Connecting with Caution: How to Smartly Enhance Our Human Experience

By Alexander Riabov on September 10, 2020

Technologies are often understood in abstractions – the tool, the product, the next best thing. These days, they are often also seen through an increasingly negative prism, increasing vulnerabilities, and exacerbating bias. We seldom acknowledge how technology is able to fuel interpersonal connections that fulfill an ever deeper human need. That is while remaining clear-eyed about potential risks, how do current technologies allow us to be more human. 

Technology and the Individual

COVID-19 has forced a large part of the world into solitude. Quarantines and social distancing guidelines have hampered our innate need for social connection. Confronted with this unanticipated isolation, many people are increasingly subjected to negative emotions including loneliness and anxiety. What’s fascinating is how we have all turned to technology to ease our distress or simply to grapple with the tension of the unknown.

Despite scrutiny over the spread of disinformation, excessive online advertising, media addiction, and the lack of face-to-face contact, many of these technical tools have been a crucial element in our ability as humans to cope not only with the pandemic but to further expand our social environments in our professional and personal worlds. For those self-isolating, relying on these online tools has become much more than screen consumption. In fact, studies have shown that the online presence of face to face communication permitted by apps such as Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp, has allowed users to feel a bigger sense of social presence. The increase of Zoom subscribers, with the company reporting a significant increase in free and paid participants including schools, businesses, and personal users, speaks to the necessity – and ubiquitousness – of these technologies. This deeper level of interpersonal interaction is the very foundation of our human experience. In a time where our reliance on technology has outpaced its skeptics, technology has also allowed us to feel more human. 

Technology and the Community

Despite the outbreak that has driven millions of people to stay at home, the spirit of support has brought thousands of people taking to their windows and rooftops to show gratitude, sing, share music, or simply watch from afar. While the unsurprising need for human connection brought compassionate moments among neighbors in countries including the US, Italy, Lebanon, India, and Brazil, the ability for social media to disseminate these images creates a sense of a more authentic connection among people in a similar predicament. Not only has the popularity of these images and videos encouraged frontline pandemic workers, but the connection between people of different countries has also allowed for the emergence of hope and reassurance. The Italian slogan “Andrà tutto bene” (everything will be all right) which became Italy’s message of resilience as the country became one of the highest COVID infected countries in Europe, echoed Wuhan’s balcony chants of “jiāyóu” roughly translating to “stay strong” when the country went into lockdown at the end of January. This solidarity, spread by the use of novel technologies, has allowed people around the globe to feel as part of a community far greater than our own respective experiences.

Hope Is Not Without Its Warning Signs

Images of encouragement that circulated on TikTok and Instagram, were not without their warning signs. While printed headlines circulated stories of wonder amongst COVID hit communities, including the wildlife phenomenon spotted in Venice and China, the sheer fact that these stories were later deemed false, points to a bigger problem. During a time of crisis, where humans are drawn towards more compelling posts regardless of content, the risk of spreading truly harmful disinformation increases. While news can circulate humanity’s resilience to the pandemic-imposed isolation, the frenzy of users searching for answers has resulted in an overwhelming spread of misguided content, including COVID myths, non-medical recommendations, and false political actions – some as bizarre as Putin releasing lions on the streets of Moscow to enforce quarantine rules.

In fact, the World Health Organization has recognized the virus’s effect on the public and consumption of information as a “massive infodemic.” This deluge of disinformation poses not only health risks, but security risks among a growingly skittish population. 

As COVID cases grow, so does the information surrounding the pandemic. Malicious actors have capitalized on users’ search for information on the virus to create phishing attacks and scams. Preying on people’s need and urgency for information, Google’s security systems have detected cybersecurity concerns ranging from fake charities and NGOs, solicitations, to messages trying to mimic internal employer communications. Some cybersecurity threat actors have gone as far as to pose as official government pages and public health agencies. A phishing attack in an attempt to lure personal accounts of U.S government employees through free COVID-19 relief coupons presented yet another new cybersecurity threat and national security concern. A simple email and an inattentive user can compromise personal and sensitive information. Despite craving the need for connection, and the want for resolution, we must be ever vigilant of the information we see online, even if the information can offer a glimpse into a hopeful future. A hopeful future may not necessarily reflect reality.

Tread Lightly With Confidence

Despite its challenges and the ever-present risks they create, there is no question that technology and social media platforms have allowed us to better cope with the pandemic. However, the possibility of this technology extends far beyond our current predicament. These technologies will continue to enhance our experience as humans by strengthening our communication, collaboration, and connection. Whether through a video call or image, the existence of these technologies enables us to build on a more meaningful and authentic social connection – the foundation of our collective human experience – all the more reason for us to collectively work together to outpace the threat actors looking to ruin the experience for us all.