Technology Saves the World

Jan 19, 2023 8:01 PM

Only 15 months ago — March 13, 2020 — COVID-19 became a national emergency in the United States. My assumption at the time was that COVID lockdowns could extend as long as five years, the previous speed record for modern vaccine development, with many millions of deaths — a generational cataclysm.

While COVID certainly has been plenty devastating in the U.S. and around the world, with 600,000 Americans dead of and with COVID, and with shockingly broad destruction of American small businesses, it has not been nearly as destructive as it could have been. We are coming out of COVID years early, with many livelihoods and businesses preserved, compared to what we had any right to expect. And overwhelming credit goes to our spectacular technology industry.

The most amazing COVID technology story has to be the vaccines. Moderna, a product of the American venture capital system, created the first mRNA COVID vaccine within two days of receiving the genetic code for COVID by email. It’s hard to overstate the tremendous advance in both speed and effectiveness of this new technological platform — and now that we know how well mRNA vaccines work, we can look forward to decades of new vaccines both for potential COVID variants and for many other health threats. We now have the technological tools to quite literally code nature, and the payoff to human flourishing will be profound.

But technology applied to health during COVID didn’t stop there. Coincident with the imposition of lockdowns, the U.S. federal government authorized Medicare to cover the cost of telemedicine, so millions of Americans who could no longer see a doctor in person for a variety of both physical and mental health maladies could continue to receive care. Telemedicine has been technologically viable for two decades, but COVID provided the final push for insurance reimbursement and therefore mass adoption, which I expect to continue. In the decades ahead, state of the art healthcare will be available regardless of geographic location, and we will look back to this crisis as the turning point.

By far the scariest non-health implication of COVID was the simultaneous powering down of much of the supply (producer) and demand (consumer) sides of the economy at the start of lockdown. The prospect of a second Great Depression was very real, as reflected in the stock market collapse of early 2020. But then, a miracle happened — a technological miracle. Much of the economy kept operating, and in fact many parts of the economy started operating even better under lockdown than before. The primary credit for this goes to the American worker, but almost as much credit is due to the technology that made this miracle possible.

The most positively shocking development was that virtually all knowledge work in the economy simply kept going. Of course, companies were forced to shut down physical production facilities such as car factories, and frontline workers bore the brunt of in person exposure to COVID throughout the pandemic. But consider this: Not a single significant company engaged in service provision — whether banking, insurance, communications, media, healthcare, you name it — had any downtime at all. Every knowledge worker went home, fired up their laptops, jumped on Slack and Zoom and Gmail and Github, and kept on going. I must have talked to a hundred CEOs through that initial period, and they were uniformly shocked at how well remote work worked, right from the start.

And the ability to extend work out of the physical realm and onto the internet didn’t stop with big companies. Many small businesses have been destroyed by COVID, but many others have survived and even flourished because of the modern internet. Adoption of online marketing and payments exploded, as many small businesses reached out to new customers virtually and even expanded their businesses under COVID. Restaurants and grocery stories pivoted immediately to delivery and contactless payments, made possible by internet companies like Instacart, Doordash, and Stripe. And many sole proprietors ranging from therapists to fitness instructors to tutors went directly online for both existing and new clients.

Meanwhile, schools and colleges across the country executed a simultaneous pivot to online learning, typically from a standing start with no preparation at all. This transition was far from perfect, but yet, imagine any such attempt prior to the internet. Notwithstanding the viral meme “Annual Streaming Price: Netflix $108; Hulu $72; Disney+ $84; Harvard $50,420”, teaching and learning continued. Legacy educational systems, which are notorious for their inflexibility, will undoubtedly go back to in person instruction. But yet, one gets the sense that Pandora’s box has been opened. Online education is now a standard part of our world and will boom in the years ahead — not least because many parents saw with their own eyes what their children are being taught by incumbent schools, were not impressed, and will demand new online alternatives.

Speaking of Netflix, Hulu, and Disney+, we should not ignore the role that online and streaming entertainment played. Being cooped up at home is not enjoyable for anyone, but there’s no question it’s better when you have a near-infinite range of movies, shows, music, and games at your fingertips thanks to the internet. Roblox, for example, occupied millions of kids while their parents were working remotely, with both gaming and coding. And millions of adults used the internet during COVID to learn chess, cooking, gardening, and a thousand other skills. Life under lockdown shouldn’t have been pure drudgery, and our technology-powered media companies rose to the occasion during an unprecedented boom in online demand.

The internet also provided human connection. Our social media platforms delivered under considerable strain, keeping isolated people connected online even when they couldn’t be with one another in person. This mattered most intensely for people suffering from COVID or other health problems through the pandemic. Again, one has to imagine the counterfactual, of a world of only letters and expensive phone calls, to understand how much our modern technology improved our quality of life through this period. Many churches, synagogues, and mosques also went online, along with weddings, baptisms, and funerals, and continued to serve their communities in ways that would have been impossible even a decade ago.

Finally, possibly the most profound technology-driven change of all — geography, and its bearing on how we live and work. For thousands of years, until the time of COVID, the dominant fact of every productive economy has been that people need to live where we work. The best jobs have always been in the bigger cities, where quality of life is inevitably impaired by the practical constraints of colocation and density. This has also meant that governance of bigger cities can be truly terrible, since people have no choice but to live there if they want the good jobs.

What we have learned — what we were forced to learn — during the COVID lockdowns has permanently shattered these assumptions. It turns out many of the best jobs really can be performed from anywhere, through screens and the internet. It turns out people really can live in a smaller city or a small town or in rural nowhere and still be just as productive as if they lived in a tiny one-room walk-up in a big city. It turns out companies really are capable of organizing and sustaining remote work even — perhaps especially — in the most sophisticated and complex fields.

This is, I believe, a permanent civilizational shift. It is perhaps the most important thing that’s happened in my lifetime, a consequence of the internet that’s maybe even more important than the internet. Permanently divorcing physical location from economic opportunity gives us a real shot at radically expanding the number of good jobs in the world while also dramatically improving quality of life for millions, or billions, of people. We may, at long last, shatter the geographic lottery, opening up opportunity to countless people who weren’t lucky enough to be born in the right place. And people are leaping at the opportunities this shift is already creating, moving both homes and jobs at furious rates. It will take years to understand where this leads, but I am extremely optimistic.

Last April, I issued a call to our technology industry that it was time to build — and I am so proud of how we delivered. Please join me in an enthusiastic — virtual! — round of applause for all of the amazing workers in our spectacular technology industry who made all this possible. The experience of COVID has made crystal clear both how important our technology is to human flourishing, and how well we can deliver. Technology helped save the world.

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