COVID-19 and Its Momentous Impact on Technology

COVID-19 and Its Momentous Impact on Technology

COVID-19, the deadly disease also known as the Coronavirus Disease 2019, emerged in late December 2019 out of Wuhan, China, spreading throughout every country on the planet, infecting millions of people and killing those who were unlucky, underprivileged, and/or careless. As of June 23rd, 2021, 178.5 million cases have been reported many worldwide, with 2.1% of those counting towards the 3.9 million death toll.

COVID-19 had a massive impact on all of our lives- every aspect of them. We were advised by health officials to stay inside and quarantine, staying six feet away from each other wearing masks if we absolutely had to go outside of our houses to get essential goods. The state of world pandemic was granted on March 11th, 2020, more or less around the time school districts finally had the idea to suspend in-person school and host online classes. This lead to a massive panic worldwide, with a large amount of people stocking up on food, water, toilet paper, and other seemingly scarce goods.

Being confined within the boundaries of your own house without the countenance to hang out with friends or go to a restaurant is not at all fun, and many of us found the extra time on hand that we’d gotten being used on other things. Whether this would be finding a new hobby, cleaning the house, finding a way to improve yourself, or whatever, only what I’d assume to be the majority of people used technology as a means to entertain, educate, or otherwise spend their time. Scrolling Twitter or Instagram, playing video games on a game console, watching shows and movies on a TV, and surfing the web on a computer are all things that gained a significant increase in interest since the virus hit, and it’s no secret to why that is. Electronic devices have gotten so smart these days, with all shared human knowledge on hand with just a few simple gestures on a phone or computer. Why wouldn’t you want to want to use them with the absurd amount of extra time?

PCs & Video Game Consoles

An Xbox controller next to a PlayStation controller.

Impact on corporations

Undoubtedly, a large portion of people turned to entertainment in the form of video games, whether that is on a gaming computer, console, handheld device, or whatever else. Gaming has long been a pastime of many people worldwide, with an estimated 35.9% of the world population listed by Statista as people who like to play video games. Video game statistics site VGChartz has plotted total and monthly sales of the Sony PlayStation 4, Microsoft Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch, detailing the monthly sales of each console worldwide. Monthly sales seem to hit a spike every holiday season, but remain rather mundane for every part of the year that isn’t November or December… except this only seems to apply to years 2017, 2018, and 2019. Once the pandemic hit around March of 2020, sales for all three consoles hit a spike. Microsoft’s Xbox hit around 500,000 sales in that month, while Sony’s PlayStation cruised to nearly 1.5 million sales. Nintendo’s Switch saw the greatest increase in consumer interest, with a sizable 2.5 million sales, between two and five times as much as previous months.

However, it doesn’t end there. While the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One saw a gradual decline into the summer months and up until November, the Switch saw a massive increase in sales during the months of September and October, with 6 million sales in those two months combined. Twitter user ZhugeEX has also reported that 2020 was the most profitable year, seeing over $16.5 billion worth of sales throughout their company. This new high has not been seen since fiscal years 2008 & 2009, times at which the Wii saw a quick and immediate large increase in sales.

Impact on consumers

The amount of time people have spent gaming has also increased substantially; North America had the smallest (albeit not very small) increase of 15%, while Latin American countries had a massive increase of 52% as a result of COVID-19. The global average was 39%. While it may not seem like a lot, it’s the difference between 8 hours of gaming a week and 11.1- resulting in nearly an extra half hour every day of a little over an hour of gaming. Time spent commuting to and from work or school, eating out, hanging out with friends, shopping, and other activities, is no longer needed, contributing to the extra time spent gaming; it’s an easy task that doesn’t take much effort to start and is hard to put down as it is easily addictive to some.

However, there are definitely people that weren’t affected a lot, if at all. Many people whose jobs already required or recommended them to work from home, those who don’t eat or go out often at all, and dare I say, people who don’t have many friends or much of a social life had less of an impact when compared to those who lived busier lives. Many people have even called the lockdown a blessing, citing health and safety concerns as a reason to stay home and utilizing it as a justification to stay inside and do whatever. Whether or not it’s ethical to use the current situation to one’s advantage is up to interpretation, but it makes sense to many people, making for a common excuse.

Movies and TV

A person holding a TV remote in front of their TV with Netflix.

Movies and television shows have experienced a trade-off as a result of COVID-19. While most movie theater locations have closed down (rightfully, the proximity of moviegoers in seats is frightening), many people have resorted to streaming services, with many media companies launching their own within the lockdown’s timespan. Netflix, as the most popular streaming service, saw a 27% spike in stock price once COVID-19 was declared as a international emergency. Between the end of Q4 of 2019 and the end of Q1 of 2020, Netflix’s userbase jumped almost 10% from 167 million to nearly 183 million.

