We are always walking into the unknown. While this fact is often obscured by the regular rhythms of everyday life, it sometimes becomes disconcertingly plain to us that we do not know what tomorrow will bring. It is clear that we are now living through such a time, as nations struggle to manage the pandemic that has swept across the globe in the last few weeks.
Suddenly, we live in what feels like interrupted time. Our regular schedules are scrambled beyond recognition. We struggle to find new rhythms as our old ones are disrupted. Time itself seems to warp unpredictably. Our present crisis, however, also gives us an opportunity to reconsider our old habits and practices, or what we used to call “normal.” Perhaps many of us will recognize that we could have done a better job ordering our days and structuring our time. Most of us are sure to take some lesson from the unprecedented and prolonged disruption of everyday life, and it will be good for us to have done so.
We might especially take the opportunity to rethink our relationship to digital media. Over the past few years, there’s been mounting concern about the place of digital technology in our lives. Thanks to mobile devices and nearly ubiquitous access to wireless networks, the internet has gone from being a place we occasionally visited on our desktop computers to an ever-present reality weaving its way through almost every conceivable dimension of human experience. As digital media has enveloped our lives, it has raised a host of moral, legal, philosophical, and even theological questions regarding the nature of privacy, the health of civil society, the value of human labor, the status of artificially intelligent machines, and the conditions for human flourishing.
Under intense and justified pressure to remain physically distant from one another, most of us are now turning to digital tools in order to remain connected and to carry on with as much of the business of everyday life as possible. We would do well under these circumstances to think carefully about what these tools can and cannot do for us and how we might use them wisely and creatively during a time of uncertainty and anxiety.
In the coming weeks and months, there will be a heated debate about the deployment of the digital surveillance apparatus—much of it already in place in our apps and devices—to track, monitor, and contain the spread of COVID-19. While that will be a critical debate worthy of our attention, I will focus on the more prosaic uses of digital technology in our time of crisis. Specifically, most of us will turn to digital technology, even more than usual, in order to stay informed and to stay connected.
During a health crisis, it is crucial that we have access to the best information possible so that we can care for ourselves, our families, and our communities. By one measure, digital technology presents us with an embarrassment of riches in this regard. With minimal effort, we can keep up with the work of leading epidemiologists, virologists, and public health experts all over the globe. We can also follow national and international health organizations and local health and emergency management officials. But we know, too, that we can just as easily encounter misinformation, some of it potentially dangerous to both the health of our bodies and the health of society. As I write these words, health officials are warning of the dangers of experimenting with unproven drugs and therapies that some are now turning to in panicked desperation. It doesn’t take very much work, either, to encounter unfounded theories about the origins of the virus or to encounter, more likely, others who are downplaying its deadly consequences.
The need to wisely navigate this information landscape is nothing new. Digital communication tools have always presented users with the risk of encountering misleading and even dangerous information. A pandemic only heightens the need for discernment. But the digital media environment presents us with other risks as well. Even if we were careful to limit ourselves to sound and responsible sources of information, we might still end up with a disordered relationship to information technology.
Many of us may now find ourselves obsessively checking our news feeds for the latest available information, perhaps unable to turn away in the same way that we talk about not being able to turn away from a train wreck. Social media in particular has been designed to induce just such a state of compulsive engagement even in ordinary times. The danger is now more acute as we all try to find our way without a reliable map. But our desire to stay as well informed as possible may also paralyze or emotionally overwhelm us.