It’s no secret that measures taken by governments worldwide during the COVID-19 pandemic have shifted a significant part of our interactions into the online sphere. Between the lockdowns, school closures, and localized quarantine curfews, the majority of you reading this may have had to show up on camera and blow the dust off your microphone if you wanted to speak with someone. What effect this had on you depends on a variety of factors we’re only beginning to understand.
Since many countries around the world continue to have restrictions even a year later, it’s given us a unique opportunity to take a step back and look at what a world that’s heavily reliant on the online sphere looks like.
Our Bandwidth Isn’t Infinite After All
In a typical household, the amount of bandwidth used is often shared with other activities. Kids play outside and go to school, adults do their adulting, people go shopping, etc. You don’t often see all four, six, or all the members of one household grafted to their laptops and phones.
In early 2020, the arrival of the CoVID 19 virus pretty much halted this prior status quo and put us in a situation where we avoided contact with others as much as possible to stay on the safe side. Wherever measures were the most strict, people had to rely on the Web more for human contact outside their homes.
This led to a surge in bandwidth usage that some Internet service providers weren’t necessarily equipped to handle. The best example of this is found in Italy. In mid-March 2020, Telecom Italia SpA, Italy’s largest ISP with over 30 percent of the nation’s market share, reported a surge in Internet traffic – over 70 percent.
According to Luigi Gubitosi, the company’s CEO, this is mostly due to kids attempting to stave off boredom by engaging in online multiplayer gaming while schools are closed.
On top of this, remote learning as a substitute for in-person schooling, work-related video conferences, and various other forms of communication added to this strain. Nearly a year later, YouTube and Netflix are still following through with their earlier pledge to downscale video playback resolutions to reduce their impact on the “bandwidth fatigue” experienced by ISPs around the world.
Lack of Exposure to Strangers Might Have Longer-Term Effects
In the real brick-and-mortar world, our interactions aren’t always ones we choose. Chance encounters with other people are an inevitability when you find yourself in a crowd. In some of them, you’re tolerating the mere presence of another individual. In others, the foundation for a new friendship bubbles out of nowhere with someone who’s reading something that catches your eye while sitting in the lobby waiting for a flight.
This isn’t to say that chance encounters aren’t possible in the online world or that video conferencing is a bane to our society. In fact, it’s easy to take for granted how remarkable it is to live in a time where we are able to speak to people thousands of miles away on demand without a moment’s hesitation.
Despite all the benefits we saw brought to the table in this dawn of the 21st century wave of innovation, however, it’s still unclear what effect relying almost solely on telepresence will have on society at large. For the most part, despite the infinite choices we’re presented with, a lot of us choose to use the Internet as a means of curating our social interactions, sometimes even splitting hairs on the smallest details.
Through most of human history, we were unable to achieve this level of “choose your own adventure” on a societal level. The idea of being approached by a stranger may invoke anxiety in many people, but it’s undeniably a part of the human social experience.
In a way, this phenomenon is akin to the “filter bubble,” a term coined by Eli Pariser to describe what many social media companies do to cater the content you see to what their algorithms “believe” is your perception of the world, insulating you from a preconceived notion of what is “controversial.”
With communication solidly in your control on the Web, the so-called filter bubble is one of your own creation. You get the satisfaction of speaking to friends, family and co-workers but aren’t exactly getting the full human social experience, both pleasant and unpleasant. The latter is probably what gave us thick skins in the first place. Will they still be there when we come out of Plato’s allegorical cave and back into the real world?
Remote Learning Isn’t Always Yielding Healthy Outcomes
We’re no strangers to closing schools during epidemics. In fact, it’s well known that during the 1916 poliomyelitis outbreaks in the U.S. that ravaged through the country’s east coast, the school closures that followed had marginal effects on infection spread and led to a larger-than-usual drop-out rate. Many of the older children went out and sought jobs rather than continuing their education due to the hardships endured by their families from the ripple effects these outbreaks had on local economies.
Today’s school closures present a new scenario. Aside from the fact that it’s more common to see youngsters wait until adulthood to seek work, we also live in a time where we have an abundance of technology that allows us to set up virtual classrooms for several pupils and even multiple speakers. Many hoped that this would bring about a revolution in the way people learned.
In some ways, it did. School closures today no longer necessitate halting the education process entirely. Still, the picture of video learning that new research is painting isn’t all rosy.
While remote learning through video has success stories that go much further back in the past than this pandemic, it does come with its faults. Even taking into account some of the disparities seen in public education in several countries around the world, research is beginning to uncover that these disparities amplify even further when it comes to the remote environment.
A study published in late November 2020 on the International Journal of Psychology analyzed a sample group of 28,685 pupils in Switzerland. Remarking at how its own results mirror those collected in another study in the U.K., the Swiss researchers found that pupils from less affluent households are suffering under school closures at higher rates, with delayed learning.
“These findings are compatible with those of parents’ and teachers’ survey[s] that were conducted in the U.K. and found that pupils from the most affluent households were being offered active assistance from their schools during the lockdown more frequently than pupils from the least affluent households.”
The researchers also found that “primary school pupils learned more than twice as fast attending school in person compared to the distance setup.”
However, I’d be dishonest if I didn’t also mention that the researchers immediately followed this with a finding that children in secondary schools “were not significantly affected in their learning pace” by comparison.
What this tells us is that younger children from poorer households appear to be most affected by these school closures. As pupil age increases, this disparity begins to blur, presumably because they have better abstract reasoning capabilities in teenage years going into adulthood.
Overall, It’s a Mixed Bag
To avoid sounding all pessimistic about video conferencing, let’s make one thing clear: we owe the fact that we’ve been capable of maintaining society at a semi-functional level during the harshest of the worldwide lockdowns almost solely to the presence of this technology. Fifty years ago we wouldn’t have had interaction with each other on this level from the comfort of the home.
Video has absolutely been a boon to us, and it couldn’t have come at a better time. Yet, pushing against this is the stark reality that not all is well in this techno-optimist paradise.
We can’t deny that telepresence and video chat can be extraordinary first choices in many situations (i.e., when you’re trying to save on travel expenses, when you’re trying to set something up quickly that would be inconvenient to do in-person, etc.). In others, though, the research we’ve seen so far doesn’t have stellar things to say.
If you’re one of many people (like myself) who relies on this technology to keep in touch with family across oceans, it might not be the time to buy a plane ticket just because you want to talk about the latest gossip from over the pond. Simply opening up an app would suffice. Just please, for the love of all that’s good in the world, don’t rely on this app to raise young children!
How’s your pandemic experience been? Do you have stories to tell on how video conferencing touched your life? Let us know what you think of all this and share your experiences with us!