Digital communication was supposed to be a world-altering force of liberation, freeing people from the limitations of time and space, and leading them towards a millennial land overflowing with remedies and solutions. To some extent, the evangelists spoke truth, and technology did confer hitherto unimaginable capabilities upon people, institutions, corporations and nations. But the present lockdown has revealed that technology cannot live up to the expectations generated — it cannot be a complete solution because of differential access, and because digital processes include physical steps that cannot be bypassed.
The digital divide, of which the world was painfully aware already, has been underscored yet again. The well-off appear to enjoy access to better sources of information, which is the most reliable armour available against the threat. Schooling has moved online, and the devices and bandwidth that students’ families can afford obviously make a difference. Speed differentials between town and country may be imposing yet another divide. Since the virus will be with us for some time, and some restrictions on movement may outlive the current lockdown, the effects could persist and influence the life prospects of many children. But these are known truths. The great myth that the lockdown has dented is one developed over two decades of techno-evangelism — that being digital is a complete solution, making old processes redundant and replacing them with shiny new digital tools.
It is now obvious that digital technology makes some things run smoother, but it cannot replace old protocols completely. E-tailing, which was expected to wipe out the corner store, is at a standstill because it is still dependent on physical transport for delivery. And corner stores are seeing empty shelves because though they are supplied by trucks bearing RFID chips to smooth the way, these are rendered meaningless if state or district borders are closed to traffic. There were anxieties about job losses due to increasing automation of factory production lines, but they have had to shut down because there are still far too many people on the shop floor. Digital transactions were promoted by the government and, while it is an excellent route for paying recurring bills, the grocer still prefers cash, which necessitates a trip to the ATM. Even in online school education, which is relatively successful, paper has turned out to be essential, but the stationery shops are closed. Digital India can only take us so far. The rest of the way remains to be covered.
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