2021 Special Focus: Considering Viral Technologies: Pandemic-Driven Opportunities and Challenges

Since the beginning of the current crisis, lockdowns, quarantines, and stay-at-home orders have swept across our everyday lives – and at an incredible speed. To keep our societies functional during this time of global pandemic, we have turned increasingly to digital communication tools and networks. Digital technologies protect us from the social exposure to the virus, with tools that facilitate contactless delivery of essential goods, virtual meetings, and cloud services that enable work from home and e-learning delivery. In connecting with business, schools, or government. automated interactions have in many cases replaced even virtual human contact. Digital technologies now know more about us and the virus – from contact tracing that monitors vectors of viral transmission, to big data analytics that track viral spread. Here are some of the key dimensions of these changes, and focal points for this research network:

Technology: Each response has been a viral technological “patch.” Existing tools are used and implemented not only in conventional ways, but also in new and innovative ways. The effect has been an acceleration of key technological trends in areas such as digital payments, tele-health, and online learning, to name a few. We have also seen the legitimization of digital infrastructures to monitor and track populations – from biometrics, to facial recognition, to shared electronic health records.

Knowledge: In the social meaning-making space, “data” has become viral. In debates about the nature of the virus and strategies for social response, we see contestation and doubt around the scientific evidence, differing cultural approaches to community safety, and uncertainties at the interface of culture with national regulatory approaches – all based on differing interpretive frames of knowledge.

Society: We have quickly developed a new shared grammar of “going viral.” This revolves around the geo-spatial nature of the viral flow. On one hand, this addresses the divide between place-based versus online. On the other hand, this raises questions of sociality itself – in-person social distancing versus digital interactions.

In a not yet distant past, going viral was a measure of success in the digital world. This mapped a kind of sociality in digital environments. Now we are in the middle of a different kind of viral technological moment. What might we have “let out of the bag” at these pivot points of Technology, Knowledge, and Society? And looking towards a future supposedly defined by the Fourth Industrial Revolution dominated by technologies of intelligence, what kind world will be left?

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