Digital collaboration technologies flourish during COVID-19

For most of human history, dyads and groups were only able to work and play together if they were collocated.  All of this changed in the 19th century, when the first remote collaboration and entertainment technologies — the telegraph, the telephone, and the radio — were developed and widely commercialized.  These were joined in the 20th century by television.  By the middle part of the century, medical images were being transmitted over phone lines; soon thereafter, 2-way television was being used for remote medical consultations.

Digital collaboration technologies have existed since then and have turbocharged collaborative work and play at a distance.  Research on computer-based learning and computer-aided instruction began at the University of Illinois and Stanford University in 1960 and 1962. In 1968, in “The Mother of All Demos”, Douglas Engelbart at the Stanford Research Institute in Menlo Park, California, used a closed-circuit television link to show attendees at a computer conference in San Francisco mind-boggling ways to use computers in collaborative document creation.  In 1969, the first message was sent between two universities on the ARPANET, the research prototype for the internet.  Soon collaborative work could also be done by individuals located anywhere in the world over the internet.  By the mid-1970s, collaborative gaming began over both local-area (within a room or building) and wide-area networks such as the internet.  By the mid-1980s, computer matchmaking services were supplemented by online dating services operating over the internet.

Yet entertainment, medicine, learning, meetings, gaming, and intimacy were always better face-to-face.  Recently, however, COVID-19 has devastated country after country and has made physical contact and adjacency impossible. 

People will not be allowed to gather in performances spaces such as sports arenas and concert halls for a long time.  Yet we are now almost overwhelmed with what is now available online — historic sports events, popular music, symphonies, and plays .  One of the best examples is New York City’s Metropolitan Opera, which has leveraged its long history of artistic excellence and technological innovation by streaming one opera every day.

The profession of medicine adopted telemedicine slowly over the last 70 years.  Yet there are signs of rapid innovation in the face of COVID-19, given the advantages of consultation at a distance, or even remote testing, in cases where one or both of a patient and a health care provider has been diagnosed with the virus or may be a remote carrier already infected but not yet exhibiting symptoms.

More than 1.5 billion students across the globe have been evicted from school by the virus.  University students have been affected the least, because almost all are equipped with technology and are accustomed to learning independently.  The effects are most severe for the youngest school children, especially in homes with little technology, or where the one computer need be shared by several children as well as adults working from home.

Business meetings have changed profoundly, but in ways that were predictable from procedures used by large distributed corporations for many years.  Attendees gather in a virtual meeting space, in which they can hear and see one another, and share documents that are the focal point of discussions.  The industry was ready to expand, especially Zoom whose first-time installations have grown by over a factor of 8 during the past 5 weeks.

Online gaming has also boomed, with people seeking community, fun, mental stimulation, an outlet for their creativity, and solace.

Finally, computer dating sites have flourished. Even more interesting are the efforts and imagination that couples and families have applied to growing or holding steady as a couple or a family that can no longer see one another, touch one another, or hold one another.  Good examples are virtual dinners, cocktail parties, and birthday celebrations; watching a film or listening to a jazz trio together; dancing in synchrony, while being in different places; yet sharing music via a meeting site such as Zoom or Skype; or even phone sex for couples.


Will life ever be the same again?  How will entertainment, medicine, learning, business meetings, gaming, and intimacy differ 2 years after the end of the pandemic as compared to how they were 2 years before its start?

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