That’s why it’s so important that everyone — especially older people, students and people in low-income communities — has access to these tools. The digital divide is real, and in the coming months, those without internet access or devices that can run newer software will be shut out of many of the digital communities we’re building to support one another.
In addition to other economic rescue measures, it may be time for a kind of global Geek Squad, an army of tech-savvy people who can deliver free or deeply discounted devices to people who don’t have them, and teach them (from a safe distance) how to join Zoom conferences, send and receive text messages, and make FaceTime calls.
Recently, I called Jaron Lanier, the author and technologist who coined the term “virtual reality.” Mr. Lanier, who has been experimenting with building virtual communities for years, said he understood why the idea of moving our offline institutions onto the internet made some people uncomfortable.
“We saw the internet turn into this weird, dark manipulation machine,” he said. “Naturally, we worry that this could be another way to become lost or crazy.”
But he also said there was reason for cautious optimism, given the creative ways people are already finding to move their real-world support systems online.
“The obvious thing to say” about the coronavirus, Mr. Lanier said, “is that people will suffer from a sense of isolation. But there might be some good things. It could reintroduce people to their families. It might make people a little more grounded. It helps you reappreciate the wealth we have in a place like a home. It’s kind of a revelation that we have the good fortune to even be able to do this.”
Mr. Lanier is right. As the virus forces us indoors, we should be thinking of ways to invest in our digital spaces, and build robust virtual connections that can replace some of the physical proximity we’re losing, as well as mobilizing to support our real-world communities in a time of enormous need.
We can use technology to meet this crisis, rather than just distracting ourselves from it.