Editor’s Note: Joelle Renstrom (@couldthishappen) teaches at Boston University and is the author of “Closing the Book: Travels in Life, Loss, and Literature.” Her work has appeared in Slate, The Guardian, The Daily Beast, the Washington Post, and elsewhere. The views expressed here are hers. Read more opinion on CNN.
As the coronavirus spreads, so do cancellations of conferences, trips, flights, schools, study-abroad programs and other events. In the wake of these axed plans, employers, colleges, employers, conference hosts and attendees are scrambling to find ways to salvage the time and resources spent on the canceled events or the money lost by telling workers to stay home.
However incomplete, solutions rely on technology: working remotely via Slack channels or Google hangouts, using Zoom for conference calls, videotaping and uploading lectures, sharing and storing files on Google Drive – and other app-related workarounds.
User-friendly technological solutions are lifesavers in situations like this, preventing many operations from coming to a grinding halt. In addition to keeping people safe and enabling employment, remote work arrangements preserve continuity and allow people to stay busy doing something familiar during a time of crisis. The same technologies are also a lifeline for those at high risk or in quarantine. When humans use technology in this way, our trust in it increases; according to the Pew Research Center, that trust is “fluid” and depends largely on circumstance.
The more we trust technology, the more we use it. And the more we use it, the harder and less likely it becomes for us to reel back our dependence. (Would you trade Google Maps for paper ones or have a landline installed in your home?)
The novel coronavirus has already galvanized an accelerated adoption of intermediary technologies that replace firsthand experiences. That trend will be difficult, if not impossible, to reverse, which ultimately may hasten the obsolescence of human workers.
As companies and employers adapt to new circumstances, they’ll notice the resulting benefits. The office electric bills shrink. Workers quit less often. It’s quieter. Whenever the coronavirus threat subsides, life and work may not simply resume as they were before. After companies go to the trouble of implementing telecommuting infrastructure for most or all of their employees, they may decide they prefer the current arrangement.
At first glance, that might not seem so bad. Telecommuting increases productivity. Employees use fewer sick days and don’t have to deal with commuting. The trend toward forgoing conventional office conditions has increased worldwide. According to a study from the International Workplace Group, 70% of people work remotely at least once a week, 53% telecommute half of the time, and 11% of workers never go to an office.
While telecommuting works well for some, it doesn’t for everyone. A 2016 study examined telecommuters from 1989-2008 and found that working remotely had “widespread negative consequences,” including people spending time working that they might otherwise have spent with family or friends – because their work-life boundaries are more porous, they end up working longer hours.
People who telecommute may have trouble disengaging from work and from the technology that enables it, which contributes to the detrimental consequences of dwindling face-to-face time and personal interactions. Given the sudden and widespread implementation of telecommuting, many workers will soon notice how working remotely impacts their lives in ways they likely didn’t predict, especially under the current circumstances.
In her book “Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age,” Sherry Turkle – a professor in MIT’s Social Studies of Science and Technology Program – says that when humans rely on technology to mediate our interactions, we “forget how essential face-to-face conversation is to our relationships, our creativity, and our capacity for empathy.” Those interactions are crucial to human happiness.
As a university professor, my days consist of social interactions with students and colleagues. I generally find those conversations and the resulting relationships stimulating and rewarding.
The coronavirus situation means that countless teachers like me face the possibility of standing in front of a camera instead of a classroom. I’d prefer doing that to canceling class, but I can’t help wondering whether my job, along with so many others, is about to undergo a profound and potentially permanent change.
I teach in a program that takes students to London for an experience-based summer semester. No one knows whether we’ll be able to go or when we might expect to find out; in the meantime and in the absence of further information, we’re working to develop contingency plans, which leaves me worried about the short- and long-term implications.
Online and low-residency educational programs have risen in popularity, especially considering the outrageous costs of their conventional counterparts, in which enrollment dropped by .5%, or 90,000 students, from 2016-2017.
Given the surfeit of colleges and the growing deficit of students, some economists have predicted that the higher education bubble will burst. Against that backdrop, the rapid widespread implementation of remote teaching and learning could have a disproportionate impact on the industry.
Administrators could see it as a solution not only to pressing coronavirus-related problems, but also to longer-term challenges related to keeping universities afloat.
During a recent meeting about backup plans, I joked that we could get the students virtual reality headsets and conduct our London field trips that way. “And prove we don’t actually need to do the real thing?” my colleague responded.
I can’t help wondering how many faculty members might be laid off if the university decides teaching remotely is good enough, or how many people will be let go when their bosses realize they don’t need to show up every day, or even at all. Ultimately, that’s what it comes down to: whether people believe their firsthand, lived experiences can be adequately supplanted – and not just during a pandemic.
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As the grain goes the other direction, we will increasingly have to seek out and fight for personal connections and firsthand interactions. Maintaining the qualities that separate us from machines, such as empathy and the need to connect both emotionally and physically with others, will require effort.
The coronavirus will accelerate our headlong rush into the arms of technology, our saving grace. Ironically, our technocentric response may end up hastening our own obsolescence.