Digital doesn’t suck: how responsibility makes all the difference

All of a sudden, digital has gone from a curse to a boon, as the world rediscovers the immense value of online connections. Can we carry that new-found sense of responsibility into the post-viral world?

Do you remember back when social media and digital tools were the root of all evil, the cause of polarisation and a plague upon society?

Now we’re facing a genuine plague, that story has changed. Over the last few weeks, countries all over the world have been slamming their citizens into social lockdown, to slow the spread of COVID-19 and attempt to preserve lives.

All of a sudden, those same digital tools, once mocked as an inferior escape from real world social interactions, have become the sole source of our interactions, bar our immediate household. For many of us, that’s a vital lifeline to mental health and financial stability.

Surprising ourselves in a crisis

And, generally, it’s gone pretty well. Helpful online communities have sprung up. People are interacting with their neighbours, their colleagues, their students or their children’s schoolmates’ parents, via social tools. We’re organising to keep people fed, and educated, and connected, even as our ability to meet in person is swept away. It’s impressive how quickly – and how positively – we’ve reshaped our digital life to respond to our changing physical situation.

One might almost think that the problem with our digital tools lay as much with the people using them as with the tools themselves…

Now, I don’t want to over-egg this pudding. Behaviour on social media hasn’t been perfect. I’ve already seen a breed of “social distancing vigilante” spring up, policing often incorrect assumptions about what is and isn’t safe social distancing. And yes, the usual bad actors are doing their best to exploit the situation.

But it has been a timely reminder that tools are generally pretty useful. It’s up to us to take responsibility for how we use them.

Crisis breeds responsibility

Would anyone like to contemplate how this lockdown would have looked in 2005? Luckily, we don’t have to. The BBC have done it for us. Video conferencing on dial-up is not worth thinking about. But the internet of April 2020 feels like a different and more positive place than the internet of February 2020. After just two months, we see people using the internet more responsibly than usual. What’s made the difference?

Previously, the problem was, of course, that that internet has facilitated a lack of responsibility – through anonymity, and the ability to connect with otherwise unconnected people half a globe away. Hang on, though, that’s also one of the great things about the internet, too. We’re back to tool neutrality, aren’t we?

The actual change has been twofold:

  • For many people, the internet has moved from a benefit to an absolute necessity, particularly those self-isolating on their own, and those who can keep their work running digitally.
  • People are organising in groups with more consequence for misbehaviour – locally and in family groups, rather than in scattered online communities.

As the pressure increases so, it seems, has the responsibility. This has become much more important for many of us.

Corporate responsibility

That’s even extending to the social platforms themselves, who we’re seeing taking down misinformation from political leaders for the first time. They will face the question into the future: If you could do it during this crisis, why not at other times?

This situation will not last for ever. As testing kits, effective treatment, herd immunity levels and vaccinations rise, so too will the restrictions lift. Can we take some of the positive things we have learnt about personal and corporate responsibility and harness them to build a better digital future afterwards?

After all, even after we subdue the novel coronavirus, the challenge of the climate crisis awaits us. And we’ve all learnt that there are plenty of journeys we can do without. We’re learning lesson about the power of personal responsibility to effect change. Social distancing only works if the vast majority of people respect it – and that seems to be happening. Just as impressive is the way people ease the negative social impact of that distancing digitally. But equally, we’re reminded of the need for both state and corporate action to support and magnify that individual action. Ironically, our level on interconnectedness is clearer than ever.

These are lessons we could all stand to learn in the next big struggle that faces mankind. The old aphorism that you should never let a good crisis go to waste has been much-quoted in recent days. I’d like to modify it: never let the lessons of a good crisis go to waste; they could be vital to beating the next one.

And that’s the responsibility of all of us.

Photo by Alexander Dummer on Unsplash