As the news has now made clear, the COVID-19 coronavirus is having a significant impact, not just on the tech industry, but on society and the globe as a whole. There are still huge numbers of unanswered questions about the virus and what it’s full effect will be. Importantly, and appropriately, most of the focus is on the health and well-being of those impacted and educating people about how to keep themselves and their loved ones safe. There’s also a lot being done to keep people accurately and adequately informed about which concerns are legitimate and which ones are unnecessarily overblown.
At the same time, it’s now very clear that there’s a very practical impact happening to people in the tech industry: their calendars are opening up in a way that many haven’t experience before. The reason? The cancellation and/or “digitization” of more and more events scheduled for this spring and, likely, into the summer. Not just big events like MWC, GDC and F8, but lots of small public and private events are being cancelled, rescheduled, or in the latest move, “virtualized” to streaming-only digital form.
Combine that with the travel restrictions in place for important tech-focused countries around the world, and the tangible result is that many people in the tech industry are going to be falling way short of their frequent flyer requirements this year. Practically speaking, they’re also going to have more time available to them.
The reality is that this “pause” in the action will likely be short-lived. If history has taught us nothing else, it is that “this too shall pass”, and there will come a time in the hopefully not-to-distant future when coronavirus-related concerns will be nothing but a memory.
For a while at least, though, things are going to be different for a lot of people in tech. So, the important question that comes to mind is, how are people going to be spending that extra time?
I don’t claim to have any brilliant answers, but I certainly hope that, in addition to maybe spending a little more time with our loved ones, some of that newfound time is spent thinking about the direction that some key tech industry trends are heading, and whether or not they’re moving in a manner that people really want or intended. On the privacy and security front, for example, there’s arguably a great deal of soul-searching that ought to be done about what kind of data can and/or should be collected about each of us as we go about our digital lives. Similarly, advertising and other information-driven services that leverage (or, in many cases, abuse) that information, might want to consider less invasive alternative approaches.
In the case of autonomous cars, I’d argue that’s it’s time to look past technological advances and figure out how real people actually want to interact with their vehicles. Similarly, it’s worth taking time to think more about how vehicles could be made safer without necessarily becoming dependent on autonomous control.
For many companies, the “found time” may (and should) also lead to more discussions about how to refine their messages and deliver information that doesn’t overpromise what’s possible (as the tech industry has become notorious for doing), but gives people a realistic set of expectations.
There are also bound to be some very interesting discussions about the overall merits of holding big (or even small) events. Again, society and the industry will make it through this, so it will be very interesting to see what people believe was lost and/or gained from the cancellations or recasting of these events. Yes, I’m sure we’ll see more discussions about working from home and video-based collaboration and those are all good things. However, there are still serious questions about how much people are willing to change their work habits for the long-term.
Of course, there are literally millions of other positive ways that people in tech can use this potential opportunity of extra time for good. What I’m afraid might happen, however, is that more of it will be spent on social media, adding yet more undeserved influence to a serious blight on the tech industry’s legacy that, among other things, has already cultivated a heightened level of fear and panic about the coronavirus.
It’s rare that an industry, or a society, suddenly finds itself with access to the precious resource of additional time. In the end, I think that’s one positive thing that we could end up realizing from the unfortunate reality that is now upon us. Let’s hope the newfound time gets used in a positive way.