Impacts of COVID-19 Through a Cyberspace Lens

The changing socio-economic paradigm with the Internet

By Vint Cerf, Vice President & Chief Internet Evangelist, Google; Father of the Internet

Published in Issue 6 | April 2021

2020 is not the first year in which the world has been immersed in a global pandemic. It is, however, the first time this has happened in the midst of a deepening dependence on information and communication technologies. While the run up to 2020 saw significant increases in the downloading of streaming video, 2020 introduced additional uplink demands to support video conferencing in vastly increased quantities. I was very impressed by the ability of the existing Internet implementations to handle this bi-directional load although I also note that many users still shut down their cameras to try to avoid overloading users whose downlink capacity might be limited. There was also an effort in Europe to reduce the resolution of streaming video for similar reasons although my impression is that this proved to be less of an issue than anticipated.

The pandemic forced millions to work from home, putting stress on available equipment at home and competition for access to the Internet between workers and their children trying to attend school remotely. This demand also highlighted the absence of suitable “work” spaces at home permitting some degree of isolation, quiet, and even visually appealing backgrounds. The latter led to rapid development of artificial backgrounds, but which introduced weird artifacts like disappearing hair and clothing that seemed to blend into the background leaving talking heads floating in space. Assuming that remote work will continue to be needed for health safety, these demands may permanently mark residential configurations in the future. A side-effect is that many companies that might have frowned on “work from home” as unreliable might permit it more liberally in the future even if not necessary for health reasons.

The pandemic also interfered with supply chains, especially those dependent on people working in close quarters (think meat packing or other production line processes). A major increase in online purchasing and door drop delivery was very evident and may be a permanent change. Of course, this increased the amount of single-use packaging associated with shipments and creates a problem with regard to re-use or disposal. Many businesses are very dependent on relatively close quarters for workers and/or customers. Bars, restaurants, gyms, movie theaters and similar enterprises, all suffered from the lockdowns intended to curtail the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

It was also very apparent that the Internet and the World Wide Web played a supporting role in helping researchers share information to accelerate the development of vaccines against the virus. The speed with which the vaccines were produced (about a year) is tribute in part to the long run up to their development thanks to dramatic improvements in the technology of biological research. Genetic sequencing and CRISPR- CAS9 methods provided powerful means to explore possible defenses against the SARS-COV-2 virus, as did a variety of machine learning mechanisms the permitted rapid exploration of molecular structures that could interfere with the virus’ ability to bind to the ACE-2 receptor and invade cells leading to viral reproduction.