Computing Under Quarantine

Under the current climate of lock-ins, self-isolation, shelter-in-place policies, and quarantine, it is becoming evident to more people the integral role computers play in our lives. Students are learning entirely online, those who can are working from home, and our personal relationships are being carried largely by technology like video chats, online games, and group messages. When these things have become our only means of socializing with those outside our homes, we begin to realize how important they are and the inequity inherent to many technologies.

Someone was telling me how a neighbor doesn’t have a printer, so they are printing off school assignments for their neighbor. People I know are sharing internet connections with people in their buildings, when possible, to help save on costs with people losing jobs. I worry now even more about people who have limited access to home devices or poor internet connections.

As we are forced into our homes and are increasingly limited in the resources we have available, we find ourselves potentially unable to easily fill material needs and desires. In my neighborhood, it’s hard to find flour. A friend cannot find yeast. A coworker couldn’t find eggs. Someone else is without dish soap. Supply chains are not designed to meet with the demand currently being exerted on the system.

This problem is mimicked in technology. If your computer breaks, it is much harder to fix it, and you lose a lot more than just a machine – you lose your source of connection with the world. If you run out of toner cartridges for your printer – and only one particular brand works – the risk of losing your printer, and your access to school work, becomes a bigger deal. As an increasing number of things in our homes are wired, networked, and only able to function with a prescribed set of proprietary parts, gaps in supply chains become an even bigger issue. When you cannot use whatever is available, and instead need to wait for the particular thing, you find yourself either hoarding or going without. What happens when you can’t get the toothbrush heads for your smart toothbrush due to prioritization and scarcity with online ordering when it’s not so easy to just go to the pharmacy and get a regular toothbrush?

In response to COVID-19 Adobe is offering no-cost access to some of their services. If people allow themselves to rely on these free services, they end up in a bad situation when a cost is re-attached.

Lock-in is always a risk, but when people are desperate, unemployed, and lacking the resources they need to survive, the implications of being trapped in these proprietary systems are much more painful.

What worries me even more than this is the reliance on insecure communication apps. Zoom, which is becoming the default service in many fields right now, offers anti-features like attendee attention tracking and user reporting.

We are now being required to use technologies designed to maximize opportunities for surveillance to learn, work, and socialize. This is worrisome to me for two main reasons: the violation of privacy and the normalization of a surveillance state. It is a violation of privacy, to have our actions tracked. It also gets us used to being watched, which is dangerous as we look towards the future.