Over time, Americans will become better at managing life under lockdown, in its varying degrees of severity. But almost all the ways it is made easier will require information technology for their enforcement and manageability. This will bring increased attention to “the digital divide” — the fact that not all Americans have a smartphone or high-speed home internet connection.
First, consider that there is a risk of second and third waves of the virus, and Americans likely will remain fearful for some while to come. One recent study suggested that COVID-19 might remain a force to worry about through 2024. That means some forms of physical distancing will persist, making Americans more dependent on information technology.
Yet according to one estimate, 25 million Americans do not have high-speed internet access, and as many as 14 million have no internet access at all. As of 2019, about 81% of Americans have smartphones, though presumably not all of them have reliable internet service.
Now consider two mostly distinct user groups, students and the elderly. For students, there will be more online classes, even if much face-to-face instruction also resumes. Schools will still wish to minimize the risk imposed on their students, teachers and staff. It almost goes without saying that students need reliable internet connections to do the work for an online class.
As for the elderly, most (and many of the rest of us as well) will prefer or even require grocery delivery for some time to come. Such service is much easier when you can order and pay online rather than by telephone, and even individuals with good internet connections are not always skilled at using every website or app that may be necessary.
Now consider issues beyond specific user groups. The U.S. will almost certainly need to introduce a “track and trace” system, using information technology, preferably with privacy safeguards. One version of this idea uses geolocation methods, which track where people are in physical space and sends individuals a text message if they come into close contact with others diagnosed with COVID-19.
That technology requires participants to have a smartphone. The federal government probably will not mandate smartphone usage, which would be both politically unpopular and difficult to enforce. Nonetheless, businesses are likely to turn to such schemes to increase workplace safety. But again, exactly who already owns or can afford a smartphone? Some of the jobs with the closest physical contact, such as service jobs, employ relatively low-paid workers.
Companies may well decide to help workers buy smartphones, perhaps with government subsidies too. But that would then make having a smartphone a job requirement, including in the retail and public sectors.
This would create a new and in some ways more serious digital divide. Imagine you want to visit your local shopping mall. Its owners might require that you subscribe to one of the COVID-19 tracing apps. Or imagine not being able to get your license renewed without a smartphone certifying your health status.
All of a sudden the U.S. will have a new segregation — between those who have smartphones and those who don’t. If you’re on the wrong side of that divide, many places and services will be hard if not impossible to reach.
I have seen evidence of this happening in my own life, though not in any profound way. Washington and many other U.S. cities already have parking spots that require payment by app. I find them difficult to understand and operate, much preferring the traditional method of putting quarters into the slot.
There are many proposals to reduce America’s digital divide, and they will undoubtedly be the subject of significant debate. Over the last month, millions of Americans have learned how critical a Zoom call can be, for example, for keeping in touch with loved ones or doing their jobs.
But whichever concrete proposal you favor, keep in mind a sad reality: None of these proposals will achieve full “smartphone coverage” anytime soon. Even with government mandates, America does not have a good history of achieving complete participation in anything, whether it be Obamacare or car insurance (about 13% don’t have it).
There may well be policies that meaningfully increase the number of Americans with smartphones. In the meantime, however, there is likely to be even greater discrimination against those who don’t have them. It is plausible that the U.S. could end up with 10% or more of the population exiled from many key institutions of American life — simply because they lack the right kind of technology.
Don’t get me wrong; the digital divide deserves the additional attention soon to come its way. The trick will be ensuring that any proposed solutions don’t just trade one kind of divide for another.