I do not need to work hard to convince you that many of the Internet-based technology apps out there cannot deliver humans from the ravaging effects of COVID-19. Facebook, Google Hangouts, YouTube, WhatsApp, Twitter, and the thousands upon thousands of apps available in various app stores, cannot directly solve our coronavirus pandemic problem. Not a chance!
This reality obviously serves to give you some perspective as to where these software tools really stand in terms of the provision of the things that really count for our existence on this earth. You look at what is happening in New York, you start thinking that the world is coming to an end. The things that are saving lives from COVID-19 in New York are related to technologies from the first and second industrial revolution. Vaccines, respirators, masks, availability of enough hospital beds, and so on, are the things that count in the age of COVID-19. Basically, the technologies that delivered the caveman from his primitive ways of living are the same ones we are now calling upon to deliver us from COVID-19 in 2020. This distinction between the first and second industrial revolution, on one hand, and the third – mostly Internet based – industrial revolution, on the other, is significant, since we sometimes try to equate their importance. COVID-19 obviously reminds us that we shouldn’t.
Nevertheless, a few software apps do play some import, though not direct lifesaving, roles in the face of COVID-19. Smartphones enable you to keep in touch with family and friends; Ditto Facebook. You can watch YouTube videos to learn about events worldwide – even if you cannot use that to help the COVID-19 situation. WhatsApp allows you to send text and video messages, perhaps to inform and inquire about the welfare of folks. There could be some psychological healing traceable to these capabilities, but the capabilities have not saved the hundreds of lives that are being lost every day to COVID-19.
So, it seems that priorities are being set for us by default of human existence! First is survival, in terms of mortality, which invariably means healing the sick. Second is food and water – soda is luxury. Somewhere in between these is infrastructure, in which I subjectively include shelter, clean water, and electricity. Next, and much further down the road is formal education. You can see that this priority list doesn’t include air travel, hotel accommodation, looking good(!), playing games, watching TV, and so on. It would be nice to be able to do all these other things, but they just aren’t life priorities!
In terms of education, software apps that help us simulate the environment of school are paramount in the age of the COVID-19 lockdown. Since there can’t be in-person class delivery, this invariably calls for the video-conferencing tools, of which there are many options: WebEx, Skype, Google Hangouts, FaceTime, Vimeo, Zoom, and others. Zoom is turning out to be the app of choice. The UK Guardian describes Zoom as “the $29 billion video-call app you’d never heard of until coronavirus.”
Zoom is a product of Zoom Video Communications, which is a Silicon Valley, California, USA based, video communication company that was founded by the Chinese American Eric Yuan in 2011. Note that there are two different “Zoom” companies: the one alluded to above and Zoom Technologies, which is a China-based holding company with stakes in video game developers. It is hilarious that the stocks of the Chinese company have also soared due to investor confusion!
What are the features of Zoom that make it so appealing relatively speaking? This is hard to tell, because I personally don’t see any earth-shattering features that you can’t find in other competing tools; I just know that my institution recommends Zoom. Perhaps because it works in China, while competing tools like Google Meet are blocked in China. The cost of Zoom is reasonably low, and Zoom is fairly easy to use, and is also cross-platform, meaning it is available in Windows, Mac, Linus, iOS, and Android. It is free for unlimited one-to-one calls, as are most of the competing tools. (Skype even allows several people to connect for free.) Zoom has a low cap on the number of people that can connect at once – perhaps a few hundreds. On the other hand, Vimeo, allows you to live-stream to a larger number of people, say 2000, though the instructor can’t see her students over Vimeo, neither can students see each other.
There are some downsides to Zoom. You need to be mindful of the “public” setting, which otherwise allows anyone to gatecrash your video session, and, if your screen sharing feature is not properly set, people can share undesirable contents. The UK Guardian newspaper suggests that one feature of Zoom “allows hosts to tell if guests are looking at a window other than the Zoom chat – perfect for bosses who want to ensure their employees are paying attention, but an unexpected invasion of privacy for many.” There are also reports that the Zoom iOS app “was sending some analytics data to Facebook, even if users did not have a Facebook account.”
The user is more exposed in Zoom relative to competing apps like Google Hangouts or Skype, and the general availability of Zoom in China could represent an added layer of insecurity.