Imagine if the global pandemic had happened in 2005

Smartphone technology was instrumental in helping us work through Covid-19, says BBC Technology Correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones. In an exclusive extract from his new book, he speculates how we would have coped without it

Since March 2020 millions of us have had some of our key assumptions about the way we work challenged and found to be – well, nonsense.

Remote working, we told ourselves, might be fine for a tiny group of software developers or an edgy tech news site, but would never be feasible for a major organisation. Without those watercooler discussions nobody would come up with fresh ideas. Left to their own devices at home, people would laze around watching daytime TV and productivity would plummet.

Instead, workforces in many organisations have shown themselves to be extraordinarily adaptable, quickly finding ways to replicate workflows constructed over years in offices. My organisation, the BBC, is one example. While perhaps one in eight employees had to turn up regularly at New Broadcasting House and other BBC offices to keep live TV programmes on air, the rest of us have mostly been broadcasting pretty effectively from our kitchens, spare bedrooms or garden sheds.

Retreat to my loft

Apart from the odd Christmas and New Year edition, or occasions when we have reported from overseas, my weekly World Service radio programme Tech Tent has been broadcast live from a studio every Friday since 2014. But in March 2020 I retired to my loft in West London, my producer Jat Gill established himself in his living room in St Albans and we quickly fell into a new way of working.

We organised every interview via Zoom but got the people we were interviewing to record themselves on an iPhone or similar so that we could have high quality audio which they emailed to us afterwards.

We would then stage another Zoom meeting to record the whole programme,  with me and my sidekick from the BBC tech team again recording ourselves locally with high quality microphones. Finally,  producer Jat would assemble the different components of the programme on his iPad, cut it to length, mix all the separate tracks to the right levels, and then upload it to the BBC server.

Now, I will not claim that after 15 months of this routine we aren’t getting a little weary of the endless Zooms and eager to see each other in real life. The blurring of the border between work and home, something that has been happening gradually for years, has been accelerated and for many that means juggling family duties while trying to talk to colleagues. Overall, far from being an excuse to skive, I wouldn’t mind betting that remote working has meant plenty of people are putting in more hours for their employer.

Working surprisingly well

But what we and thousands of other teams across all kinds of industries found was that we could make things work surprisingly well. There were even advantages to this new approach – people who worked away from the London headquarters and used to join morning editorial meetings down a crackly phone connection were now just more faces on Zoom, and felt they were at last on an equal footing.

Of course, much of this would have been impossible without the digital technology revolution. When I went up to my lockdown loft in March 2020 it was not just to continue my day job as a broadcaster but to carry on writing my book about the smartphone era, Always On.

The pandemic quickly began to shape the final section of a book which sought to balance the hope and optimism of this period when smartphones and social media changed so many areas of our lives with the fear of what these incredibly powerful and pervasive communications tools were doing to us as a society and individuals.

One day, just a couple of weeks into lockdown, I thought about just how different things might have been if the pandemic had arrived 15 years earlier, before the smartphone era really got going. Here’s an extract from the book:

Exclusive: book extract

From Always On: Hope And Fear In The Social Smartphone Era by Rory Cellan Jones:

Imagine that Covid-19 had been Covid-05, sweeping around the world in 2005. Two years before the launch of the iPhone, most people in the UK and other Western countries had a mobile phone but they were used almost exclusively for talking and texting. Those activities would have certainly boomed during a pandemic but this was the era before apps – so much of what we use our phones for today would not have been possible.

Take social media for instance. The very term would have been greeted with quizzical looks, even though many people were rediscovering old school friends via the British site Friends Reunited, which was bought by ITV in 2005. Facebook was a year old but was still an American college phenomenon, only arriving in UK universities in the autumn of that year. Neither Instagram nor WhatsApp had been invented, let alone Snapchat and TikTok, although YouTube was born that summer, and Twitter would come along the following year.

‘In 2005, Facebook was a year old but was still an American college phenomenon…’

Back then, for just about everyone who was not a Blackberry-toting executive, the internet and email were something to be experienced on an office or home computer rather than on the move. In the UK, about eight million households had a broadband connection, allowing their computers to access the internet at speeds of up to 10 megabits per second, while seven million homes were still crawling along at dial-up speeds. That meant that all sorts of services that were later to prove vital during the lockdown were only just getting off the ground.

While Skype had been started by Swedish entrepreneurs in 2003, it was for cheap internet telephony and video calls would not be added to the service until 2006. In fact, the whole idea of video telephones, first demonstrated at the 1964 World’s Fair, had yet to become a reality – at least for anyone but a few people in businesses able to afford high-end video conferencing services.

No Zooming back then, no communing with friends using apps such as House Party, no office gossip circulating via WhatsApp or Slack or Facebook Messenger or countless other services. As for entertainment, instead of a plethora of online services from Netflix to Spotify to the online gaming platform Twitch, we would have had to get by with good old fashioned broadcast TV and radio, while raiding our collections of CDs and video tapes.

‘Delivering schooling would have been tougher – schools might have put worksheets in the post …’

Without well-developed online learning platforms, and with quite a high proportion of children having neither a computer nor a home broadband connection, delivering schooling would have been even tougher. Schools might have put a few worksheets in the post but making sure homework was completed would have been down to parents.

While shutting down the airlines, most shops and much of the services sector did enormous damage to the economy in 2020, it would have been even worse 15 years earlier. During the coronavirus pandemic,  many people whose work involved commuting to an office found that they could operate at least as effectively from home, a development that is likely to have lasting consequences for patterns of work and transport use.

Maybe that would still have been the case in 2005, but without smartphones, video conferencing  and fast broadband connections it is difficult to see how that would have worked well for many people. It would certainly have been much harder for me to broadcast from my loft or for us to put together an entire radio programme without going into the office.

‘The virus produced a rollercoaster ride between hope in the technology and fear of it …’

As we’ve seen in earlier chapters, we had very quickly become accustomed to the tools of the social smartphone era, even blasé about them and distrustful of the technology giants which provided them. Now we embraced them as never before and tried to make sure elderly relatives had access to them. The debate about the digital divide between young and old, town and country, acquired a new urgency as it became clear that fast broadband was now an essential service – and, according to some, a better destination for public funds than a high speed rail route.

The wave of enthusiasm for digital technology which in the UK had peaked around the time of the London Olympics in 2012 had faded as we grew more and more worried about what smartphones and social media were doing to society and to us as individuals. Now that rollercoaster ride between hope in the technology and fear of it seemed to have taken us on another upwards path as the virus made us fall back in love with it.

Always On: Hope And Fear In The Social Smartphone Era by Rory Cellan-Jones is published by Bloomsbury (2021)

Rory Cellan-Jones is a leading British journalist and Technology Correspondent for BBC News
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