COVID-19 Catalysed the Brave New World of Virtual & Virtuous Tech

During lockdown, my family members and I found innovative ways to navigate the hardships that COVID has brought.

Updated12 May 2020, 03:22 PM IST
Opinion
9 min read

In the worldwide COVID-induced lockdown, what has unlocked the highest quantum of human ingenuity benefiting the largest number of people all over the globe? With mandatory social distancing forcing us to get physically disconnected even from our next-door neighbours, what has turned the entire world into a virtual neighbourhood, connecting us to friends, relatives, colleagues and strangers anytime, anywhere?

A friend in need, we’ve learnt in school, is a friend indeed. So, who or what during this unprecedented crisis has become a reliable friend of the planetary population?

The answer is obvious – it is digital technology. But even the obvious, sometimes, needs elaboration and exemplification, if only because of digitech’s enormous potential to transform the post-COVID world and make it better for us all.

The Virtual Revolution

Helping humans conquer the constraints of space and time, which they had dreamt of since time immemorial, has added a new dimension to their life – virtual. Call it v-tech, which stands for both virtual tech and virtuous tech.

Make no mistake, a good part of human life in the future is going to be driven by the virtual. Not that the virtual will replace the real, which is impossible. Can artificial intelligence oust basic human intelligence? No. Can robots supplant human beings? No. But virtual activities and experiences, made possible by digital connectivity, communication and collaboration platforms, are sure to vastly enhance our real-world abilities in the years to come.

Aided by virtual interactions of unimaginable scale and variety, human beings will have the opportunity to enrich their real life in physical, social, intellectual, cultural, artistic and spiritual spheres.

True, the virtual revolution had begun long before the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic. But the crisis has made us sharply aware of its promises and possibilities, even though the revolution itself is still in its infancy and its best is yet to come.

Let me begin with a few examples from my own family, as it navigated through the hardships of the lockdown.

How V-Tech Helped My Family During the Lockdown

Example 1: My father-in-law passed away in our home in Mumbai on the 23rd day of the lockdown. He was 92, and bed-ridden for some time. The end couldn’t have come more peacefully, just a slow ebbing of life with his two daughters, Kamaxi (my wife) and Trupti by his side.

Trupti gave him Ganga Jal, which he himself had asked for. The next moment, he had travelled to the other, unknown, world, which we call the heavenly abode.

Due to the lockdown, there were only 13 of us at the cremation. The large family of relatives and friends, whose love and respect my father-in-law had earned, had no opportunity to visit our home in the days that followed. But how could we do away with the obligatory 12th and 13th day rituals?

Digital technology came to our rescue. Tapas, our daughter in London, arranged a soulful ‘prarthna sabha’ (prayer meet) on Zoom, in which his near and dear ones from various places in India, USA and Europe participated.

The next morning, my dear friend Sadhvi Bhagwati, of Parmarth Niketan, Rishikesh, a globally renowned spiritual centre established by Swami Chidanand Saraswati, arranged a solemn ceremony on the banks of the Holy Ganga. We participated in it real-time, thanks to WhatsApp video.

Example 2: My elder brother Satish does farming in our hometown Athani in northern Karnataka. Before the outbreak of COVID-19, an agri-company approached him with a proposal to grow sweet corn with a buyback agreement. But, it refused to fulfil its commitment when the lockdown was announced.

Now, what could he do with the bountiful crop standing on his farm? Harvesting of sweet corn is a time-critical operation. If he did not dispatch it to the market at the right time, all his hope, hard work and investment would come to naught.

This is when digitech answered his need. Being a subscriber to ‘Agriculturist’, a Facebook page popular among farmers in Karnataka, he posted photos and videos of his crop to reach out to prospective buyers.

Sure enough, an export-oriented processing unit near Bangalore responded promptly and positively. The following day, it sent trucks to transport the corn, and both the seller and the buyer were happy.

“Lots of farmers are now using digital platforms on their mobiles for their varied needs, which are now available to them in their own language,” my brother told me. Wow, I said to myself.

Example 3: Smita, Kamaxi’s cousin-sister, is a teacher who runs a thriving tuition class in Sangli, a mid-sized city in southern Maharashtra, for commerce students preparing for the CA (chartered accountancy) exam.

Last year, she became a grandmother to two lovely twins. Her daughter, who works as a software engineer in Canada, asked her to come and help take care of the young ones, which she did with great love and care.

Just before Smita had planned to return to India, lockdown happened. However, such was the demand from her college students in Sangli that she resumed her tuition classes online, using Cisco’s Webex video-conferencing platform.

She begins her classes at 10 pm, Canada time, and ends at 4 am, so that her students can attend them during day time. “I enjoy it,” she says, “because, if I had not done it, I would’ve felt guilty of letting down my students.”

‘Study From Home’ in a K’taka Village

Example 4: Here is a case of ‘study from home’ becoming a norm in India’s villages as well. Supreet, my cousin brother’s son, is a 10th standard student, intelligent and hardworking. He was studying in a small school in our ancestral village, Satti, near Athani.

Fearing that he wouldn’t be able to compete with city boys in college education and later in the job market, his parents sent him, two years ago, to a school in Hubli, the second largest urban centre in Karnataka.

Supreet had come to see his parents in the second week of March, and got stuck in Satti because of the lockdown. But, this has not affected his studies. Why? “Because,” he told me, “my teachers send me a daily worksheet on WhatsApp and monitor my progress. They have also created a mobile app on which they send video lessons. It’s not quite the same as studying in a classroom. I miss my school friends. But I don’t mind.”

His virtual learning has both amazed and delighted his proud parents and doting grandmother.

