Pandemic Tech: For Now, or Forever?


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I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard the phrase “The pandemic pulled forward by two years” — or four years, name your years — some future way of life.  Like the pandemic brought a pre-determined future to us where retail stores were dead, we’d never go to the cinema again and every home would have an office that rivaled the one to which workers used to commute.

Marketers latched onto trends forced onto us by Covid-19 and decided they were here to stay. Whether it was the streaming TV juggernaut, online shopping or Zooming from home, the consensus seemed to be that when SARS-CoV-2 exploded in March 2020, it ushered in the new future.

I think the future couldn’t be more uncertain. A global crisis set in motion a cyclone of change, some of which will stick, a little of which will settle back toward its previous state and some of which are stepping stones to ways of life that will be altogether different.

Of course, online shopping skyrocketed when we were living in lockdown. We were terrified to go out to stores and were infinitely grateful that app-based services like Instacart made it easy to buy eggs and Clorox wipes from the comfort of our keyboard. Instacart food pickers were our guardian angels when we were quarantined by Covid in March 2020. Whatever the membership fee was at the time was worth it to have someone take our grocery list, pluck items from the shelf and deliver the goods in an hour or two.

Twenty months later, we rarely use Instacart because we want choice: We want to touch and feel the bosc pear selection (through a produce bag, of course), see if the branzino eyes are clear or cloudy, and make sure the kale isn’t wilted. We also seem to be the only ones who can find the Supreme Brie Bites at the local Fairway Market. I prefer to do my own grocery shopping — and save on delivery fees.

At the movies, theater chains are crowing about their revival this fall after being left for dead by trend spotters portending the demise of the big screen. AMC said after the last weekend in October it had its best month since February 2020; Imax had its best October ever.

We made our first trip to the cinema since the Before Times this past weekend to see James Bond. Feelings about the film aside, it was both good and strange to be back at the movies. We had to wear masks into the theater, which is fine, since we do that everywhere indoors in New York. At the entrance to the theater, we showed our vaccination cards on our phones, then our IDs.

If we ever visit the White House, we’ve got the security procedure down.

Once inside, though, it seemed like February 2020: The concession workers and many patrons were unmasked, leaving us feeling like we were living an alternate reality in a sci-fi flick.

I didn’t intentionally choose a Regal ScreenX event, though if given the choice, I likely would have opted in for what might have sounded good: a 270-degree immersive screen experience where the film extends onto the left and right walls of the theater. I had enjoyed a video surround experience at a now-closed NFL Experience space in Times Square back in 2017 and really liked the aural sense of being in a stadium. That was cool.

The “side effects” weren’t as impressive on No Time To Die — in fact, they were distracting and annoying. You go to the movies an eager participant in the suspension of disbelief, but that’s impossible when red exit signs and flood lights become part of the presentation. I also didn’t want to take my eyes off the main event happening on the main screen. I thought back to hearing Tomlinson Holman, inventor of the Lucasfilm THX sound system, say surround-sound effects should add subtle cues to a film, not make you want to turn around to see where the sound came from. My next movie will be on a conventional screen.

The culture change coming out of the pandemic that I’m most curious about is the work-from-home phenomenon. What a boon for people with young kids, but maybe not so good for the daycare industry. The pandemic year was like a yearlong Black Friday for PC makers, who had an unexpectedly great 2020. Chromebooks, too, saw a pandemic bump before falling back to Earth this year.

Logitech CEO Bracken Darrell has been giddy during earnings calls over the past four quarters, reporting heady growth in all things home office: webcams, mics, keyboards, even the $30 mouse. Fueled by the pandemic lockdown, Logitech had its first billion-dollar quarter in fiscal Q2 2020, spiking 73 percent from the 2019 quarter. “The biggest permanent changes were going to happen anyway,” Darrell said, citing home-based work and education, e-sports and “democratization of content creation.”

A year later, Logitech’s growth slowed to 2 percent partly due to supply chain issues. Barron’s referenced a “post-Covid slowdown in demand,” which had to happen after meteoric growth. But now that everybody’s outfitted for the hybrid work age, will it become a permanent way of life?

A September Gallup poll showed remote workers hope so: Nine in 10 said they wanted to keep remote work “to some degree” with 45 percent of full-time employees working partly or fully remotely that month. But along with working away from the main office come technology compromises that wouldn’t have been acceptable three years ago: dropped calls, video buffering on conference calls, the cat on the keyboard, Zoom fatigue….

Video is here to stay in the WFH age, replicating as close as possible the in-person meeting, some pundits say. Others aren’t so sure. A March 2021 study by Carnegie Mellon University found that “video conferencing can actually reduce collective intelligence,” said Anita Williams Wooley, associate professor of organizational behavior and theory at the school’s Tepper School of Business. Video conferencing “leads to more unequal contribution to conversation and disrupts vocal synchrony,” she said, saying the study “underscores the importance of audio cues, which appear to be compromised by video access.”

As a journalist, I agree.

Two years ago, we couldn’t have imagined Covid-19 or the way it would reorder our world. No doubt two years from now we’ll have a reshaped world view all over again.





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