From letters to emails, from paper books to eBooks, and from polaroids to smartphones, technological innovations have rapidly changed our lives for decades. In the last three years, even more, progresses have been reached. The outbreak of COVID-19 has accelerated the slow digital evolution that was underway. For instance, most of the public services that once required an individual’s physical presence have now shifted online. You can now check the exact time of your medical appointment through an app, create a bank account in two minutes or reserve a table at your favorite restaurant in only two clicks. The restrictions imposed by the majority of governments across the globe were strictly required to fight the pandemic and even if some of these limitations hardly shook several economic sectors, they stimulated the enhancement of a new virtual reality. The real World stopped for a while and technology came to de-freeze it.
While restrictions were in place, citizens and businesses relied on the internet and connectivity. Thanks to a broadband network and digital infrastructure, individuals had the opportunity to keep on learning, socializing, and working. Not only was indispensable to monitor the spread of the coronavirus and the research and development of treatments and vaccines, but new digital tools were necessary to ensure that individuals could have continued their life online.
In such a catalytic scenario, AI developers released tracking apps or other digital tools useful to fight the pandemic. In Italy, the app called “immuni” allowed tracking of any possible contact that an infected person had in one day. Swedish health services developed a platform for healthcare workers to report real-time data on volumes of infected patients, staffing, ventilator usage, etc. In Germany, a smartwatch application that collects pulse, temperature, and sleep pattern data to screen for signs of viral illness was launched. Data from the application were then presented on an online, interactive map in which the competent authorities could have to assess the likelihood of Covid-19 incidence across the nation.
Nonetheless, the need for a digitalized life does not affect only the health sector but also other primary social fields. Education, work, and even hobbies or recreation activities were transposed online and made accessible to a wider online audience. After a brief hiatus, book presentations, cultural events, concerts, and even stand-up comedies were re-launched at distance. The increasing use of Microsoft Teams, Zoom, and other instant video-conferences apps is an explicit example of how our lifestyles can be changed in times of crisis and need. The Pandemic induced digital speed, and improved issues related to accessibility, diversity, and digital inclusion. Appreciating the advantages of such quick and abrupt change, the cons that do exist must be necessarily identified and discussed. Among the many, digital-related mental illnesses (isolation, digital depression, social media anxiety) and a too-realistic dystopian drift of social and works habits. Not only they are rather severe, but if uncontrolled, they might gradually worsen and suffered from a bigger and bigger portion of society, old and new generations alike. Besides the evident issues, such challenges must be added to the prioritizing list of duties to be addressed so as to avoid any worsening spiral of events.
In general, Digital tools have brought great improvements to everyday life without however preventing controversies to arise. Among the most skeptical are those concerned about privacy and freedom problems as well as those who fear a rise in mental illnesses (as some statistics have shown). As such, ensuring a Web freed from hegemonic interests, in line with ethical principles, and accountable to a Professional order is the challenge that governments, international organizations, and Civil Society alike have to start addressing before it is too late. The steps achieved in terms of progress cannot risk being counterbalanced by the many uncontrolled threats that do exist.