Article: COVID-19 crisis demands debate on digitization

The COVID-19 crisis is first and foremost a public health issue. Now it is becoming increasingly clear that we are confronted with a huge economic and social problem as well. However, there is another reason why we will remember this crisis later on: the enormous potential of digitization and the rise of a myriad of online applications to keep everyday life going. More than ever, it is noticeable how deeply entwined with this technology we have become and the possibilities it offers us in times of crisis. It is as if we are glimpsing what, without the COVID-19 crisis, the future could be like. Let us examine this fascinating phenomenon more closely. What stands out? For one thing, as we will argue below, that the recent take-off in digitization can lead to excessive techno-optimism. That the drawbacks of digitization reach much further than familiar issues such as privacy and security, however important they still are. There is no doubt that digitization has offered us much during this crisis and will continue to do so. At the same time, in many areas there has been a noticeable deterioration in interactions, relationships and societal processes and relations. Therefore, let us take this opportunity to have a broad public debate on the responsible use of digital technology because once it has been implemented in the long-term, it is very difficult to prevent it from being used.

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Image: ©Nationale Beeldbank

The crisis as a glimpse of our digital future

Currently we appear to warmly embrace digitization. But of course, some things are neither different nor new. Countless applications and technologies that provide solutions now, were in fact already in use. Rather, it is the intensity that has changed. Streaming platforms, such as Netflix and others, ensure there is always something to watch and online video games gave many parents some peace when they were suddenly stuck at home with their children all day. And although ordering a package or meal online was already commonplace, it seems that now practically everyone is seeking sanctuary in this ‘safe’ way of shopping. 

We also see that all kinds of applications of digital technology, which had not gained much traction, have suddenly got momentum. In the space of a few weeks we learned how to hold video conferences, schools migrated their curriculum to an e-learning environment and medical consultations took place online. The crisis is stimulating a variety of new or less familiar applications as well. Drones are being employed to warn people when they get too close to each other, questioning defendants via video has replaced physical presence in the courtroom and there are numerous technology initiatives for managing social distancing. 

However, digitization is not just being used to keep society and the economy running. There are all sorts of projects that use digital technology in the fight against the cause of the crisis itself: COVID-19. There are some interesting examples, especially in Asia. The Chinese platform Alibaba announced an algorithm that could produce a diagnosis with a high degree of certainty in twenty seconds. In Wuhan, food and medicine was delivered to people in quarantine using autonomous vehicles. In Singapore they remind people to keep their distance from each other in public. But in the United States they are experimenting with the remote monitoring of the elderly too. Large datasets about COVID-19 are being collected in Kaggle, the online database, in the hope that AI can recognize patterns in them.

In the Netherlands, researchers at TU Delft are working on a programme that can use expert knowledge to assist doctors in making moral decisions. Doctors in hospitals use a diagnostic algorithm to estimate the risk of COVID-19 and medical centres are working on the development of machine learning, a variation of AI, for choosing treatments and research into the progression of the disease.

Reflection on balance between online and offline

Imagine how different the situation would have been if the COVID-19 crisis had occurred ten years ago. The sudden and radical switch to the digital world would not have been possible back then. The infrastructure of the internet could not have coped with the heavy video data traffic. The entire logistics of large-scale online delivery services did not yet exist and drones were very expensive tools that were mostly used by the army. Therefore, it could be said that this crisis also highlights our approach to technology. A number of things stand out.

Primarily, our enormous dependence on the infrastructure of the internet and the services built on it. Apart from the amusement provided by music, videos and social networking, digital technology has now become so embedded in core functions in society that the majority could no longer function without digital assistance.

Secondly, the described acceleration to the future will not be permanent. Undoubtedly, a number of digital activities will disappear. People will eventually want to see their colleagues in the office again and schools are already a kind of physical meeting place again. As creative as they were, virtual dinners and Mother’s Day will probably not last. More importantly, some digital applications are only a sticking plaster, because for reasons of principle we prefer the experience without the digitization.    