Consequently, the amount of hours the average household has spent streaming on these services has skyrocketed. The amount of hours the average American household spent streaming in January 2020 was 374– around 12.5 hours a day split between each family member. While it sounds like a lot, in April, that figure nearly doubled to 724- over 24 hours per day split between each family member. During April, nearly half of all surveyed adults owned a Netflix subscription (or at least hopped onto a friend’s). Around 42% had an Amazon Prime Video subscription, 30% had Hulu, 23% with Disney+, 15% with Apple TV+, and so on. These numbers hit a peak in April, but started to decline slowly afterwards, plateauing for a while during the summer. Hopefully these numbers will go to rest once fall 2021 comes around.

New streaming services… were they a hit?

Many new streaming services popped up during the pandemic to take advantage of the absurd amount of time most people had on hand at home. Comcast’s Peacock, AT&T’s HBO Max, and Discovery’s Discovery+, along with a few others, popped up during the pandemic. Peacock, released in July 2020, currently has 42 million subscribers. Owned by media giant and god-awful internet service provider Comcast/NBC/Universal, Peacock blew up partially due to the large amount of concurrent Comcast Xfinity internet subscribers hopping onto the service. The free, ad-supported tier not present in larger streaming services like Netflix or Amazon Prime Video is also an attractive feature that allured many customers into a subscription.

HBO Max is another streaming service that has garnered a lot of public attention at release with a long history of hype. HBO, owned by WarnerMedia, has many existing Warner Bros. titles as well as new ones, with releases like the Space Jam remake, the Suicide Squad sequel, and the fourth Matrix film lining up until the end of the year. While popular, HBO Max sits at a heavy $14.99 per month, more expensive than pretty much any other popular service. For comparison, Netflix’s base tier sits at $8.99, Prime Video either $5.49 or $12.99 (depending on whether the user has a Prime Student subscription), Disney+ at $7.99, Hulu’s base tier at $5.99, and Peacock’s base tier at $4.99. While there is an ad-supported option for people who are willing to watch ads sitting at $9.99, there are many people that cannot stand them and end up either paying the full $14.99 or choosing a different service. Of course, the choice is based on what you want to watch and your perception of value. Being the seventh most popular streaming service worldwide and the most popular service to release since 2020, HBO Max has garnered a 44.2 million subscriber base, so they have to be doing something right, right?

Social Media

A man holding out his phone in New York City.

Social media is perhaps one of the laziest forms of entertainment- even taking lower effort than playing video games or watching a TV show. Just a few clicks can get you scrolling for hours on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, TikTok, or whatever it may be. While scrolling for the entire day can be the bane of productivity, many people rely on social media to get in touch with family members or friends they can’t reach because of the current climate.

Sites and apps that encourage talking to other people or posting about yourself online have seen a large spike in usage since COVID-19 hit, and it’s not really surprising at all. Statistics site Smart Insights has found that between January 2020 and January 2021, users of social media have jumped from 3.6 billion to 4.2 billion, jumping over 13% and encompassing over half of the world population. Out of the 333 million people residing in America, around 263 million or 79% have a social media profile.

Usage of social media and phones

However, many people have had social media profiles or used social media apps or websites prior to COVID-19 enforcing a lockdown. A more accurate measure that would exhibit a more noticeable change is the amount of time we spend on our devices. According to AppAnnie, the worldwide total monthly time spent on mobile devices between Q2 of 2019 and Q2 of 2020 went from around 140 billion hours to nearly 200 billion hours, yielding a nearly 43% increase in usage. Between Q1 and Q2 of 2020 saw the biggest change of around 30 billion hours (18%) as it was the timeframe which included when the lockdown hit. Using the previously noted 4.2 billion users, each user is estimated to have spent around 47 hours on their phone per month- a little more than an hour and a half daily.

Public Interest in COVID-19

Google Search's COVID-19 interest chart.
The search term “coronavirus” on Google Trends.

However, social media has been used for stuff other than catching up with friends and family or mindlessly scrolling post after post. When people hear of something new, especially something that is affecting the world as widely and extreme as the coronavirus, naturally, they Google it or go on Twitter or news sites to find out the latest of what’s going on.

Many people relied on the trusty search engine to tell them what was going on, with a few searches popping up in late January and early February, eventually rising to a full blown spike once the state of emergency was declared on March 13th, 2020. Twitter users also brought COVID-19 trending numerous times throughout the month of March, with it appearing as #1 for four days straight between March 12th and 17th.

