By James Browning
For those privileged enough to access it (and while there was electricity to power it), consumer technology and the internet have been a saving grace for many in the last two years since Covid-19 and lockdowns began.
From social connection to getting food on the table, online services have been invaluable to the economy and people’s everyday quality of life.
As physical workplaces and schools were closed down, digital chat and meeting services prevented the education sector and non-essential economy from grinding to a halt.
Windows of awkwardly-framed faces replaced office spaces and classrooms, and words like Google Meet, Microsoft Teams and Zoom quickly pushed their way into our daily vocabulary.
However, one of the standout platforms in South Africa was already a household name. WhatsApp, its Groups feature in particular, was and continues to be uniquely important for businesses and educators to organise, communicate and collaborate effectively in a socially distanced world.
Even as pandemic-related restrictions continue to lighten, it seems that the cultural momentum and business investment in remote work will see more people working from home into the future. South African-born Vinny Lingham looks to combat “Zoom fatigue” with his new start-up Waitroom, announced earlier this month, by streamlining the meeting process and allowing users to put time limits on speakers.
Digital communications technologies were not only essential for keeping people productive, they helped keep us sane.
The pixelated smile of a loved one could provide much-needed human connection, and you could stave off cabin fever on a video call with friends and a glass of wine (as long as you stocked up before the bans, of course).
Plenty of new apps moved to fill the demand for more ways to connect over the internet.
Houseparty overcame the rigidity of scheduling Zoom calls and enabled users to drop into and out of video chats with their friends easily. The audio-only app Clubhouse gave people a way to hear, and even participate in, conversations between celebrities.
Many people looked to digital entertainment to fill time that would normally be used for work, class, commutes and meetups.
Streaming services gave us access series and movies both new and old, with the biggest provider, Netflix, seeing its new sign-ups double in early 2020. Services like the local safari streaming site WildEarth TV even gave us glimpses into the forbidden outdoors.
For those seeking something more personal, the continuing podcast boom has given us a huge diversity of ways to get informed, be entertained, and get a taste for actual conversation at a time when most people were stuck in their own homes and heads. This has been facilitated by audio platforms such as Spotify and by the workhorse of a platform that is YouTube.
Already well-integrated into many people’s lives, social media continued to offer distraction and social interaction.
Sites like Facebook and Reddit allowed us to keep in touch with loved ones and participate in virtual communities.
While it released in 2016, TikTok would surge in popularity worldwide since the onset of the pandemic. From memes to music to math lessons, the Chinese platform gave everyone and their uncle an opportunity at 15 seconds of fame from their living room.
While many turned to YouTube to escape boredom, the site has also seen an increase in small content creators over the last two years as people look for ways to express themselves in the digital space or bring in some kind of income while being unable to return to work.
The internet in general, and YouTube in particular, has proven itself a fantastic resource for learning new things. Engagement with content about activities you can do from home grew rapidly as lockdowns came into effect.
From baking to yoga, coding to gardening, the worldwide web gave us great tools for both self-improvement and income generation.
As feelings of social isolation and the anxiety of a global pandemic grew by the month, mental health discourse was everywhere in the online space.
Dedicated mental health content has ballooned over the past two years, such as the edutainment channel Psych2Go which currently boasts 8.9 million subscribers.
Medical professionals have also moved to content creation to meet this demand, such as psychiatrist Alok Kanojia, who aims to provide mental health advice for the internet generation through his YouTube and Twitch channels.
People also increasingly turned to mental health apps. In particular, there was an explosion of interest in meditation, mindfulness and sleeping apps, a trend which has only steadily continued.
Apps like Headspace, Calm and Mindscape have given people tools to help them stay focused, alleviate anxiety, and fight off depression.
E-commerce has played a pivotal role in keeping everyday life running in a post-Covid world. Most notable has been the rise of grocery delivery services which allowed people to access daily staples without risking a run to the store.
Services like Checkers’ Sixty60, the Cape Town-based Yebo Fresh, and the ever-present middleman Uber have had a significant boost in business. This move towards delivery did not reverse as restrictions loosened and the increased number of storage-sporting bikes zipping around the streets has become the new normal.
Looking back at two years since lockdown measures began, digital services and the infrastructure that supports them have been central in mitigating the worst effects of social isolation. As it becomes clear that a return to a pre-2020 world will be either slow or impossible, one hopes that the benefits these technologies provide will become accessible and affordable to more South Africans.