Technology intersected with our lives in wholly strange and unprecedented ways this year. The only reason we could hold on to a semblance of normal life at a time when large parts of humanity were physically cut off from each other was that we had the technological tools to make it happen, be it through work, play, shopping, entertainment or education. It was almost as if we were advancing towards this very year, when life without technology would have been, frankly, unendurable. Lounge lists a few of the standout ways in which technology created breakthroughs for us this year, as well as a few that slipped under the radar but showed how tech has touched most of our mundane, everyday, essential moments.
Be it the Aarogya Setu in India or apps in Australia and the UK, some countries got contact-tracing apps spot on, while others struggled with data privacy and surveillance issues. Traditional contact tracing requires public health officials to interview an infected person to determine where they had been and who all they could have come in contact with. These covid-19 contact tracing apps were designed to track a person’s whereabouts using a smartphone. That’s where the problems started cropping up.
Apart from the obvious technological challenges, Bluetooth technology’s ability to establish a ‘digital handshake’, there was plenty of controversy on the use and storage of user data. Many apps also relied on location data and an API developed by Google and Apple. A lack of clarity on where this data would be stored—and for how long—meant many people hesitated to put their trust in the apps. Some countries and governments even made it mandatory for their citizens to download and use these apps. According to the MIT Technology Review Covid Tracing Tracker, there were 25 individual automated contact tracing efforts in place globally. Only some of them managed to make an impact. By July, according to data from app analytics firm Sensor Tower, contact tracing apps had reached 9% adoption in the most populous countries. Australia’s COVIDSafe had almost 4.5 million unique installs, while Aarogya Setu had 127.6 million downloads till then.
Life zooms by
Forced to remain indoors and work from home, a significant portion of the global workforce relied on video-calling platforms like never before. The most prominent and obvious candidate in this area was Zoom, which saw its daily user base increase to millions in a socially-distanced world.
In order to adapt to these platforms, everything from conferences to product launches went virtual in 2020, with varying degrees of success. In some cases, I think you could argue the online version was actually a better experience than trying to fly thousands of people to one city and cramming them into a theater or convention center. In other cases, companies simply tried to recreate online, what they were used to doing in person. One of the most striking things is that it seems entirely likely that even as things start to get back to “normal,” online events aren't going anywhere. Microsoft Teams, Google Meet, Cisco Webex -- you name it. There was no dearth of video calling and conferencing services as we navigated the early days of the pandemic.
It’s an indication of their unending popularity and usefulness that platforms like Zoom have kept no-time limits on their free services as the year-end approaches. According to a Reuters report, Zoom said it was removing the time limit for its free accounts on all meetings globally for the holiday season. Alphabet had already announced earlier this year that free users on its Google Meet platform would not have to limit conversations to 60 minutes till March. Recent reports that even WhatsApp is considering bringing video and voice calling on desktop in 2021 is just a sign of things to come.
Video for al
Indians spent an average of 5.5 to 6.9 hours on their smartphones in the early parts of 2020. Most of these hours were devoted to the consumption of entertainment on OTT or video streaming platforms, a recently released report by global technology company vivo revealed. Confined to the space of their homes, users found a much-needed outlet in digital video services.
With a visit to movie theatres and other recreational spaces out of the question in the early months of the year, Indians warmed up to subscription video-on-demand and OTT services. According to a Mint report from December, India registered a 60% growth in paid OTT subscribers during the pandemic. The entertainment industry responded in similar fashion. Big-ticket Bollywood movies, TV shows and series were released on platforms like Netflix, Hotstar and Amazon Prime Video, among others. A BCG-CII report on the Indian media and entertainment industry, titled “Lights, camera, action...the show goes on” says OTT saw strong growth across both rural and urban areas in the country. Will video streaming services carry this momentum to 2021, or was this just a one-off? All eyes on the screen.
A staggering 1.57 billion students have been impacted by the pandemic the world over. Thankfully, we had the technology to make a swift transition to online classes, though this was a function of privilege and access to dedicated devices. Even as online classes continue into 2021, they will change pedagogy forever, be it through the adoption of tech-forward teaching aids or larger changes—already, people are talking about using the learnings from this year to take education to underserved communities. E-learning apps have grown hugely, and we are likely to see a positive shift towards self-driven learning through technology in India, even if robot teachers are not quite reality yet.
The new gatekeepers
In urban India, underrated tech winners this year were gate and society management apps, which saw rapid growth and adoption. Along with alerting residents to visitors and deliveries, these apps pivoted quickly to become virtual noticeboards, updating residents about lockdown and quarantine rules, keeping track of covid-19 patients within the complex, the density of cases in the residents’ vicinity, whether or not visitors and domestic help were coming from containment zones, and local and neighbourhood news. They uploaded PDFs of newspapers when newspaper deliveries were restricted, and added features allowing associations to share bills and notices, which would typically be shared in a physical format earlier. Essentially, these apps became the nerve centres of neighbourhood activity, and if their data collection left any privacy loopholes, no one was complaining—at least not during the pandemic.
Focus: Mental health
A new report on medical consultations during the pandemic by the Telemedicine Society of India and digital healthcare platform Practo revealed that there was a whopping 300% increase in the number of online consultations for mental health issues between March and November 2020 compared to the same period in 2019. And the growth was not just in the field of mental illnesses that need clinical intervention: Most digital platforms that offer AI-based mental health support, therapy and guided meditation exercises reported robust double-digit growth in the number of users this year as the enforced solitude and disruption of normal life in the pandemic led people to explore therapy and mindfulness. The anonymity offered by online platforms and the normalisation of virtual consultations also encouraged people struggling with mental illness to reach out to psychiatrists and therapists for the first time. And this was a global phenomenon, at least in countries with a high rate of technology adoptions: First-time downloads of the top 20 mental wellness apps in the US grew by almost 30% between January and April 2020. However, even as experts have predicted this change in mindsets and practices to outlast the pandemic, they have also sounded a word of caution about the digital therapy space needing more transparency and regulation.
Face masks have been a deeply ingrained cultural theme in many parts of the world. Regions around the globe that had not adapted to them did so as the pandemic grew. Scientifically proven to cut down the chances of transmission, face masks have become one of the most talked about pieces of design and technology this year. It also looks unlikely that people will walk away from them once the pandemic subsides.
How do you make sure that a face mask fits the nose’s curvature properly? How many layers are enough to block potentially infected droplets? Are N95s the best option or should I stick to a good, home-made three-ply face mask? What is breathing resistance and what is the proper way of wearing a mask and taking it off? Finding the perfect mask, sometimes called a face covering, and using it correctly has been a case study in design and innovation.
We even saw the introduction and use of nanotechnology in masks, given the microscopic size of the covid-19 virus. The finer the pathogen, the more finer mask filtering surfaces had to be. Even as massive vaccination drives take place globally, medical experts still advise that people should continue to wear face masks, such has been their importance during the pandemic.