Imagine how we could brighten the lives of all the children in India if we made available such new learning resources to each one of them.

Example 5: Minchu, my beloved nephew, is a multi-talented young man. A computer science graduate from the prestigious Ashoka University near Delhi, he is now working for a tech start-up in Bangalore that provides software solutions for crossword, puzzles, sudoku and other mind-games to several international publications.

Members of his small team work collaboratively from Karnataka, Telangana, Uttarakhand and California.

Although his company has an office at WeWork, which has pioneered the concept of shared workspaces for tech enterprises globally, the lockdown has forced him and his colleagues to work from home. “This hasn’t reduced either our work hours or our work output,” he says.

Of course, the downside of it is that we miss the excitement of workplace interaction among colleagues, which is a rich learning experience in itself. Nevertheless, in the coming years, ‘Work from Home’ will become the new normal.

Already, big tech companies like TCS and Wipro are planning to enable more than half their employees to work from home.

Similarly, ‘Learn from Home’ will also become the new normal. Ashoka University has recently started a webinar series called ‘Beyond the Classroom’ where world-class professors hold virtual interactive sessions over Zoom.

Anyone from anywhere can attend these sessions for free. Under normal circumstances, only affluent kids would have access to such resources, but now, technology is removing that barrier.

‘Work from Home’, ‘Learn from Home’, ‘Earn from Home’

Examples like these are by no means unique. Barring the very poor, almost every family in India and the world has its own interesting virtual life experiences to share. Braving the coronavirus crisis, common people, policy makers and enterprises are doing incredible things using digital technology.

It’s as if our society is rebooting itself into a brave new digital future. Consider the following.

The presidents and prime ministers of G20, followed by their ministerial colleagues, held several virtual meetings in the recent weeks of lockdown. This trend is travelling fast from global to local, as is evidenced by even district-level officials in India beginning to video-conference with village representatives.

Thanks to the exploding power of connectivity and computation, there is an unprecedented impetus to innovative technologies and products, whose adoption even by common people is now becoming ubiquitous. 3-D printing is being used to make much-needed face shields and medical equipment for healthcare workers.

This new paradigm, of decentralised, small-scale and customised manufacturing will address many societal needs in years to come. With a significant decrease in permanent lifelong employment, work too will be customised – a majority of people will get freelance and highly elastic ‘Earn from Home’ opportunities, for which they will of course be required to continuously acquire new knowledge and skill-sets.

Along with decentralisation of the financial sector (who needs big brick-and-mortar banks in the coming age of digital money?), this can potentially bridge the urban-rural divide.

How to make this digital transformation truly inclusive, and drive it towards a decisive assault on poverty and stark inequality, is now the real challenge before political, social and business leaders.

Can we make v-tech benefit every farmer, small trader, SME, artisan, and home-based women entrepreneur? Yes, it’s possible, with right policies, societal will and political commitment.

But there is something more transformative v-tech can do. When people’s working, learning and earning patterns change, their unnecessary mobility will reduce. This will release more time and energy for us to devote to creative activities of our choice.

My wife Kamaxi, I must mention here, has learnt Urdu all by herself during the lockdown, using only available online resources. She is now beginning to read, albeit haltingly, the Bhagavad Gita in Urdu, published by the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan.

Countless enthusiasts like her all over the world have signed up for learning music, painting, cooking, gardening, for doing voluntary community service and even for virtual tours of museums, and so on.

Yes, deeply destructive and painful though the effects of the coronavirus pandemic have been, there is also another side to this calamity – life-enriching creativity and innovation are blooming like never before all over the world.

A Marxian Dream Come True

During my student days, when I was massively influenced by Marxism, there was a passage in the writings of Karl Marx that acquired a strong hold on my imagination. It paints the picture of a future classless society of abundance for all (“to each according to his needs, and from each according to his abilities”) in which each person, liberated from the drudgery of doing a particular kind of work for livelihood, can realise her or his full human potential by pursuing many creative interests in a lifetime. In his book, The German Ideology (1846), he writes:

“For as soon as the distribution of labour comes into being, each man has a particular exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and from which he cannot escape. He is a hunter, a fisherman, a shepherd, or a critic and must remain so if he does not wish to lose his means of livelihood; while in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, to fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, do literary criticism after dinner, just as I have in mind, without ever becoming a hunter, fisherman, shepherd, or critic.”

Marxism is not in vogue these days – and for understandable historical reasons. Nevertheless, replace “in communist society” in the above passage with “in the future digital society”, and much of Marx’s optimistic idealism will begin to make sense.

Of course, technology by itself cannot change our societies for the better. For that to happen, all of us in the global community have to change the real world. We must restructure our political and economic systems to make them truly equitable and democratic, and obedient to universal human values.

We must transform international relations on the principle of ours being a single undivided human family, and hence with no place for wars and weapons of mass destruction.

We must protect our planet’s precious and fragile ecology by restricting our material consumption to a more sustainable level.

And we must alter our own life’s priorities towards fulfilment of higher social, cultural, artistic and spiritual needs, so that we can experience harmony with nature and harmony within ourselves.

Even in all these history-changing tasks, new technologies will be our dependable friend in need. Because, for all the violent and anti-people ends they can be employed by those who want to misuse their power, they are born for a lofty purpose – to help humanity ascend to a higher level of evolution.

(The writer, who served as an aide to India’s former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, is founder of the ‘Forum for a New South Asia – Powered by India-Pakistan-China Cooperation’. He tweets @SudheenKulkarni and welcomes comment at sudheenkulkarni@gmail.com. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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Published: 12 May 2020, 11:53 AM IST
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