The US government has also noted that there has been a nearly fivefold increase in the visits to government health websites such as the ones for the Center for Disease Control (CDC), National Institutes of Health (NIH), or World Health Organization (WHO). Around the start of 2020, in the first week of January, around 8 million people visited those three sites, while this number inflated to 45.8 million between March 9th and March 15th. Similar effects, albeit less prominently, were seen on news websites and online retailers due to their connection with the virus.

Remote Work and School

A MacBook with a Zoom meeting, a popular software used for remote meetings during COVID-19.

On the less fun and exciting side is the work part of life that was also disoriented by the coronavirus. While some employers and their employees were equipped and ready for a disaster like this, with previously established remote conference setups, many were not. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that around 22 million people were laid off within the first four weeks of the COVID-19 emergency being declared, leading in a massive jump from a historically low under 4% to nearly 15%- a number it hasn’t hit for nearly 90 years during the midst of the Great Depression. Many people who owned small businesses were forced to close shop, with social distancing making a lot of storefronts empty and without business.

Zoom, Google Meet, Microsoft Teams, Cisco Webex, and Other Remote Video Conference Software

Those who had been ready for the pandemic, some of whom already had a way to communicate or worked from home previously, did not receive nearly as big, if at any impact. Employees from these companies may have already been fully remote and were completely comfortable to work from a home setting. Video conferencing software became a very big trend, with popular software company Zoom Video Communications having stock prices rise nearly 400% between the start of the pandemic and mid-October, when school and work was in full spring. Other video conferencing software was also used, with popular ones being Cisco Webex, Google Meet, and Microsoft Teams.

All four pieces of software saw a massive and rapid growth spike during the month of March 2020. Webex grew nearly 500% from the start of March to the end, Google Meet saw a 30-fold increase between March 1st and May 1st, and Microsoft Teams saw a 350% increase between March of 2020 and April of 2021.

Zoom saw the biggest increase in usage; in Q4 2020, around 101 billion minutes or around 70.1 million days of online meetings were held. In Q1 of 2021, this number increased to 2.6 trillion minutes (~1.8 billion days)- a 2474% increase in just that small amount of time. Zoom Video Communications also received a large increase in revenue; between Q4 2020 and Q4 2021 was an increase of 369% from around $188 million to $882 million in quarterly revenue.

Google Classroom

Many schools worldwide who went remote had to find a platform on which to host virtual classrooms to much more effectively manage student work, grades, and class materials. Tech conglomerate Google’s Classroom application had the highest usage in schools and was by far the most popular. Students could enroll in classrooms, giving them access to all class information, materials, assignments, posts, and much more. The added integration with Google Meet, G-Suite, and Google Calendar makes the classroom ecosystem much more universal than many competitors. Overall, the amount of intuitiveness, familiarity, and efficiency that Google Classroom provides makes it a seemingly obvious choice for many schools worldwide if they have the option. The NICCS has seen a massive increase in usage for Google Classroom, with daily sessions doubling from a little over 2 million to around 4.5 million between March 1st and April 1st, 2020.

However, Classroom has not only been used by itself as a virtual classroom software, but also as a medium for signing into third-party applications. Many existing sites have log-in pages that allow sign-in with Google, Facebook, and Apple accounts- this being a convenient way to create an account and sign in for many people who already have accounts with these big companies and can’t be bothered to create an individual one with the specific platform they are creating an account on. A large amount of educational tools like Quizlet allow Google Classroom as a means to sign in, and saw a massive spike in usage due to the popularity of Google Classroom.

Effect of distance learning on students and faculty

A man sitting on a ledge pondering something.

While using software like Zoom to video call and Google Classroom to assign and keep track of work make distance learning possible, there are an innumerable amount of difficulties that inherently comes with trying to do something like remote learning. Mental health being affected by lack of social life and going outside among other issues is arguably the biggest problem. A lot of students, especially ones with special needs, can’t be expected to learn at full ability with the current situation, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic is the first of its kind for everybody involved. Many students, namely younger ones, are incapable of working with technology and have found the transition from paper assignments to online ones particularly harsh. A Chapman University study has shown that over 60% of respondents shared that they were feeling stressed or anxious, an obviously integral part of how people perform in work or school environments.

