This pandemic is the moment tech giants have been dreaming of – even I’m shoveling my data online
Like most middle-aged people, I’m finding the technological demands of this pandemic to be quite a challenge. I’d happily settled into my online rut, principally a filthy Twitter habit, and then suddenly I’m having to master horizons I’d never even contemplated.
As a belligerent Facebook refusenik, there was no going there, but in order to talk to my family and my neighbours I’ve had to cave in and download WhatsApp. Its opening page proudly reminds me every time that it is ‘from Facebook’, so really, all those years of picturing myself as the Lone Ranger have come to a big fat zero; Zuckerberg and his little hippety-hoppety minion Clegg are now in full possession of my soul. My only compensation is that they’re going to be sorely underwhelmed by what they find there.
At the beginning of the crisis, WhatsApp groups sprung up like digital Dad’s Army brigades, and each with its own distinct personality. We live between two different villages. The WhatsApp group for one, the more agricultural community, is brisk, practical and firmly to the point. The other, for a post-industrial village brought back from the brink by incomer romantics, is sweet, chatty and heavy on the emojis. Its greatest explosion of life so far has been when everyone clubbed together to order a mammoth delivery of organic cheese.
The WhatsApp group for the wider area took itself very seriously indeed. Our small town of two and a half thousand people was divided into colour-coded zones, like post-1945 Berlin, each with a delineated chain of command and accountability. Requests were fired out, orders barked and questions posed as to whether anyone had heard reports from the outlying villages, as if they lay not across a few sweet green fields, but the far side of a smouldering, post-apocalyptic no-man’s-land.
In fairness, marshalling such a large number needed some sharp organisation, and the town group has been brilliant at co-ordinating information leaflets, shopping and support rotas and even the production of PPE for local healthcare workers. There is though the undeniable sensation that its modus operandi comes from blokes who’ve lost large chunks of their life playing World of Warcraft.
It’s a feeling only confirmed in another unwelcome digital intrusion, the Zoom meetings. Oh god, the Zoom meetings. Off he goes again, holding forth into his laptop like it’s the conch of power in Lord of the Flies. How on earth do you keep concentration? Where do you look? It’s bristling with spyware of course, and keeps tabs on who’s paying attention, so you really have to try to maintain some sort of focus. I end up zoning out on the ornaments and pictures in the background, and if that fails, hitting cancel and sending a message that sorry, the internet has crashed again. That this is entirely plausible may be the only upside to crap rural Welsh broadband.
Actually though, sometimes I feel that our eternally terrible broadband may well be our saving grace. This is the time that the tech giants have been dreaming of. Recalcitrant rural grumps like me are swept aside in a headlong rush to greater surveillance – all for our own good, of course. And it’s almost impossible to resist. That age-old drivel – “those with nothing to fear have nothing to hide” – comes newly kitted out in camo fatigues and medals bought on Ebay, clapping loudly on the doorstep for NHS heroes, but still voting for the people that sent them to the frontline unequipped and alone.
Over the last month, almost all of us have shoveled yet more of our data into the arms of the state and the tech multinationals. Be reassured though, by English Health Secretary Matt Hancock, who told us yesterday that “all data will be handled according to the highest ethical and security standards…and we won’t hold it any longer than is needed.”
And for those of us who aren’t so good at reading the small print, and who tick the I Agree box with indecent, guilty haste, he’s even prepared to write it on the side of a bus.
Read more in Mike Parker’s series for Nation.Cymru below: