Like many of us, I spent the last week glued to my browser consuming news about the spread of COVID-19 in the U.S. — specifically Seattle, where I now live. Like any journalist, I tried to find an angle involving the internet of things, where I could add my take. But caught in a stasis of anxiety that rarely hits me, I mostly just refreshed my Twitter feed over and over.
For me, what’s happening with the coronavirus makes clear the ways in which our tech infrastructure is only as robust as our civil infrastructure. And our civil infrastructure is crumbling. Much in the way that the current lack of testing capability (a government function) is causing gaps in information that could lead to more harm, gaps in our knowledge associated with broadband connectivity back in 2008 and 2010 led to consistent and continued harm to poorer citizens, many of whom are still unable to get broadband in 2020.
Good technology requires two things: accurate data and robust physical infrastructure. Much of that data is mandated and collected by all levels of government while the infrastructure is funded and mandated by governments at the local, state, and federal levels. Our lack of robust civil infrastructure directly affects our ability to invest in tech infrastructure, which in turn hurts the tech industry’s ability to see and solve problems. We should all care about this, even if COVID-19 doesn’t ending up being the pandemic we all fear it may be.
Kevin wrote a helpful story this week about his use of voice assistants to stop the spread of germs inside his home during his recent bout with the flu. His advice is practical and could help protect people who have to share a home with a sick individual. I also starred a few tweets about suggested skills for voice assistants, such as getting Alexa to play Happy Birthday when someone turns on a faucet so that they sing along and in the process, wash their hands for the correct amount of time.
But I mostly fretted. For me, the spread of COVID-19 and the response from our federal government has made it clear on no uncertain terms just how ineffectual our government has become. This isn’t a partisan commentary. The hollowing out of the U.S. government has been happening under successive presidents for the last 40 years. Sure, it feels like it’s accelerating under the current administration, but like all neglect, there’s the period of slow aging and gradual decline before it all suddenly crumbles.
With COVID-19, my faith in my country has crumbled. The lack of tests, the stupid political sniping between agencies during what should be a time of unity, the bizarre behavior of the president turning a national crisis into a partisan issue — all of it has left me with a visceral sense of despair. A country with a strong government will allow citizens to grumble about things and bring up real issues to solve, but the overarching message from, and the goal of, our top agencies and officials needs to be one of faith in our country, our institutions, and our people.
I don’t know why the CDC lagged on tests and then failed to provide ones that work. Does it have something to do with years of budget cuts? I am also flummoxed by the decision to not buy tests from other countries so as to get the information we need to protect the citizenry. Did someone at the federal level decide it would make the U.S. look weak to buy what we need instead of making it ourselves?
And I’m frustrated that we’re looking to the tech industry for leadership. To be sure, I’m grateful they’re delivering. Canceling large events, pushing employees to work from home, and trying to police forums for misinformation and price-gouging are all necessary steps. Are not some of them also self-serving, such as the decision by Google to increase the number of participants on Hangouts for schools, so teachers and universities can instruct students remotely? Undoubtedly. But they are also necessary and in the interest of the greater good.
In the meantime, any discussion around what the tech industry is doing only serves to highlight the areas where our government investments have fallen short over the past 20 years. While professionals have paid sick leave, contract workers do not. And when Google, Amazon, and Twitter encourage people to work from home, it’s not clear how it treats the contract workers who also work for those companies and who may not have access to the same paid time off and benefits.
Crucially, working or even attending school from home is dependent on having a solid broadband connection. With an estimated 21 to 41 million people in the U.S. not having access to broadband, and even more who are priced out of it or using mobile plans with data limits, remote schooling or work for a significant portion of our population is either not an option or a prohibitively expensive one.
In other words, the government’s lack of investment into broadband doesn’t only offer a parallel to its underinvestment in the CDC specifically and public health more generally, it will have repercussions as to how we as a nation can withstand the challenges this epidemic may bring.
Way back in 2008, the U.S. investigated a national broadband plan and decided against it. As far as investment in infrastructure goes, it was probably the wrong call. The government again made a bad call in 2010 when it was pushed to create an accurate broadband map that reflected the actual ability of an individual home to get broadband. Instead, it kept to the traditional formula of saying an area had broadband if one home on the block had it.
The lack of accurate information has stymied our nation’s broadband policy ever since, even as we need it more than ever. And as we embrace even more data in the form of the internet of things, it’s worth remembering that we’re building that system on top of infrastructure that has been funded, built, and dictated by governments.
Federal and municipal governments play an essential role in providing electricity, wireless broadband, wired broadband, rules around what building materials or innovations to use, and more. As we hollow out those institutions we are left with not only unequal access to infrastructure but also pockets of the world where we can’t gather data.
And without a complete picture of the world, the internet of things can’t help us save it, change it, or even gather the situational awareness we need to live in it. So as COVID-19 spreads throughout Seattle and other areas of the country, my hopes are resting on masks made by 3M, connected thermometers made by Kinsa that are used to track the spread of disease, and the services of conference call provider Zoom.
That’s a pretty tenuous place to be.