Yet there is no chance of a complete return to the way things were before. The crash course in ‘digital living’ we are essentially taking right now gives us a perspective to look at our physical lives through different eyes. How often do we actually need to be physically in the office and do we really need to travel there during rush hour? And which parts of the teaching material can remain digital?

Now that we are taking careful steps towards a relaxation of the measures, it is a good time to discuss the desirable intensity of the use of digital services. Everything had to be done in a hurry in the initial phase, otherwise all kinds of things would have come to a standstill. In the period ahead there will be more time for reflection, and the question lies before us: what kind of balance between physical and digital – between offline and online – are we looking for?  Digitization has a lot to offer, but at the same time it can change or diminish things fundamentally to such an extent that we need to ask ourselves if those changes are indeed desirable. This debate is vital, particularly now it has become clear that some changes must not be embraced permanently and even come with the necessary risks attached.

The drawbacks of far-reaching digitization

Let us examine a few examples of the drawbacks of our recent, hurried embrace of digitization. Take video conferencing. The relatively unknown company Zoom is rapidly expanding and ‘zooming’ has become a verb, the trademark of a successful technology company. At the same time, it quickly became clear that the platform could not guarantee the privacy of its users. Government employees have therefore been instructed not to use the platform. But what about the rest of the population? By now, lots of people will be familiar with platforms like Skype, Google Hangout and Webex. The development of a secure, reliable and functional application for web conferences is important for a responsible implementation of working digitally in the future. The same applies to cloud services, upon which almost all organizations have become even more dependent.
Then look at delivery services. It was nice to be able to use companies like Amazon or home delivery apps when restaurants were completely closed and we had to avoid the crowded shops. Many people will certainly have become more used to them. But what are the long-term implications of that? A look into the future reveals an abandoned street scene. It is mainly large, often international, businesses that benefit from this form of digitization. The small local shops are its victims. It worked fine as an emergency solution but how and where do we want to do our shopping in the future?

Similar questions are being asked of the numerous digital learning environments used in schools and higher education. The COVID-19 crisis has meant that our education system has become even more dependent on a few very large tech companies based in the US. In providing their services, these commercial companies are able to collect user data from pupils, students and researchers, which can be used to offer personalized marketing and services. In essence, digitization in higher education increasingly also means the privatization of tasks which have traditionally belonged in the public domain. What does the continuation of digital education mean for the preservation of the public values that serve education?

Of course, the drawbacks also include the social and psychological challenges and problems that arise from digitization. Inequality of opportunity plays a role in relation to digitization as well. Not every household has access to good laptops and internet connections. Similarly, there are big differences between schools with regard to the quality of the digital education and teaching material. It is also important to remember that not everyone is able to cope equally well with the abrupt digital transformation of all sorts of societal processes. An illustration of the social and psychological drawbacks is the uproar that arose among students when universities wanted to use digital technology to detect possible academic fraud during online examinations. 2  Students of Dutch universities were obliged to film their living conditions and share it with the university via the technical facility. In addition to an appeal for their privacy, they argued that the constant gaze of a ‘digital eye’ during examinations generates more stress than invigilators walking round the room.
In summary, it really matters for which applications and in which domains we introduce a digital alternative. Our requirements for online meetings and shopping are completely different to those for the questioning of a defendant via video in a trial as part of a criminal investigation. It also matters a lot whether we are talking about a commercial enterprise or the police, when data management is put in the hands of a foreign cloud provider. Which applications should be capitalized right now, and which should not? Which prerequisites should we set? People argue for reduced dependency on foreign partners when it comes to stockpiling in the medical sphere. But in fact, the same applies to digitization. In other words, what is the status of Dutch digital sovereignty in public services and provisions in light of the growing dependence on foreign commercial provider? 3 

This and countless other questions are thrown at us as larger parts of society become interwoven with digital technology. These questions are not new, but current developments require a broader debate on the role of and control over digital technology. The glimpse of the future this crisis has afforded us also acts as a mirror: which technological developments do we want to encourage, which ones should we be wary of and which are only of added value in times of crisis but do not form part of ‘the new normal’? And now we are less rushed, what are the conditions under which digital technology can be used responsibly?

