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Coronavirus is testing the tech sector to its breaking point


Welcome to the new normal. As the coronavirus spreads across the world, and governments advise social distancing, tech firms around the globe are shutting their offices and sending staff home. 

“We are taking the steps needed to prioritize the well-being of our employees, our extended workforce, and the communities where they live, including reducing in-office staffing in certain sites,” said YouTube in a statement. Facebook sent home its staff, including contractors working on content moderation, which has caused issues.

It’ll be an enormous test to see how much of the promise from the tech industry has been overblown hype, and how much is actually backed up by reality.

Stress-testing the dream

For years, tech companies have been reassuring the world about the primacy of their artificial intelligence systems, their algorithms, and their systems. “We believe the investments we’ve made over the past three years have prepared us for this situation,” Facebook explained. But they still employ thousands, and until the advent of the virus, corralled them in Silicon Valley campuses and offices around the world. 

The big test we’re about to find out is whether the dream that the tech sector has been selling us – that everything can be an app, remote working can be achievable for all, and that on-demand services can provide us with everything we’d need – is real, or just a fiction.

The initial findings are not promising: an anti-spam filter Facebook is now relying on wholly in order to moderate posts has been throwing up thousands of false positives, stopping people sharing legitimate news stories and advice about the coronavirus. And YouTube has already warned its users that there will be overly draconian errors in its moderation system, but it will work to remedy it.

It’s not just whether we’ll be able to move to a digital economy and society in the way that the tech sector has promised that is up for question at the minute. Those tech firms themselves will be relying on the communication products they’ve developed to try and keep their companies running. 

Whether that’s internal messaging systems that will suddenly be stretched on the basis of in-house employees now literally working from their homes, or third-party tools like Slack or Microsoft Teams that will be challenged from the increased demand by tech firms moving to remote working, this could be tech’s biggest test.

We’ve been told for years by technology companies that it’s possible to seamlessly transition from offline to online working. And while those working for tech companies are more likely than the average person on the street to be able to adapt to digital working practices because of their proximity to and history with the products, there are still questions as to how much of the bright new digital future we were sold is based in reality, and how much is hype.

The impact on smaller businesses

The giant global tech firms aren’t the only ones who will be tested by the coronavirus. Small start-ups are often the crucible of development and innovation, bootstrapping themselves to scale before being bought out or subsumed into the larger companies. 

They’re the ones who will struggle the most to scramble to work remotely, and to keep their employees paid, while battling to develop products or services that are unlikely to be bought by a population worrying about their next paycheck.

For small companies who are used to working in close proximity, moving to remote working will be an enormous challenge. 

The “move fast and break things” mantra that has dominated the tech sector doesn’t necessarily work for these trying times – and is much harder to do when you’re unable to rapidly iterate changes, quickly test them, and discuss their impact face-to-face.

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