The Daily Tar Heel

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Sunday October 17th

Column: How tech can learn from the pandemic

Kendall Harrow, a sophomore economics major, works on an assignment on her computer at the UNC Student Store on Wednesday, Oct. 9th, 2019.
Buy Photos Kendall Harrow, a sophomore economics major, works on an assignment on her computer at the UNC Student Store on Wednesday, Oct. 9th, 2019.

COVID-19 has affected so much of what we’ve deemed necessary in our daily lives. And those components vary, based on our levels of privilege. They include anything from a greeting with a grocery store cashier, coffee dates, the opportunity to raise a hand in class or even access to regular meals. 

As a result, we've been forced to embrace remote work. All operations these days depend, to some extent, on computers, smartphone technology and various softwares. Whether we like it or not, our functions, habits, lifestyles (and yes, even joys and sadness) are increasingly bound by technology during this pandemic.

Simultaneously becoming more pronounced, however, is the gap between the developed and developing world, as well as socioeconomic classes. 

A study by the University of Chicago showed that, in the United States, up to 37 percent of jobs could be done from home — but most of them belonged to high-salary, white-collar occupations in metropolitan areas. An extension of this research from the International Monetary Fund discovered that, among these jobs, considerably fewer of them could go remote in less-developed economies. 

One of the biggest reasons is that less than 50 percent of the world has personal access to a computer, and only 60 percent can access the internet. Marginalized communities and populations who fall victim to systemic disadvantages, as well as regions that are unable to shift to efficient remote work, are predisposed to economic scarring, which is already a byproduct of the pandemic. 

As a computer science and public policy major, I'm all for making technology not only more inclusive, but also more ingrained into our society. The rise of tech startups has revolutionized the innovation process for developers looking to create and develop impactful products, such as artificial intelligence, blockchain technology, cryptocurrency and even social media networks. 

Tech nonprofits have fleshed out an entirely different perspective of the humanitarian paradigm. Many of them seek to make services and education more accessible through affordable and secure technology.

A year ago, I had the privilege to observe the impact of one such organization, Techfugees, which actively drives tech solutions and training for refugees and migrants seeking to better integrate in their new communities. Tech is powerful, and it has so much potential for good. 

But who is left behind in this kaleidoscope of global change? Is it the parents working desperately to attend online meetings and set up Zoom software for their toddlers? Could it be the student balancing family responsibilities, assignments and paying for school with limited access to a laptop or Wi-Fi? What about displaced communities across the world? The list goes on. 

COVID-19 forced us to immediately adapt to a remote world — but much of it had not built up the literacy or reliance needed to support all of the hands working to make it go round.

Tech is great, but we can't exclude those who cannot adapt to such a dramatic transition to online processes. We must institute programs and work options that accommodate financial limitations specific to new pandemic-imposed settings. Another important development to consider is partnerships with nonprofits like Techfugees, who are better able to bridge the gap between people and access to tech and tech-friendly occupations. 

This pandemic is friendly to no one. We’ve been forced to rely on screens in ways that go beyond hitting a “like” button. But there are many who cannot keep up, yet they cannot afford to be excluded.

It’s not easy to produce a quick solution in the middle of all this chaos. But in a world increasingly dominated by usernames and mouse clicks, it’s important not to let the millions of other people and non-tech sectors buffer for the sake of rapid virtual innovation.

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