existing in our lives?
Well, this network is called the ‘wood wide web’ for a reason. It takes its name from the internet for its stark resemblance. Similarly, the internet is a network that enables light-speed and frictionless communication throughout the human ecosystem and provides it resilience against external threats.
Coronavirus is keeping us indoors. The internet is playing a key role in monitoring the virus, finding a cure, and letting us live ‘as usual’ in these unusual times.
This is true be it in matters of work (the lucky ones started remote working), living and play (the internet has become a main source of leisure — try buying a gaming console these days!), or socialising (it has also become our primary communication tool).
My hope here is to help us appreciate how the internet is serving us in these challenging times thanks to its boundless potential; and and yet to show how much more the internet has to offer.
The big picture of the internet economy (spoiler: it’s still small)
The US internet economy is roughly 10% of its entire GDP, based on a 2019 study. Unsurprisingly, the Big Tech players are kings of this space and take the largest slice of the pie: Facebook and Google account for approximately 84% of global digital ads, while Amazon accounts for roughly 50% of all online retail spending in the USA.
These figures are usually lower for most other countries, except for rapidly growing emerging countries like China. China’s internet economy represented over 35% of its GDP in 2018.Granted, calculation methodologies may differ so a like for like comparison between the US and China may not be suitable. But one thing is certain:
The big picture of the internet economy is still a small picture. It seems that we’re still in early stages of the internet revolution: a 10% internet economy in the US tells us that an overwhelming majority of businesses are offline.
So how is our society’s response to the coronavirus pandemic leading us deeper down into the internet rabbit hole? Glad you asked:
The lockdown pushes people online
As of the 26th of March, over 2.8 billion people have been put in lockdown, that is almost 1 in 3 people worldwide, and are forced to either work from home or not work at all. Either way, this is leading to unprecedented levels of internet usage which, as a consequence, is creating all sort of technical issues. Here are some that I came across:
- Netflix and other major streaming services are downgrading their streaming quality by around 25% on European networks in March — and the measure is likely to be extended.
- Fortnite gamers are experiencing major outages following the flooding of the game by quarantined children from around the world.
- Microsoft Azure Cloud seems to be “having issues”. Azure’s corporate clients are reporting reliability and capacity issues, which doesn’t seem to be scaling quickly enough to accommodate peaks in demand.
These qualitative indicators tell us that the lockdown has greatly increased our demand for online tools and services (duh).
We will definitely see a rebound to a back-to-normal way of working and interacting. But this doesn’t mean that all these digital ‘underground’ experiments will have been for nothing.
The virtualisation of our work and social lives is likely to endure even after lockdown, as our society grasps the added benefits and value of online tools, and as new tools fit for purpose are built to optimise our experiences.
Let’s look at some of the new tools that have sprung up during the pandemic:
Social distancing and virtual closening
Everything is going virtual — even events and gatherings of all kinds which would otherwise be postponed and cancelled altogether are happening virtually.
- Remo.co, see picture above, is a new conferencing tool that enables people to ‘see’ themselves in 2D virtual spaces, while also video-conferencing. It enables people’s 2D avatar to sit in virtual tables alongside other attendees, while listening to the speakers, whose avatars take the stage.
- CrowdCast is also growing in usage, providing event builders and broadcasters the platform to post their events to specific guests or the general public, and to request payments directly on the platform. Once users join the event, only the hosts appear on video and users can provide feedback and comment through a communal chat.
Catching up with friends or family, having meet-ups with colleagues and clients, working out with your regular fitness instructors is all happening on virtual conferencing tools. The new video conferencing tools have sprung up during the lockdown (and won’t subject you to Skype glitches) are:
- Zoom, as you’ve probably noticed, has become the de facto group communication tool during the Coronavirus lockdown. To the extent that it features as being the ‘culprit’ of the virus in a number of memes. It makes it much easier to invite people on conference calls, provides a seamless video conferencing for up to 300 users, free video conferencing for calls up to 40 min. long, and, some would suggest, fun backgrounds.
- HouseParty is another social media phoenix emerging out of the pandemic’s ashes (I agree with you, Zara Stone!). It is a quirky app, designed for younger audiences, that enables users to form social circles, move in and out between them, and interact with others by playing games, make drawings, and more. It has definitely managed to carve its own unique place between social media (like Facebook) and video comms tools (like Skype or WhatsApp).
Benefits provided by these platform experiences
Is this virtual closening bad? I don’t think so. Virtual experiences are super convenient (no matter where in the world you are), increasingly interactive, and so much more. Online tools have a lot to offer, here are some of the benefits I found from the platforms described above:
- Making communication super easy and quick: It takes the click of a mouse (or the downloading of an app) to instantly connect with others.
