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  • Writer's pictureJohn Rae-Grant

Gratitude for Shifting without Stalling

I have largely withdrawn from news consumption during this challenging time. I check in a couple of times per day, which is way down from the 10-15 times i was averaging before shelter-in-place. Quite simply, I am deeply troubled by the sensationalism of most coverage, the rampant rumor spreading, the partisanship, and the general lack of trustability.

What I am really missing in the news is a lack of gratitude and awareness for how much more ready we were to adapt to sheltering in place that we would have been at any point in the past. I don't want to belittle the incredible hardships that many people are going through, and I know that this article is written from the perspective of someone who is very privileged to be living and working in the epicenter of the tech world.

With that said, I am constantly aware of, and grateful for, the societal resilience that we have exhibited in pivoting to a shelter-in-place reality. I find myself very grateful that, if it had to happen, the Coronavirus pandemic happened now, rather than even 10 years ago. We are so much more ready than we would have been.

The primary enabling factor has been widely available high speed internet access. In our connected society, companies like Google, Facebook, and Apple, have been able to rapidly pivot to having almost all of their employees work from home. Many schools have been able to shift to online classes, having blazed the trail with some mix of in-class and online before, or rapidly adopting the robust services proven by others already. Chat services have enabled free, reasonably high quality, video connection between people across the world. Streaming services deliver a vast catalog of on-demand high-res experiences - including rewatching of older series, during a time when much new or live content is on pause. Interactive games allow teenagers to interact in shared virtual spaces, with parents begrudgingly relabelling this as "social" rather than "screen" time. Delivery services have reduced the need to make retail trips, and have been instrumental at enabling small local restaurants to meet delivery needs. Finally, the profusion of user generated content, social networks, and groupware offerings are giving us more ways to find and share with communities of interest.

Almost none of this was widely available and sufficiently reliable to support a massive societal pivot 10 years ago, let alone before that.

Imagine how much worse this situation would have been if we had had the pandemic even 10 years ago?

Internet Access

Since 2010 in the USA:

  • Broadband subscribers have increased by 50% from 80m to over 120m

  • Average Internet connection speeds have increased from 5Mbps to 100Mbps

Just in terms of connection to the Internet, 50% more of us are connected, and all of us are able to access desired content at 20x the speed.

Working from home

Shelter-in-place caught many people off guard. Those that didn't already have a decent working from home solution were encouraged and supported by their companies to set one up.

At Google, employees were told over the weekend not to come to the office on Monday (this was one week before CA counties issued shelter-in-place directives). But working remotely was already well supported for Googlers in general. Based on testimonial from Apple employees I know, working from home was not well supported prior to s-i-p, but now is. Many people, at many companies, have been able to effectively pivot over the period of a day to two weeks to working effectively from home because:

  1. Workers have sufficient connection.

  2. The company services and information they need were already available in the cloud.

  3. Widely available groupware and communications solutions could be rapidly deployed at scale to address sudden changes in work patterns.

In the past ten years, we have moved from infrastructure to instastructure. Workplaces have been able to spin up the services and workflows they need for their employees to get their jobs done from home, safely.

Online Classes

I got the lowdown on impacts in online education from a friend of mine who is a VP at one of these companies. They have seen a sudden jump in usage, especially in k-12. Those customers who had already been using their service to enable online learning as part of the mix have been able to move to fully online without much difficulty at all. New customers are having to scramble, but have a great set of choices of learning platforms (like Coursera, Cengage, Brightspace, Classroom...) and were able to resume after a prolonged spring break or week or two off.

What strikes me the most about this is how ready we were. The first thought was not "we have to close the school down", it was "we can enable students to finish their classes for this year, how do we do that". Even the most conservative of schools had some augmentation of their in-class learning prior to the crisis. In 2010 we were just beginning.

Video Chat

One of the most important changes as a result of greater connection speed is the ability to have realtime multiway video and audio conferencing.

In 2010, video conferencing was still relatively exotic, usually limited to high cost wired connections, and unreliable enough to often be unusable. This was often the situation at Google in 2013 when I started there, in spite of a world class network and heavy investment in video conferencing.

In 2020, we have multiple free platforms offering multi-way video conferencing on all device types, with relatively good quality, assuming reasonable bandwidth and stable connections.

The approachability of these chat services is also dramatically improved (thank you, Apple, for kicking off the move toward usability with FaceTime). Last week, I reconnected with a former manager from Google who told me that he does a daily 5:30pm video chat with his family and his 91 year old father in law. That could not have happened in 2010.

Access to Entertainment

Netflix introduced its streaming service in 2007. Its first produced show, House of Cards, wasn't until 2013. YouTube growth has been staggering. In May 2010, YouTube was serving an impressive 2 billion views per day. In 2020, that number is greater than 5 billion.

An important difference between the streaming services and traditional cable tv is time shifting and access to legacy content. While many cable tv providers have the ability to do on-demand viewing, they are still much more oriented towards live or scheduled broadcast. In our post Covid world, there are no live sports events. Many shows are not being produced or are scaled back. The access to a large catalog, especially at a time when we have time to go back and watch all of a beloved series, is the equivalent of a stocked pantry of comfort food, and we don't even have to go shopping.

Delivery services

As wonderful as the virtual world can be, we still have meatspace needs, including critical real world goods (toilet paper, cleaning supplies, home office supplies, replacement parts) and food. The "death of retail" which has been slowly happening during this century is being further accelerated by the closure of most stores. Thankfully, online shopping has been there to pick up the slack. Food delivery is a godsend for many small restaurants who are able to keep on some staff and maintain clientele, without having to spin up their own delivery capabilities.

Social Gaming

I've never been a huge fan of online games. But, I understand that sharing time in a virtual world can actually be construed as time together. In this current situation, having a lean forward activity that my 17 year old son can do with his friends, without risk of infection, is a great benefit. He and his friends were easily able to shift their hang time to Fortnite, somewhat blunting the sting of being separated IRL.

Groupware and Social Networks

Finally, we have myriad ways of connecting, expressing, and staying in touch with, the communities that we are part of. Each of my three singing groups has a slack channel, which now has a dedicated thread for "how are we all managing during this time" info. I've taken part in an online distributed maker scavenger hunt, and used WhatsApp to connect with those folks. I continue to be in touch with friends made on our recent travels ( over WhatsApp and Facebook. And, I've been able to reconnect with loved ones in far flung parts of the world through Facebook, email, and Zoom.

In a difficult time, we draw and give support to those who matter to us, even if, when times are good, we are often too busy to keep in touch. Social networks preserve our rolodex, and make it incredibly easy to draw upon when needed, or just add the occasional wry comment.

Conclusion and Gratitude

As you will see from my other writing, I am far from a rosy enthusiast about all that is Internet and digital. But, at this time, I am incredibly grateful for our collective ability to pivot to behavior that is safe while maintaining and, in some cases, enhancing our daily pursuits.

We could not have done this 10 years ago. Please join me in appreciating everyone involved in making this pandemic easier to endure. Find some space to appreciate what we've built together.


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