Hindsight 2020: The tech promise comes through, but with hiccups


With the world going into ‘extreme digital’ mode due to the pandemic, the flaws began to show.

In Hindsight 2020, we look at how Covid-19 has rendered this a dystopian year.

In June, a video of Veveonah Mosibin (pic) sitting for her exam on a treetop went viral in not just Malaysia, but even overseas.

The 18-year-old student from Kampung Sapatalang in Pitas, Sabah, did not climb up the langsat tree for a better view or because she wanted to have fun. She needed the elevation to get a better Internet connection so that she could sit for an online examination.

As the Covid-19 pandemic wreaked havoc all around the world, the Internet became even more important in people’s lives than ever before.

In Veveonah’s case, she was preparing and sitting for her exams that were held from June 9-12, with her pre-recorded video uploaded onto YouTube on June 13.

At this time, many cities across the world were in various stages of a lockdown, businesses and offices were closed, campuses and schools were no-go zones, travel and commuting were prohibited, and the only way for many people to connect and continue working or studying was through the Internet.

More meetings and conferences were held online, with the word “webinar” becoming the new normal for a world that was still getting used to social distancing and working from home.

US videoconferencing company Zoom became one of the biggest success stories of the pandemic, with the company recording record revenue growth and the term “Zoom” becoming part of the mainstream lexicon.

The service resonated with most users because they didn’t have to pay anything to make one-to-one video calls and host a group meeting with up to 100 participants, though each such free session was limited to 40 minutes.

Its popularity was also due to the ease of use – once a host initiates a video call, he or she just has to share a link to invite others, and they don’t even need a Zoom account to join in.

However, Zoom’s rise to popularity was accompanied by security issues, which led it to being targeted by hackers and even unsavoury characters.

Other platforms that became commonly used included Google Meet and Microsoft Teams.

Almost everything was now being held online – school and university classes, weddings, funerals, concerts, and even press conferences, with Facebook Live being especially popular for the last, including those conducted by many of our own ministers.

These online meetings were not without their problems, as it took people a while to get used to speaking to someone in a formal setting through the computer monitor or smartphone.

Delays were inevitable, while some people got into trouble as private parts were beamed live all over the world.

Argentinian senator Juan Emilio Ameri was fired after he was caught on YouTube kissing his partner’s breast during a lower house congressional debate, while longtime New Yorker staff writer Jeffrey Toobin was fired after reportedly masturbating during a Zoom call.

Bridging the gap

Meanwhile, here in Malaysia, Veveonah had become an instant social media star, and a rallying call for the government to seriously look into the digital divide between the haves and the have-nots.

Her video, which got millions of hits from around the world, soon became a big political issue with a deputy minister first denying that there was any issue with Internet connectivity, then even doubling down to tell the Dewan Negara that according to his “sources”, Veveonah was a YouTuber who merely wanted fame and that she had not been sitting for any examination.

After backlash from all around, Deputy Communications and Multimedia Minister Datuk Zahidi Zainul Abidin retracted his statement, saying that he had been given the wrong information.

Science, Technology and Innovation Minister Khairy Jamaluddin apologised to Veveonah on behalf of the government, and in September, she and her parents were invited to dinner with Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin.

This whole incident was a turning point of sorts. In August, Muhyiddin announced that a new national digital network called Jalinan Digital Negara (Jendela) would provide 96.9% of populated areas with a 4G mobile broadband network.

The digital infrastructure plan, which will be executed in phases from 2020 to 2022, would also provide a platform for the transition to 5G or Fifth Generation technology in the near future, under the 12th Malaysia Plan (12MP).

And there will be an emphasis on getting Sabah and Sarawak up to Internet speed, with their digital infrastructure to be upgraded.

"The speed of the mobile broadband network will be upped from 25Mbps to 35Mbps, and 7.5 million premises will get fixed broadband access with gigabit speeds.

"This will also involve the end of the 3G network in phases until 2021 to put up 4G as a platform for 5G," Muhyiddin said in his announcement.

To further help out Malaysians deal with the new digital normal, the government through the Penjana initiative provided 1GB of free data daily for productivity and learning.

The data could not be used for gaming, music, video and social media applications such as PUBG Mobile, Spotify, YouTube or Telegram.

And as part of the ePenjana programme, eligible Malaysians were able to redeem e-wallet credits worth RM50 through an e-wallet of their choice.

The tech bro backlash

But this uptick in technology adoption also exposed how dependent societies across the world had become on a few megacorporations. “Big Tech” too became part of the mainstream lexicon. Many of their CEOs increased their wealth during the Covid-19 pandemic, while their workers found it hard to pay their rents or feed their families.

Big Tech held all the cards, and governments began to act.

Various lawsuits were initiated against giants Facebook Inc and Alphabet Inc, Google’s parent company, in the United States and Australia, essentially accusing the companies of illegally protecting monopolies.

In the United States, Texas and nine other states sued Google, accusing it of working with Facebook in an unlawful manner that violated antitrust law to boost its already-dominant online advertising business.

The Texas lawsuit was the second major complaint from regulators against Google and the fourth in a series of federal and state lawsuits aimed at reining in alleged bad behaviour by “Big Tech” platforms that had grown significantly in the past two decades.

Not long after, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) sued Facebook, accusing it of collecting user data without permission.

Australia also tabled laws in its parliament to make Facebook and Google pay media outlets for their news content, in what it says is a move to protect independent journalism.

Now, there’s an idea.

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Hindsight 2020 , Tech

   

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