- Shrinking geographies: People sharing similar interests can now join global conferences from their living rooms. To be participative and engaged, it no longer matters where in the world you’re located.
- Expanding features and possibilities: Online platforms are highly elastic and mouldable to be fit for purpose. Think it’s creepy how HouseParty allows users to spy on who their friends are talking to? (Me too). But this feature was designed in an effort to make their younger users interested in joining their friends’ parties (and, who knows, maybe also to allow their parents to keep an eye on the party from outside its virtual door). The point being: it’s easy to plug in and repurpose features to these apps so they better serve us as our way of using them evolved. Thank the APIs!
- Increasing interaction through intuitive interfaces: Although there is a need for growth here (as we’ve seen communication tools are mostly video-based which are fixed and offer a limited interaction potential), the online solutions we looked at are beginning to display in-app interactivity through integration of games, drawing boards and creative background. This creates the possibility for richer social dynamics more fit for purpose.
Limitations of these platforms
Here are some of the main limitations of the tools I looked at:
- Lack of a feeling of virtual place: While video conferencing tools provide a person to person view, we have seen scenarios like events and conferences where users might expect to ‘feel in place’. Perhaps this is something that Virtual Reality (VR) can help with. Tools like VRChat, Altspace, Decentraland, and Hubs are proving successful in their own right, so it’s a matter of applying them to the right use cases — be they virtual conferences or workplace roundtables. Interestingly, virtual places don’t necessarily have to represent real places, nor do you necessarily need a human avatar of yourself — places and selves may be as realistic as the purpose of your interaction requires. Example: if you are having a meeting with colleagues all that needs to be transferred is your voice, and the image of your mouth and eyes (which help to decode the voice), but beyond that it’s all up for grabs! You might as well give the option to do a videoconference as a potato (see above).
- More interaction with virtual objects: In Remo.co we saw the possibility of moving one’s 2D icon around the virtual conference, and in Houseparty one can play games and make drawings while on the call. I am sure we all agree that so much more can be done here. Material objects in the real world are really important, they help us to ground our experiences and make more meaning out of them. Example: in the face-to-face meetings I have with my colleagues we often use the whiteboard to write down ideas and represent our thoughts visually. Now, virtual objects fit for purpose could enable many possibilities and greater experiences in specific realms of our work and social lives.
The early vision of the internet
In the article titled The Computer as a Communications Device (1968), a visionary and pioneer of the computer and the internet, by the name of J.C.R. Licklider, said:
“In a few years, men will be able to communicate more effectively through a machine than face to face. That is a rather startling thing to say, but it is our conclusion”.
These were the 1960’s, and we can safely say that Licklider had it right already back then (let us forget for a minute those glitchy Skype calls!).
While the internet has revealed plenty of its flaws in the last few years — from rampant fake news and nonexistent data privacy — we often forget to look at the big picture view of how crucial the internet and the entire computing revolution have been to advance humanity.
Now, I’d say that the COVID-19 crisis reminded us of the big picture view.
In the midst of this pandemic, the internet connected people with similar interests to meet in virtual conference rooms despite their geographical distance, enabled workers to carry out their tasks remotely, brought friends and family together despite a physical lockdown, gave us the ability to monitor the spread of the virus real-time and forecast its effects in our communities, allowed scientists from all nations to collaborate in search for a vaccine, and much much more.
There are few silver linings in a pandemic but here is one: The collective realisation that society and much of the economy can still function (to some extent) while we’re all locked in our homes.
The human-internet symbiosis
J.C.R. Licklider saw our relationship with computers as symbiotic. He believed that this was a profitable relationship for humans. Computers, he said, would “augment the human intellect by freeing us from mundane tasks” (Man-Computer Symbiosis, 1960). And here too Licklider had it right.
We might even say that the internet reaches beyond Licklider’s vision.
The internet and digital technologies have the ability to free us from our physical limitations: we can re-create what is possible in physical reality and design new scenarios that transcend what is possible in the real world.
Remembering the wood wide web, trees are unable to communicate with each other with their leaves but they are able to do so (with up to 40 trees surrounding them!) through their alliance with fungi. And this symbiosis makes them stronger as a species: as they are able to prepare and prevent against the threat of all sorts of enemies, be they above or below ground.
Similarly to the symbiosis between trees and fungi, our symbiosis with the internet enables us to come together as humanity to fight external threats.
Perhaps, when building the internet and the online services of the future, nature might continue to be a source of inspiration for us.