How hard will the robots make us work?

3 Min
How hard will the robots make us work?

Welcome to On Tech, a daily newsletter on how technology is changing all of our lives — for better or worse.

Hello and welcome! The pandemic has turned everything we know upside down, and we are relying on technology more than ever to work, go to school, stay informed, entertain ourselves and stay connected to people we love.

I’m Shira Ovide (pronounced OH-vee-day), and I’ll be your guide each weekday to how technology is transforming our lives and world — for better or worse. I’ve been writing about technology for the better part of a decade. I’m also a native Ohioan, a very bad cyclist and an enthusiastic tweeter.

There will be pieces about how technology is helping us stay close and protected — or not — during the pandemic. There will be insights into how big technology companies are dealing with our changing online lives. There will be tales of people doing the best they can with virtual life. I promise you will find joy and oddities here, too.

Many of you will note some familiar faces, like Charlie Warzel and Brian X. Chen; they and other stellar Times journalists will provide context for our strange times. Tell your friends (and your enemies) to sign up here. And we’ll have fabulous illustrations thanks to our visual editor, Jaspal Riyait.

You’re probably unsettled about the health and resilience of your friends, families, neighbors, country and world. Me too. Let’s feel our way through this together.

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As we’re retreating from the real world to stay safe, we’re finding creative and kind ways to pull together online — from virtual birthday parties and story time, to organizing food bank fund-raisers and grocery trips for neighbors.

A kind internet just feels weird.

My colleague Kevin Roose typically writes about the terrible things on the internet — dangerous conspiracies, misleading provocations and organized violence. I needed to know why he thinks a pandemic is bringing out the best in our online lives, and how to keep it that way.

So the internet is good now? Did you forget about everythingyou’veeverwritten?

Kevin: It’s not so much that “the internet” is “good” now — these tools haven’t changed, after all — but I do think we’ve seen people using the internet in a more pro-social way, which is great. I hope it lasts!

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Maybe people are more kind in a crisis. Then we’ll go back to being horrible to each other afterward?

Kevin: That may be inevitable. But I hope we remember this feeling, and the ways we’re generating it.

And I hope the tech companies that are intervening to improve the quality of the information on their websites and apps will … keep doing that! It’s nice to live in a more pleasant virtual neighborhood.

What can all of us do to keep this neighborhood pleasant?

Kevin: I’ve been thinking about this a lot. I think the answer is we need to contribute more, and lurk less. In normal times, we — and I include myself — are much more passive about using the internet. There’s some research that shows we’re happier when we use social media actively rather than passively scrolling.

The more good people use social media, the less the bad people are able to commandeer the megaphone. Now it’s not only the cranks and opportunists who are getting amplified — it’s also doctors, nurses, epidemiologists and people organizing face mask drives.

But doctors won’t keep posting forever. And does the world really need Instagram photos of my boring oatmeal breakfast?

Kevin: Yes, be boring! We’re all getting barraged with horrible news all day. We should all be legally required to post photos of our boring breakfasts. It’s what people used to knock Instagram for — “oh, it’s just people posting their avocado toast.” But honestly, that sounds amazing right now — imagine, an all-avocado-toast social network!

There are many people who need to work outside the home right now: doctors and nurses, postal carriers, online shopping warehouse workers, taxi drivers, autoworkers, supermarket employees. They might need the work — and we need the essential services they’re providing. But their jobs put them in harm’s way from being around other people, and potentially transmit illness to their families and others in their communities.

Some of them, including people who work for Amazon and the grocery delivery service Instacart, have been holding walkouts or other actions to demand higher pay, more safety measures including sanitation supplies, better communication with their bosses and more options to take off work if they’re sick.

These are not new issues in the United States, as the former New York Times reporter Steven Greenhouse writes for our Opinion section, but they are more stark in a global crisis. What do companies, governments and all of us owe these workers? This is a question I’m wrestling with, and will be returning to often.

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