Last Week on my Mac: Making the most of technology

Yesterday, for the first time in more than three months, we sat down with most of our family at our local pub and enjoyed a meal together – something which, until late March, we had done every week since our children were little. This made me reflect on how today’s technology, in the form of Macs, iPhones, and the rest, has changed people’s lives during this pandemic.

For those fortunate enough to remain employed, it has provided the opportunity to work remotely. When I was an employee, working from home was a privilege seldom granted. It’s amazing the excuses that were constructed: your home will need a health and safety inspection; we’ll have to get a security visit arranged; no we can’t discuss that by email/phone and will have to meet. It’s been equally amazing how quickly these barriers were cleared out of the way when employers had little choice. I’ve also been surprised at how many have taken to using Zoom, despite its history of security issues, but that’s a story for another time, maybe.

For those locked down in their homes, computers and devices have been a godsend for occupying children and adults alike. What few have considered is whether they really helped us survive enforced isolation, and whether we have benefitted from them in the long run. I fancy for many it was more a matter of coping with the stresses of the moment, and in a few months time that period will be but a blur in which there were few real achievements other than getting to the end of it in one piece.

Online shopping has certainly been a boon, and has done great favours to many online retailers. But over those last three months, many shops and stores which weren’t ready, or whose business depended on the customer coming into contact with products, have closed for the last time. As we start venturing out into the remaining shops, we’re seeing the attrition that has taken place in our towns and malls. Those specialists who knew exactly what to recommend, whose family businesses had been trading perhaps for fifty or a hundred years, have gone forever.

Things you might have expected to change usually haven’t.

Covid-19 has proved well nigh impossible to diagnose with any confidence without performing a lab test. Enthusiasts of artificial intelligence are still trying their ‘deep learning’ on this one, but the fact is that so many who have active infection, to the point where they’re spreading the virus, have few if any symptoms, which are generally non-specific. Any app which claims to be able to tell whether or not you have Covid-19 is telling fibs most of the time. AI might have more to offer for interpreting chest X-rays and scans, but well-trained humans can already do that themselves.

If our computers and devices can’t help tell when we might be infected and infectious, the next best thing they could have done was to enable early reporting and the identification of outbreaks. Here again the general evidence is of abject failure. Most public health reporting systems have been poorly designed to the point where they’ve been bodged as they’ve gone along, making it almost impossible to compare data between one week and the next.

The UK has been a prime example. Test results from patients have been divided between two ‘pillars’, each of which has had an unknown number of non-clinical screening tests added to it. One pillar has been carefully checked to ensure that results weren’t duplicated, and each has been allocated to a local area. The other had neither such checks, and positives were attributed to the whole country without any locational detail. This started to affect data interpretation back in April, and has only just (in July) been fixed. It had been recognised that some positive test results were duplicated, leading to overestimates of the total number of cases. When these were checked thoroughly, the total number of cases has been reduced by almost 30,000 – that’s 10% of all cases.

The UK isn’t alone. Watch US state reporting, and that to WHO, and you’ll see extensive evidence of the chaos that most reporting systems are in, with large adjustments when previous errors are discovered, and countries reporting zero cases for a day or two while they catch up with backlogs. In many instances, no one will ever know accurate figures.

Another great hope for smartphones was their use in contact tracing. If you’ve been following the painful and costly saga of the UK’s efforts in my articles here, you’ll have understood how badly that went wrong. Although critics here like to shame our government, take a look at the situation in the USA where there’s no co-ordinated national tracing app, and only 4 of 50 states seem interested in adopting their own. Even in Germany, one of the few countries to have a working app which respects personal privacy, adoption has been slow – sufficient to make a difference, but less than had been hoped for by those modelling its potential.

Perhaps the most enduring success of today’s technology, as I experienced when we went out for lunch yesterday, is the number of pubs and restaurants who now have apps providing their menu and taking orders. That’s probably because it’s nothing to do with government.

If a survivor of the 1918 influenza pandemic were to hear of how we’ve squandered all these opportunities, wouldn’t they be shocked at how little we’ve learned over the last century?