COVID-19’s Effect on Academic Environment

Mental health is super important and impacts all other areas of life in a lot of cases- whether that be positive or negative. Of course, being cooped up in your house or apartment all the time with limited social interactions and freedom affects most people’s mental health in a negative way, causing a lot of things to suffer. Academic performance is one of those things that people tend to worry about a lot, since it’s believed to be a large determinant in how successful you are in life. A survey conducted at the University of Colorado Boulder showed that many participants thought the COVID-19 pandemic had affected their academic life negatively; 58% of participants said that they “strongly agreed” while around 36% said that they “agreed”. 6% of respondents said that there was no effect, and zero respondents thought that COVID-19 had affected their learning environment in a positive way.

Cheating and Academic Dishonesty

One large concern about distance learning is the amount of cheating that is made possible by having students do assignments and take tests online on a personal device. A report of academic integrity violations at the University of Pennsylvania showed that between the academic years of 2018-19 and 2019-20, a 72% increase in reported “cheating” was recorded. The University of Waterloo did a similar experiment and saw even worse results- between the same two academic years, cheating had increased 146%, exam rules violation increased 489%, and use of “unauthorized aids” increased a massive 549%. There can be a multitude of reasons why a student would cheat: Amanda McKenzie, a director of quality assurance for academics at the University of Waterloo noted that many students had been experiencing problems in their personal lives due to the pandemic, leading them to want to ease their lives by taking off some pressure in the academics department.

Of course, since online proctored tests have existed prior to the pandemic, many schools and companies have prepared for remote test-taking. While some high school teachers just ask their students to turn their cameras on and work, other teachers and professors at other and/or higher-level institutions have students be proctored one-on-one. With some companies that offer proctoring services like ProctorU or Examity, students have to show their entire workspace and student identification prior to taking the test and are required to keep their microphone and camera on during the duration of the test while sharing their screen over video conference software. Rules like not being able to take your eyes off the screen and no talking and being in a completely silent and empty room are also in full enforcement with the 1-on-1 environment that is being imposed on the student while they take the test.

Non-proctored tests aren’t that much better. Many schools are forcing students to download purported “school malware” like Respondus, essentially locking down the student’s personal computer and putting it in a confined environment while the student takes the test. Respondus allegedly changes a lot of registry settings on Windows devices, but is very poorly created and ends up not changing them back after the test is completed or even when uninstalled. Many students have tried running the software in a virtual machine- while this isn’t supposed to be possible, a bit of modification can bypass the VM detection.

While all of this seems very invasive and can put students in a stressful environment, proctoring like this is needed to prevent cheating. Important tests like CollegeBoard’s AP tests- tests which decide if you get to earn college credit and save money- had the choice of being taken at home digitally in the 2020-2021 academic year. Due to the immense amount of students taking these tests and the vast shortage of proctors and lack of resources, students were forced to use software instead of being proctored. This made it very easy to cheat or otherwise prove academically dishonest, potentially leading to problems like grade inflation and cancelling of scores and a ban from CollegeBoard if caught.

While it took longer than it should have to get rid of the virus and bring life back to normal, hopefully, some students should be able to adjust at least partially back to normal in time for college applications.

Online Shopping and Delivery

A package left at the front door of an apartment.

With federal and statewide restrictions being put in place limiting the amount of people able to eat at restaurants or stop at stores, many brick-and-mortar stores have gone out of business or at least taken a big hit in revenue or popularity. Many small businesses have been completely taken out by COVID-19, and many medium-sized restaurants and stores have also been forced to close down locations due to financial instability. One way to purchase items, however, has not been impacted negatively- rather, it has seen quite an uptick in popularity. Online shopping from sites like Amazon or eBay and online delivery from services like DoorDash and Postmates have seen a massive increase in usage due to people not wanting to go outside because of lockdown restrictions, health concerns, and other reasons.

Online Delivery

Amazon is probably the first company that comes to mind when you think of “online delivery”. Founded in 1994, founder and current CEO Jeff Bezos has slowly brought up an empire of online services, the most prominent one being Amazon.com, a multinational (well, technically, other countries’ Amazons aren’t Amazon.com) web storefront comprised of hundreds of millions of products with nearly 200 million unique users per month- counting for 38.7% of the US market share.

An Amazon Prime semitruck atop a bridge, presumably delivering goods during COVID-19.

Being the large company that it is, Amazon has put a lot of money and effort towards improving the delivery part of their company. Fulfillment centers and warehouses across the country store millions of products, whether they be first-party or third-party. The sheer amount of fulfillment centers and warehouses that are plotted around the country allows Amazon a very big advantage over competitors, and due to this, Amazon Prime subscribers have very fast shipping options- 2 day is what they advertise as a minimum, but some areas (ones closer to fulfillment centers) are eligible for one-day or even same-day shipping. While not every fulfillment center is going to have every product on the Amazon catalog, shipping between fulfillment centers is usually pretty quick.

