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Tech in the Time of COVID-19

Connection and creating new possibilities.

The Coronavirus pandemic swiftly brought into focus our shared vulnerability and humanity on a global scale. We are lonely, confused and scared. Yet amidst these difficulties, we have come to recognize the blessing of digital technologies and how they can connect us during this time of social distancing.

As for schools across the world, teleconferencing software has enabled me to continue my classes at Calvin University. Zoom conferencing has enabled a colleague to complete his PhD defense. We are grateful for the weekly video meetings with our children and extended family to stay in touch. Digital technology enables many to work from home and even participate in remote worship services and concerts. While electronic communications should not be preferable to embodied community, we can be thankful for digital tools when physical presence is not possible.

In addition to tech’s ability to simulate community, new developments are also helping us detect, respond to and hopefully defeat this pandemic. 

Hackers to the rescue
Technology is being marshalled to help alleviate some of the challenges of COVID-19. Apple and Google have been working on a Bluetooth smartphone app to assist with “contact tracing” of virus-infected persons. Other efforts have been initiated by resourceful individuals, including a ventilator design using off-the-shelf automotive and plumbing parts and controlled by a Raspberry Pi (a small, low-cost computer used by educators and hobbyists). IBM and others have sponsored “hackathons” which attract thousands of remote participants who meet virtually to rapidly prototype tools to assist with crisis communications, remote education and community cooperation.

Other efforts, like the Folding@Home project, allow individuals to “donate” their home computer’s resources to helping fight the coronavirus. By connecting thousands of home computers from around the globe, researchers are able to crowdsource an ad hoc supercomputer to simulate and better understand the complex protein dynamics of the COVID-19 virus. Others have used statistical computer simulations to model and predict the spread of the disease. 3D printers have also been harnessed to fabricate personal protective equipment for health care providers, including nasal swabs, face masks, and “splitters” to enable ventilators to be shared by multiple patients.

Relief and risks
Social media is being used to share words of encouragement, post home-cooking recipes, share book and movie suggestions, and post DIY guides for sewing face masks. Websites keep us informed with the latest infection trends and news updates. Technology has also kept us entertained in our homes. Computer games bring delight and can be played with friends and family remotely. With endless streaming video options, we can enjoy a wide range of shows from home. We have watched famous celebrities, musicians, news anchors and pundits move from their studios to broadcasting in their home offices and living rooms. 

But technology can also be directed in irresponsible and unhelpful ways. Social networks have been used to spread misinformation about the virus, including conspiracy theories. The continuous news cycle reporting grim death tolls, economic doom and unemployment figures can increase anxiety and fear. The plethora of streaming video options don’t always provide virtuous content for us to watch.

Technology has a direction, and it can be directed to help push back some of the effects of our fallen condition. Already in Genesis we see a model of this when God formed clothes for Adam and Eve to cover them in their fallen state. And so we can be grateful for technologies that alleviate isolation and fight the spread of infection. But technology is frequently misdirected, keeping us distracted and feeding vices such as sloth, gluttony and envy.

During COVID-19, our technology ought to be guided instead by the virtues of faith, hope and love. Putting faith in God rather than our technology. Maintaining hope that God is with us during this crisis and will ultimately restore all things. And finally, cultivating love of God and neighbour, and putting technologies like Zoom, ventilators and smartphone apps in the service of that love.

  • Derek C. Schuurman is a Canadian currently living in Grand Rapids, Michigan where he is professor of computer science at Calvin University. Prior to arriving at Calvin he taught for many years at Redeemer University College and was a visiting professor at Dordt University. He currently holds the William Spoelhof Teacher-Scholar-in-Residence chair at Calvin. Besides his technical interests he is interested in faith and technology issues. He is the author of Shaping a Digital World: Faith, Culture and Computer Technology (IVP, 2013).

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