For many Americans, a typical day right now might look something like this: Roll out of bed and check the smartphone. Open up a laptop and file for unemployment benefits through a website. Set up an online education portal for children out of school. Check in with a doctor through a telemedicine portal. Read news on Twitter. Buy groceries through Amazon. Watch stories on Instagram. Binge on Netflix. Connect with a group of friends on a Zoom video chat.
What passes for normal life now happens almost entirely online.
The coronavirus pandemic is unlike any other global emergency in recent history. Millions of people in the U.S. and around the world are confined to their homes with no definite idea of when they will be able to resume life as they knew it. Staying home has taken on the kind of patriotic duty usually reserved for times of war.
The major question will be whether “normal life” ever returns.
“What I’ve found as a historian is that emergencies, for example like World War I, World War II, the Great Depression, they tended to accelerate rather than necessarily innovate new kinds of relationships, new kinds of ways of life,” said Robert Kargon, a professor of the history of science at Johns Hopkins University.
“My argument has been that essentially these kinds of emergencies accelerate trends that already exist in society,” he said. “We’ve already seen how the internet is impinging on all kinds of activities in terms of work, leisure and so forth, and I think this is going to intensify it and it’s going to change certain things.”
The internet has in recent decades become embedded in almost everything (try to find a product for which there’s not an internet-connected version). But it was primarily used to augment daily life for most people. Some younger people referred to themselves as “extremely online,” but for most it wasn’t the center of their lives.
During the great coronavirus lockdown of 2020, millions of Americans are extremely online. Data from internet services show massive increases in daily use. Assurances from internet services and infrastructure companies that they are able to handle so much of life’s moving online have become closely followed.
When Netflix suffered problems Wednesday, some heralded it as another step closer to apocalypse.
“In an emergency, technology can be fast-tracked,” said Amber Case, a researcher at the Institute for the Future, a nonprofit in Palo Alto, California, that does long-term forecasting. She said she expects a boost of research into technologies around online education and distributed computing, and she predicts that the experience of learning more things online will have wide ripple effects offline.
“I’m hoping we’ll see a next generation of teachers who are rock stars” specializing in teaching via video, she said. “A lot of people are going to learn how to cook really, really well.”
These shifts couldn’t have happened during previous national emergencies, like the Sept. 11 attacks nearly two decades ago. Smartphones didn’t exist yet, and neither did social media, streaming services or easily accessible videoconference calling.
In the days of dial-up modems, often only one device within a home could be on the internet at a time, and it might tie up the phone line.
Joe Bak-Coleman, a Ph.D. student at Princeton University who studies collective behavior and how technology influences society, said the ability to move so much of life online is a recent development — and one that has been particularly crucial because of the nature of the response to the coronavirus outbreak.
“Only in the last five years have we had technology like Skype and Zoom that allow us to do many of our jobs online,” Bak-Coleman said. “Relative to other pandemics, the ability to take our society online, at least portions of it, helps us so much.”
The kind of shift the country has gone through in the past few weeks doesn’t happen without some pain points. People are finding they need to set limits, that their connection to technology can’t be constant all day, every day, or else their brains won’t get a chance to rest.
“We’re stuck kind of in a period of teenage where we’ve all been told to go to our room,” Case said. “We have to rewrite our relationship to technology, and we’re breaking it.”
The online shift may also exacerbate inequality. Millions of Americans don’t have access to fast broadband internet. Some 44 percent of adults with household incomes below $30,000 a year don’t have home broadband services, the Pew Research Center said last year. And in some places, high-speed broadband isn’t available at any price, because providers haven’t built the service.
“Where those networks do not exist — where Americans do not have choices for high-capacity services — social distancing is much harder on people, if not outright impossible,” the Electronic Frontier Foundation said in a statement emphasizing the importance of the internet to the pandemic response.
The internet is so much of life in 2020 that the American Library Association is asking federal regulators for permission to deploy Wi-Fi hot spots using bookmobiles so they can support neighborhoods that have relied on libraries that are now closed.
Data from internet and entertainment services paint a stark picture of a country pushed online.
HBO said Tuesday that time spent on its streaming service HBO Now was up more than 40 percent from its four-week average, and competitors like Amazon Prime Video and Netflix also are seeing big increases in traffic, according to data from the research firm SimilarWeb.
“Escapism and forgetting what’s going on for a second is also what’s keeping some people sane,” said Carolina Milanesi, a tech industry analyst at the research firm Creative Strategies.
Just about every consumer technology company has reported similar upticks. Facebook said that in places hit hardest by the virus, voice and video calling has more than doubled on two apps it owns, Messenger and WhatsApp. “We are experiencing new records in usage almost every day,” executives wrote in a blog post.