Can the internet help people live through a pandemic?

Contributed by Ronald Baecker and Judith Langer.

Ron is an an Emeritus Professor of Computer Science at the University of Toronto, co-author of The COVID-19 Solutions Guide and author of Computers and Society: Modern Perspectives (OUP, 2019).

Judith is the Vincent O’Leary Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of Albany, State University of New York and co-author of The COVID-19 Solutions Guide.

On Sunday, April 19, while on one of my daily walks—which have helped keep me sane in what has been a COVID-19 life of no face-to-face contact with family and friends—I (Ron) asked myself the question: can the internet help people live through a pandemic? Of course, the internet can help, and in important ways.  Because I am an author, the answer immediately suggested a more difficult question.  Should I write a book that describes how digital technologies and being online are helping people, and how those who need more assistance can find the resources to get more help?

Over the next few days, I decided that I should write the book, and that it needed to be done quickly, and with lots of help from extraordinary collaborators.  The COVID-19 Solutions Guide is the result.  I will describe the process.

That same day, I asked my friend Judith Langer, a renowned scholar of literacy and a distinguished Professor Emeritus, to work on the book with me.  A partnership between an eclectic scientist/engineer/designer (me) and an accomplished humanist/scientist (Judith) would be a good start.  I began writing on Monday morning April 20; the outline I sketched then is close to the structure of the final book.  That evening, I was playing bridge online (another of my virus coping mechanisms) with a friend of 70 years since 1st grade in Pittsburgh—Dr. Gary Feldman—who had been in charge of public health for two California counties for 14 years.  By then I knew we needed a medical expert; Gary answered the call.  I also recruited my personal financial adviser, Justin Stein, whose expertise and sound financial advice seemed essential.  I soon realized that no publisher would meet my goal of publishing by June 1 (we did not make it, but getting the book written and online in 2 months is nonetheless ok), so we had to do it ourselves.  I therefore recruited the amazing Uma Kalkar, who recruited the equally amazing Ellie Burger, to handle production, publishing, marketing, and social media.

But what kind of a book?  I am both a scientist and an engineer, I like to understand phenomena and use that understanding to build innovative software.  Hence the book needed description — what was happening and why, and prescription — a guide to ways in which technology could help us cope, survive, and enjoy life as best we can.  And yet, going back to doing science, there needed to be evidence that the methods that we would describe seemed to work.  There was no time to assemble hard evidence, but there needed to be at least anecdotal, narrative evidence that we were discussing solutions.  Hence the book has both scientific information, especially about medical issues, and also stories of real people, stories that were told to us by trusted friends, or reported publicly in reliable sources. 

Citing cognitive theory, Judith suggests that a general suggestion or concept such as, “When in lockdown, find alternative ways to interact with others,” will be best understood, remembered, and acted upon when readers can easily relate it to experiences they have had. The example, or narrative, triggers their memories of similar experiences they and others have had.  This mental connection enables them to use their own funds of knowledge to think of possibilities they hadn’t previously considered. The connection of known-to-new enables them to interpret what the general rule means to them and, in the case of how to ease loneliness and anxiety, ways they can personally act upon it. The example makes the author’s suggestions meaningful, memorable, and helpful.

The title was by then revealed —The COVID-19 Solutions Guide.  Yet just writing a book seemed insufficient.  Multidimensional experiences are useful for understanding.  We therefore wanted a blog, which also gave us one method of updating our description of phenomena that were and would continue to evolve rapidly.  Also, in amusing ourselves to stay sane, we invented a game that highlights the challenges of safe physical distancing and the opportunities to imagine creative virtual experiences.  We call this the COVID-19 Solutions Game.  We will release it on June 10 with announcement of the first competition.  The COVID-19 Solutions Guide will be online by June 17.  Stay tuned, and follow us on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter.


What sources and resources have you found the most useful for understanding what is going on (description) and how best to cope (prescription). You can send details to us here, so we can cite the best of these in a future blog post.

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