BOSTON – Words like “telework” and “telehealth” have become commonplace over the past year, part of a pandemic-forged vocabulary of digital life that also includes now-ubiquitous phrases like “remote schooling” and “Zoom happy hours.”
A technology researcher told state senators Tuesday that some experts expect a move over the next few years into a “tele-everything” world, as people’s relationship with technology deepens and more of the population relies on digital connections for their work, social interactions, commerce and health care.
“Their basic argument is that technology trends that were already underway at the start of the coronavirus outbreak were sharply accelerated last year,” said Lee Rainie, the director of internet and technology research at Pew Research Center, describing results of a canvass last summer of more than 900 innovators, developers, business and policy leaders, researchers and activists.
Rainie told a Senate committee that is studying the state’s potential post-pandemic landscape that both optimists and pessimists among the experts surveyed were concerned that technology’s expanding role would worsen social and economic inequality.
“They worry that those who are highly connected and the tech-savvy will pull further ahead of those who have less access to digital tools, less training or aptitude for exploiting them,” he said. “These concerns carry forward to a growing fear we’ve seen in previous expert canvassings that changes in artificial intelligence, robotics, autonomous vehicles and related technologies will eliminate the need to pay people to perform key economic tasks. That, they believe, will move significant portions of the population into a precarious existence that lacks predictability, economic stability and wellness.”
Rainie said there is also some good news, with a portion of the experts expressing hope that the “reset” brought about by the pandemic will allow people to reshape systems like health care and education. He encouraged policymakers to look for ways to mitigate potential harms and to push technology development toward beneficial outcomes.
The committee’s chair, Sen. Adam Hinds, has identified bridging gaps in digital access as an early focus for the panel as it envisions ways to respond to vulnerabilities exposed by the pandemic and economic shifts.
Hinds described Rainie’s testimony as “daunting, scary, with signs of optimism and potential.” Sen. John Keenan called it “fascinating” and said he didn’t “know whether to laugh or cry.”
Angela Siefer of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance — who called into the hearing from Columbus, Ohio — said 30 percent of Massachusetts households with incomes below $35,000 do not have broadband subscriptions of any kind, including mobile. For households with incomes over $75,000, that figure is 3 percent, she said.
Siefer said that throughout the U.S., the lower a household’s income, the less likely it is to have broadband service, a device beyond a mobile phone, and a full slate of digital skills.
“That is not an availability issue. The digital divide is a poverty issue,” she said.
She recommended the state support policies like computer refurbishment programs, with tech support, to help get low-cost devices into homes, neighborhood-sized “gap networks” built to address wireless affordability, outreach to help people sign up for federal broadband benefits, and partnerships with trusted, local institutions for digital literacy training.
The New England Cable and Telecommunications Association, in written testimony, flagged bills filed by Rep. Frank Moran and Bud Williams (HD 3986) and Sen. Barry Finegold (SD 2423) to create a digital equity broadband adoption program. Those bills, NECTA President Timothy Wilkerson said, would support families in need by subsidizing 50 percent of a high-speed broadband subscription, installation, equipment and digital literacy programs.
“In today’s digital economy, particularly in the wake of COVID-19, we know high-speed internet is critical to our daily lives,” Wilkerson wrote. “Fortunately for Massachusetts, we are starting from a strong position to ensure that everyone gets connected. That is why private broadband providers in the state are investing hundreds of millions of dollars each year to ensure that networks remain resilient and help as many people as possible — no matter their circumstances, get and stay connected.”
Evan Horowitz, executive director of the Center for State Policy Analysis at Tufts University, said that people who lack broadband and reliable equipment could end up cut off from new opportunities for remote work, telehealth, distance learning and online civic engagement. He said lawmakers should also monitor data for potential “downstream policy implications” of expanded telework, including racial equity effects.
“Shrinking demand for real estate around Boston (and other city centers) could reduce price pressure, making housing more affordable in areas with a larger share of Black and Latinx residents,” Horowitz said in his written testimony. “Yet, we could also see a new generation of white flight, especially as white residents are more likely to have jobs amenable to remote work.”
After hearing comments that focused on digital connectivity, Hinds said that testimony from Brockton laundromat owner Maria Pina served as a counterbalance, reminding lawmakers about the large sectors of the economy that cannot be conducted over the internet and still require face-to-face interaction.
More than a year after the COVID-19 crisis hit and Gov. Charlie Baker’s initial round of executive orders restricting business and public life went into place, “life’s still very hard for everyone,” Pina said.
“The pandemic hit us very hard, and the business is not like before,” she said. “We still have a lot of up and down, no customers, no business, and the sad part, when it is the end of the month, you have to pay the rent and everything.”