Connected across Distance

I’ve recently seen television segments air on news channels that were clearly recorded before the pandemic, but broadcast after, with people happily mingling together and discussing things which no longer seem to matter. While I’m as tired as anyone of the fact that the news has become nearly-24/7 COVID-19, I do find myself feeling partly offended by these portals into a different world (how dare they cheerily show me this reality which no longer exists?) I then find myself wondering if these things will once again matter, one day. As I’m sure many of us are, I know that things will be forever changed by this pandemic, but it’s still unclear how far those changes will go. To what extent will the previous order be transformed, and what has merely been suspended?

I ask this question as I edit a book manuscript that was written before the pandemic, and which will hopefully be published at a time when we have some answers to the above. What of Canadian telecom policy? What of the Canadian telecom industry? How will all of this change what we think about our intermediaries, how they are governed, and how they conduct themselves?

The telecom industry is among the more fortunate ones, given how essential this infrastructure is to anything else that is still operating. Being essential has other consequences however; right now voluntary actions by telecom companies have forestalled additional regulation, but this may not be enough in the medium-term. Wireless companies have suspended data caps, TELUS is giving students in Alberta and BC a deep discount, and no ISP wants to be in the news for disconnecting someone who is cash-strapped and under quarantine, but will government need to step in to guarantee some sort of connectivity safety net? Then there is the ongoing discussion over the role of telecom data for pandemic surveillance, and whether this can serve as a foundation for what ‘normal’ might look like several months from now.

Could the changes be even more fundamental? All of this presumes that capitalism will survive, that the political economy of telecom will largely be preserved, that various foundations of social order will be maintained. What I’m hoping we realize in all of this is how vital infrastructures like utilities, health care, supply chains are, the importance of the people doing the truly essential work we rely upon, along with the value of long-term planning. But we are also being shaken out of our taken-for-grantedness, learning just how fragile social life can be. Many Canadians have had the privilege of assuming certain social structures are permanent, that certain institutions would be there for us. Residents of other countries (along with some Canadians and First Nations) have not shared this sense of security. Now we are all experiencing the same upheaval, manifesting differently as each locale follows its asynchronous path.

As the experience of watching media that was recorded pre-pandemic becomes more rare in the coming months, I wonder if watching it will feel even weirder. Will seeing strangers relax in close proximity fill us with nostalgia or dread? In the meantime, I have a lot to be thankful for, and there’s only so much guessing about the future that is helpful for the here and now.