Amazon’s large selection of products and efficient delivery methods prove effective when you look at sales statistics. Nearly $70 billion worth of products were sold in North America in Q4 of 2020 alone. However, the pandemic hasn’t been great for only Amazon- second most popular retailer Walmart also has an online storefront in addition to their brick-and-mortar stores. While Walmart only owns 5.3% of the US eCommerce market share, Q2 of 2021 in Walmart’s eCommerce department has seen a 97% increase compared to the previous fiscal quarter, with a yearly revenue amounting $43 billion in fiscal year 2021. However, the large majority of revenue is still from in-store purchases.

Third in line is eBay, a storefront known more for its individual-run used marketplace, with around 4.7% of the US eCommerce market share. While Amazon and Walmart usually sell brand new products, eBay has a marketplace that is largely comprised of used, for-parts, and refurbished products. With COVID-19 being easily transmittable via mediums like used items and able to survive on surfaces for nearly a month, people may have a preference for new products as opposed to used ones. eBay did not see a sizeable increase in revenue or sales; in fact, it actually saw a decrease of around $1.7 billion between 2019 and 2020. Sellers also had to take a multitude of precautions to prevent spread of COVID-19, possibly reducing the amount of products put up for sale on the platform.

Payment Systems & Credit Card Companies

Besides paying by cash or card, in recent years, many online payment methods and processors have popped up. Companies like PayPal, Stripe, and Square exist to make the means of paying for a product or service easier. These companies, using the power of technology against older payment methods like cash, checks, or even physical credit cards, have increased in popularity within the past few years, and especially during the pandemic. Online payment processor Stripe has become a very popular way to pay for online products, with global payment volume growing 35-fold from $10 billion to $350 billion between 2015 and 2020.

Apps like PayPal, Cash App, Venmo, and Zelle offer a way to pay not only businesses, but friends and family as well. Usage of these apps during the pandemic as a no-touch solution of transferring money has increased a hefty 10.7% between March and May 2020. The amount of users of these services has gone up quite a bit from 40 million in 2013 to 126 million in 2020.

Among peer-to-peer money transfer apps and business payment methods are payment systems created by big tech corporations providing an easier way to use a credit card, debit card, or bank account balance with the usage of an integrated app. Most notable are Apple Pay, Samsung Pay, and Google Pay, all of which can use the NFC capabilities in a smartphone to make contactless payments without whipping out a credit card- since it’s possible to save a library of credit cards, debit cards, bank accounts, and other sources of money to your phone.

What COVID-19 Means for the Future of Tech

A map of the world with COVID-19 cases labeled in red.

Many industries, companies, and people were rocked hard from the pandemic; it was the first major pandemic in which computers, phones, and social media has existed, with the last pandemic of this magnitude being the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918. The vast amount of connectivity has been a very big double-edged sword: while many used it to keep in contact with loved ones or entertain themselves during the lockdown or get information from the government to best protect themselves from the virus, many used it to spread misinformation or deliberately attempt to harm others in some way.

COVID-19 has no doubt been impacted pretty heavily by technology- I wouldn’t be able to imagine what it’d be like without our devices. However, is the converse also true? Has technology been heavily impacted by COVID-19, and will it continue to experience effects from the pandemic? Of course, there are the short term effects that will occur when we all go back to work or school in person. The immediate decrease in entertainment and laziness and increase in productivity may take a bit getting used to.

In the long term, I don’t think that COVID-19 will really have an effect on the technology industry itself, but rather serve as a reminder about how we handled it, and how technology took place in the pandemic, for whatever we used it for. The usage of COVID-19 as a political tool for both parties in the US would not be possible without Facebook or Twitter or whatever platforms political extremists seem to take. COVID-19 saw attention to far-right social media platform Parler, accused for hosting large amounts of conservative Trump-related media and allowing users to conspire the siege on the U.S. Capitol. COVID was even seen as a conspiracy theory by many less educated and/or right-leaning people, another problem also amplified by the ease of use of social media. Anti-Asian sentiment, which spiked due to COVID-19 and its country of origin, was documented online with no real recourse. Hopefully the existence of COVID-19 and its impact on technology doesn’t go unnoticed. While it may not seem like it has had much effect on a civilization so advanced, we should be reminded of the moral consequences and implications that the pandemic came with.

Special thanks to Elena Mozhvilo, Kamil S, freestocks, Jakob Owens, Chris Montgomery, whoislimos, Dan Dennis, David Ballew, and Martin Sanchez on Unsplash for their stock imagery, in respective order.