The courage to roll back crisis solutions

Before we look at this last question, it is important to recognize that some applications can only be a sticking plaster. Even a degree of satisfaction with some of these new ways of working (greater efficiency, reduced costs, etc.) should not be allowed to lead, insidiously, to a society in which certain groups in our society are at an even greater disadvantage in socio-economic terms. Nor should they result in practices that are at odds with the principles of our democracy and our fundamental rights. Consider, for instance, concerns around the protection of privacy in relation to the digital monitoring of citizens’ behaviour (COVID-19 apps, the use of data about restaurant reservations for COVID-19 monitoring, etc.). The aforementioned video conferencing in criminal law courts illustrates this point. This emergency solution for questioning quickly became compulsory in The Netherlands because it was impossible for the defendants, lawyers and other concerned parties to be physically present.  However, it was immediately clear that it is at odds with the fundamental rights of the accused. A timeslot of no more 45 minutes is allocated for questioning and it is the facility where the defendant is being held (an executive agency), rather than the judge, who actually decides when the allocated time has expired.  Considering the pressure and the backlog already faced by the criminal justice system - irrespective of the pandemic - the efficiency offered by these ‘video hearings’ appears to be a welcome addition to existing capabilities. Yet, for the sake of the fundamental values of our democracy, we must have the courage to discard this digital sticking plaster and others like it.

Take the time to have a debate

Digital technology is clearly a crucial instrument in the fight against the COVID-19 crisis and to allow countless societal processes to continue. However, we must be wary of this leading to a form of techno-optimism or what is sometimes called ‘solutionism’ or ‘technochauvinism’ - the idea that we can solve every societal problem with technology. The risk is that we simplify our complex social reality and by organizing things more efficiently or in a different manner, we lose sight of important values. A mature approach to digital technology means we explore what is at stake in every situation and ask ourselves which digital tools are and are not suitable. The crisis has helped us see that we have to consider more than just the immediately visible impact of digitization. We need to keep a close eye on the social consequences, new dependencies and changing relationships.

The first phase of the crisis provided us with a look into the future. The current transition phase gives us some calm to reflect on what we think of that future. We should take advantage of that calm and not hastily cling to COVID-19 apps, online meetings, doctor’s appointments via telephone or digital hearings. Critical questions must be asked about the power of foreign providers in the area of cloud services and communication platforms, in the workplace and in schools. We need similar reflection on both dependencies and ‘digital sovereignty’, and on what the effect on public values is if technology shifts the balance towards private interests and efficiency. We have identified questions with regard to the social embedding of technology, such as far-reaching surveillance, inequality of opportunity and the undermining of the earning capacity of small businesses; all subtle effects of our recent embrace of digital technologies.

The government has an essential task both in that reflection and in shaping the role of digitization. It has a systemic responsibility4  based on standards of trust, fairness and legitimacy, but also quality of life in a digitized society. In other words, citizens and businesses may expect the government to take control and establish boundaries, especially if fundamental values are threatened. As launching customer, the government can set a good example. It is the government that can assess these developments from a more integral perspective and, where necessary, guide them. The recent parliamentary recommendation in The Netherlands  to set up a permanent committee for Digital Affairs is an important step in that direction.

Let us hope that we remember this crisis later not just for the ‘helping hand’ digitization gave us, but mainly as the moment we engaged in a broad public debate on the responsible use of digital technology and the relevant values associated with that.


This article was written by:

  • Haroon Sheikh, researcher at the Netherlands Scientific Council for Government Policy (WRR) 
  • Corien Prins, chair at the Netherlands Scientific Council for Government Policy (WRR)