The big winners from the lockdowns have been big tech. Amazon added upwards of $600bn to its market capitalisation in the first half of 2020, a sum greater on an annualised basis than the national economy of Indonesia. Leading digital service providers like Microsoft, Facebook, Netflix, Alibaba, and Zoom have benefitted, while the real economy suffered. The pandemic has shown however that despite inflated valuations, their underlying technologies are far from the most socially valuable.
We need not be reminded that testing kits, protective masks, ventilators, and even handwashing with soap, while far simpler technologies, are far more essential when lives are at stake. This is to say nothing of access to clean water and sanitation, and other foundations of sustainable societies. Unfortunately, we saw health workers in rich countries wearing makeshift protective gear including garbage bags, crash helmets and kitchen wrap, because simple effective technologies were unavailable. Profit-driven companies had failed to manufacture and stockpile equipment in the absence of short-term rewards. Mobile apps and big data had no relevance to this death-defying conundrum.
Singapore’s founding Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yew reminds us that technology is fundamentally about solving problems when he praised air conditioning as the enabler of development in tropical cities. Today the narrative on technology has been obscured by a litany of buzzwords – AI, IoT, cloud, etc. Digital natives seem to have no recollection of life before refrigeration or washing machines. Some of our most transformative technologies have been around for decades and are not digital. Think water treatment, sewage systems, and electricity grids. Indeed, today’s most eagerly anticipated application of technology was invented 200 years ago, the vaccine.
The pandemic has forced a rethink of our most pressing challenges and how we prioritize new applications of technology. As a society, should we be pursuing greater connectivity, convenience, and immediacy? Or ensure resilience, sufficiency, and sustainability?