How coronavirus has changed our relationship with technology : Planet Money : The Indicator from Planet Money We're spending more time at home, and more time with technology — highlighting a deep digital divide in the United States and introducing thorny ethical dilemmas.

Coronavirus And The Digital Divide

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript




Hey, everyone. Stacey and Cardiff here. This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. Because of social distancing, a lot more people are obviously now spending more time at home, and so they are relying more and more on technologies to help them manage their personal and professional lives.


For example, lots of people are using video conferencing services like Zoom and FaceTime to speak with their colleagues and friends. A lot of kids are also using these platforms to attend school, which has moved online. And since people can't see each other in person as much, they're even relying more on social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram to keep up with each other.

GARCIA: Yeah, and that's not to mention the more frivolous or fun stuff like video games and Netflix and Hulu and all the other streaming services that keep us entertained.

VANEK SMITH: Access to these technologies has become extremely important in navigating this strange, new world that we're living in, and yet there is a digital divide within the country. There are people who have that access and people who don't.

GARCIA: Plus, there are some ethical dilemmas that come with using these technologies that we just didn't have to consider before. So today on the show, a chat with Shira Ovide. She's an old friend of THE INDICATOR's who now writes the On Tech newsletter for the New York Times, and she's going to tell us about some of the ways that our relationship with these technologies that we use more and more everyday now has changed in the time of coronavirus.

Shira Ovide, welcome back to THE INDICATOR.

SHIRA OVIDE: My pleasure. It's always fun to be here.

GARCIA: Shira, you've recently written about the digital divide, this idea that a lot of people do not have access to or they cannot afford things like reliable Internet connections or smartphones - technologies that, at this very moment, have become so crucial for a lot of us, for so many of us. How should we think about this?

OVIDE: There's actually two digital divides in the United States. There's a rural digital divide, where there are tens of millions - maybe more - Americans who live in either rural areas or exurban areas who don't really have access to fast Internet connections because it's not worthwhile for Internet companies to hook up some place in horse country that maybe only has the potential for, you know, a few families. That's one aspect of the digital divide - is people in rural and exurban parts of the United States that can't get online because it's not financially worthwhile.

And then there's people in places like New York City, where you and I live, where there is lots of fast Internet connections, but a lot of people can't afford it - low-income people. And we've seen that particularly with schoolchildren. My colleagues at the Times have written about how that's becoming so stark now that New York City and many other school districts in the country are moving to online classes. And look; if you're in a low-income household and you already have other economic problems - maybe you got parents out of work, and the kids just don't have access to computers or Internet connections. Those kids are falling further and further behind. And kids from affluent families who can afford the Internet, who have great connections and great computer equipment - they can go on more or less as usual.

GARCIA: Yeah. I also worry that the current shutdown is going to accelerate this trend of just using the Internet and smartphones to get basic and essential services - I mean, things like getting a driver's license or, especially right now, applying for unemployment insurance benefits - all of which would be fine except that there's all these people who don't have access to those technologies. So they'll be left even further behind.

OVIDE: I'm worried about it, too. I think it's absolutely happening. And look; I think it's becoming clear that in more parts of the world, the Internet is an essential utility. It's like roads and electricity and plumbing. It's something that people need for their daily lives to, as you point out, get access to work, get access to school, get access to government services, right? People are trying to apply for unemployment now and being directed to websites. Well, what if you don't have access to the Web? It's just becoming clear that we can't have fair access to education or work or health care or government services in the United States if we can't assure that everybody is online and can do so at affordable prices.

GARCIA: Yeah. Shira, there's also a new ethical dilemma in this moment with using another one of these everyday technologies, which is e-commerce. Like, right now if I order food or something else online to be delivered, I'm basically outsourcing my own risk of getting sick, of getting coronavirus. I'm outsourcing it to the delivery person or to the shopper. But for all I know, maybe people getting delivery is also societally safer if it keeps more people from just going outside and spreading the virus and crowding supermarkets and things like that. But then at the same time, shouldn't the delivery people get compensated more or something for taking all those risks on our behalf? I just don't know exactly how we should be thinking about this.

OVIDE: I've been talking to people about exactly this thing. Like, how can you be an ethical and conscientious shopper in the middle of a pandemic? And the one thing I hope sticks with us is it had become very easy before this crisis to be a mindless shopper, right? It's super-easy to fire open our Amazon app. And any time, you know, I'm out of aluminum foil, I just open my Amazon app and press buy now, and a guy shows up at my door in a day or two with aluminum foil.

But, you know, our shopping habits always have consequences even if we don't think about them, right? There's environmental consequences of - OK, somebody had to put that box of aluminum foil in another box and then ship it across the country and then clog my street with Amazon vehicles just so I can not forget to pick up aluminum foil on my next shopping trip, right? And there are always workers - in some case, low-wage workers - on the other end of those transactions.

Are we entrenching powerful companies and forgetting about the small businesses in our backyard if we're ordering from places like Walmart or Amazon? Everything - every dollar we spend always had consequences. I feel like we may be thinking about it more now because the consequences are so stark. And I hope that when this pandemic subsides that we still think about the consequences of our shopping dollars.

GARCIA: I want to close by asking you about your own interaction with technology. You wrote a hilarious newsletter entry where you talked about how you had expected that some element of FOMO, the fear of missing out, would diminish in the current crisis because people are not going on Instagram and posting pictures of them, you know, at the top of some Himalayan mountain or whatever. Instead, everybody's stuck at home, so you wouldn't be jealous. But something else happened instead.

OVIDE: Yeah. I find this very confusing - right? - that there are no more people taking photographs of their elaborate sushi dinners out and then posting them on Instagram, which is the thing that I absolutely hate - both being the person sitting in the restaurant and watching the people at the next table spend 10 minutes crafting their little plates so they can have some Instagram moment and I also hate seeing those sushi photos. So nobody's going to restaurants anymore.

So instead, what we get are people's, you know, shelter-in-place elaborate baking projects, which they also carefully craft for Instagram. And I started seeing parents posting online about - here are the chore wheels that we have broken down in every 15-minute increments for our children or our Trello boards of child homework assignments.

And I thought, how am I still feeling bad about my life when nobody is living life? And so basically, I wrote an essay that was just like, leave me alone. I'm not trying to use a pandemic to become perfect at the apocalypse or to learn Italian or to play the ukulele. I just want to get through this and sit in my sweatpants and eat potato chips.

GARCIA: Yeah. It's funny that the peer pressure or the social pressure that we find on social media to, like, maximize our own selves, to just always be #CrushingIt, is always there, and it really hasn't gone away too much. Even now when - the new hashtag should just be #Survive, #GetBy, #DoWhatYouCanToMuddleThrough.

OVIDE: I think you've invented a hashtag for pandemic life - #GetBy.

GARCIA: It's the longest hashtag ever. Yeah, #GetBy - let's just say #GetBy.

OVIDE: That's it.

GARCIA: Exactly. Shira Ovide, where can people find and subscribe to your newsletter?

OVIDE: The newsletter is called On Tech with Shira Ovide. Type that into your Googles. I am also on Twitter at @ShiraOvide.

VANEK SMITH: This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Camille Petersen. THE INDICATOR's edited by Paddy Hirsch and is a production of NPR.

Copyright © 2020 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.