During a Joe Rogan podcast a year ago, Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX and co-founder of Tesla Inc., audaciously said that many human beings alive today have already become "cyborgs". Musk went on to explain that those who have a smartphone hooked up to the internet and the ability to properly utilise the two are more powerful than an ordinary human being ever was, simply due to the extraordinary amount of more information and tools they have access to. This digital divide, in Musk's opinion, is far more significant than any other technological gap that has existed in human history.
Due to the broad lockdown restrictions enforced across nations and societies over the past months, many companies and businesses have been forced to operate digitally, leaving those who lack the necessary technological access even further behind. And this condition applies beyond the workplace, as distance learning, too, has not been possible for everyone. Similarly, certain businesses have flourished—especially the global tech giants like Amazon, Apple, Facebook, etc.—while others, mostly small and medium businesses, have floundered.
As business, education, entertainment and other social sectors and needs have been catapulted onto the digital space to continue operations, those who had greater digital influence have naturally made gains. And the same applies even for countries and also in regards to the labour market. Despite the pandemic forcing employees, employers and businesses to adapt to the circumstances by becoming more digital in a way that was postponed or previously deemed impossible, the prevailing situation has not necessarily provided the ideal conditions for such a shift.
For example, due to borders closing down and the movement of goods becoming more difficult, many businesses perhaps did not get the opportunity to acquire the devices and other items needed to function solely on the digital sphere. And because of the sophistication of it all, it isn't very likely that individuals would all of a sudden have become experts at using digital devices—if they weren't already.
All of these patterns and more, give rise to the fear that the ongoing pandemic will increase the digital divide even further going into the future, while it is possible that many in-person activities will continue to be affected in the post-COVID-19 world.
The need to acquire digital skills might have multiplied during this pandemic, but such training, which affects both the generations that are currently in school and those in the labour force, takes time. Therefore, a country like ours, which lags behind its competitor in terms of having such a skilled workforce, could get further relegated in the global competitiveness ladder in the immediate aftermath of the crisis.
Which is why I would argue that COVID-19 has simply changed the perception of how we view the need for increased digital training. In reality, the writing has been on the wall for quite some time. But we ignored it. As a result, we now find ourselves in this predicament.
Even before the crisis started, businesses were complaining that our workers lacked the skills they were looking for, at the same time as youth unemployment and unemployment among the highly educated remained elevated. To solve this mismatch, many had called for increased technical and vocational training. And as we have now come to see, there was definitely some justification to it. So in order to remain competitive (or regain the competitiveness we may potentially lose) in the long run, it is now more crucial than ever that the government and private sector invest heavily in digital and other technologies and also train the workforce to be able to properly absorb and utilise them.
However, while it is important to provide increased digital training and retrain our current and future workforce to become more tech-savvy, we must not lose sight of the bigger picture. As CS Lewis, a noted futurist of his own time, said: "If education is beaten by training, civilisation dies... the lesson of history is that civilisation is a rarity, attained with difficulty and easily lost... It is the liberal arts, not vocational training, that preserves civilisation by producing reasonable men and responsible citizens."
And, as much as this crisis has laid bare our vulnerabilities in the digital sphere, it has also exposed another kind of crisis that we have had for some time now: the lack of reasonable men and responsible citizens we have been producing.
Just think about how many patients hospitals have turned away to their eventual deaths recently; how the government failed to provide doctors with enough PPEs while asking them to fight on the frontlines against death; how people abandoned their loved ones at the slightest fear that they might be infected; how countless numbers of educated and uneducated people alike, said that this is all down to the fact that "Bangali jati to emoni." Does this sound like something a reasonable and responsible citizen would do? Or the doings of someone looking for a cheap excuse to cover up their own irresponsibility and unreasonableness.
It isn't difficult to see that we have fallen behind in many ways as a nation, including when it comes to investing in technology and our workforce. It never was, even before the outbreak. Any reasonable and responsible citizen could have seen it. Had we had enough of the two, perhaps the rest would have been taken care of automatically.
Before the next crisis hits, or before we even get out of the present one, there are a number of things that we must do. Perhaps what is most urgent is becoming and producing reasonable and responsible citizens, lest our civilisation, too, collapses, with or without any external crisis like this coronavirus pandemic.
Eresh Omar Jamal is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star.
His Twitter handle is: @EreshOmarJamal