We all know that Covid has accelerated the adoption of digital services. I wrote some rambling posts back in September 2019 on themes around our digital lives: formats, privacy and presence. It all reads rather quaintly now. We’ve come a long way. I wanted to reflect on the most noticeable advances in consumer tech in the UK context.
I’m very aware of the “digital divide” between people who are able to benefit from these services and those who aren’t. I am mindful that some people aren’t enjoying the accelerated adoption of digital services as much as I am: some people lack devices or connectivity, some people find technology difficult to use, and some people prefer not to use it.
It’s interesting though to look beyond the UK context to other cultures and how they adopt these digital technologies. I’d argue that many of the developments below are the direction of travel, it’s just a question of time. Instead of saying we shouldn’t provide these services because some people can’t use them, we should support them through the transition.
So in no particular order, here are my highlighted digital technologies that have been accelerated over the past few years.
Obviously, contactless payment infrastructure was in place well before 2020 but the use of card readers by smaller businesses has increased, and the contactless payment limit has been raised. On holiday in the Greek islands well over five years ago, and I noticed that even street stalls had card readers, and most of them were contactless. I prefer card payment to cash, and I prefer contactless to keypads, so all of this feels like progress to me.
Mobile phone contactless payment
As above, only even better. I regularly leave the house without a wallet now. It’s fascinating to read about how the mobile banking apps in some African countries are so ubiquitous and embedded now. There’s somehow a better psychological fit between handling money on a device like a phone, that I already value and care about, rather than on a small plastic card that I could easily lose and is only useful for that one thing.
When I pay for something and a store asks if I’d like a digital receipt: I always say yes please. Does it mean they will send me marketing emails? Probably. But it also means that if I do need to find the receipt I can search my inbox rather than keep a disorganised pile of fading paper receipts.
Another cashless digital service. Instead of faffing about looking for cash, guessing how long you’ll need to park, touching buttons, getting frustrated at getting no change back … you can just find the carpark in Ringo or Pay by Phone and make a first guess at how long you need. If you end up needing longer, there’s no mad dash to find more change and running back to the car. You just extend the session from wherever you are. What’s not to like?!?
Use of QR codes
If you’ve ever done a lateral flow or PCR test you’ll know that those services rely heavily on QR codes. I confess that I couldn’t see the point of QR codes for years. I knew QR codes are big in China but I didn’t really see an appetite here: it just seemed gimmicky. I was wrong. Now I absolutely see the benefit of zapping a QR code with my phone to go to a menu on a website, go to an app in an app store, capture a unique code, check in to a venue, or organise a parcel return. So many uses: awesome. I wonder if the next iteration will be home-based printing of QR codes for managing perishable items like medicines and food, by connecting the item to a digital inventory. Domestic-scale stock control, with mini printers and user friendly apps.
I hate remembering passwords, so I love it when an app on a phone or laptop gives me the option of fingerprint recognition instead. I know that there are privacy concerns around the use of biometrics for authentication. I completely understand the ethical barriers to facial recognition when it doesn’t work as well for black skin. But personally I’m not sure what I wouldn’t want to use fingerprint recognition for. I’d be interested in reading perspectives on that.
Hmmm. This is the only item on the list that I feel uncomfortable about. I downloaded the NHS app because I am a responsible citizen. I enabled the bluetooth function so that I would benefit from the proximity analysis technology. On my last working day of my job in July 2021, I was looking forward to a week of walks, art galleries and coffee shops. I had just waved my son off at the school gate when I got a ping on my phone. My mind raced back to the most likely point of contact … my leaving drinks, outdoors at a pub, with my closest colleagues. With heavy heart I warned them and dreaded the PCR results. None of them had been pinged, which meant the most likely point was now the taxi driver who’d taken me to the pub. I wasn’t angry: he and I had both been masked, windows down. But my phone didn’t know that. My PCR results were negative. But I feel so bad for him, and I’ll never know if he was ok. I admit it: I switched off the bluetooth function after that, something felt wrong about the over-reliance on a context-unaware technology that has such massive implications for people being pinged.
Home delivery tracking
I think this was going to grow anyway, but it’s been important for the growth of online stores that the home delivery infrastructure could scale to the challenge. Shout out to my friend “the Hermes Man” who has delivered many a welcome distraction through these long months. The ability to specify delivery instructions right up to the specified time window has eased the transition between lockdown and greater mobility during the day. There’s also a strange synergy with previous times in history when we didn’t all go out to the shops but the shops came to us. I imagine a modern day Jane Austen character would expect to see home delivery, catalogue shopping and letters of personalised recommendations from her favourite suppliers.
Have a parcel of clothes delivered, then try them on in my own home, fill in an online form and stick the returns label on, then pop to a parcel locker, scan the parcel QR code, deposit the parcel, get a digital tracking receipt. Clever. I suspect the next step will be more domestic use of lockers, with multiple delivery suppliers. How long before we have refrigerated lockers so that our groceries can be delivered and stored while we’re out? And before we just request some pickups from home rather than travelling to a locker?
Online menu/app for food delivery
I am a big fan of food delivery, I’m a big fan of food generally,. With things like Just Eat and Deliveroo, or a takeaway’s own apps, I hand my mobile phone around and people click exactly what they want. Choose from the menu, no need for me to read out my order on the phone, shouting against the background noise at the restaurant, no need to have to read out my card number and explain my address.
App ordering at the table
Some people complain about this, I love it. The benefits mentioned above. Plus in the olden days in a busy pub, as a short woman at a busy bar I would struggle to get served. I value the experience of a nice restaurant with paper menus and waiting staff too, but I think app ordering will still have a place.
Web-based video conferencing
It goes without saying that the uptake of web-based video-conferencing has grown massively. “Zoom” is the new “Hoover” as a brand name synonymous with a type of product. For many working people MS Teams is important too, but for social uses, it’s probably Zoom, WhatsApp, GoogleMeet and Facebook chat. These remote meeting platforms became used in new settings such as UK local councils, and the infamous Jackie Weaver meeting illustrates a real cultural moment in the adoption of these technologies outside of the workplace. In my own extended family we experienced virtual quizzes, family hangouts, video messages: it’s been really key to social ties.
One of the themes of the pandemic was keeping active within the constraints of limited mobility and social distancing. I’d done virtual fitness challenges before, such as “runuary”, where you ran one mile a day through January. Life during Covid really gave value to these challenges and I have been so impressed by the global Conquerer Challenge community on Facebook. You choose a challenge, commit to it, and pay. You track your progress, and when you finish you have a medal posted to you.
I’m currently having a whole range of new digital experiences. I’m starting a job without any in-person contact, and I’m also exploring the emerging VR world of the Oculus Quest. Actually, I might write another post about my adventures with digitally-enabled exercise over the years. There’s a thread between some of the items above and an emerging infrastructure for a pay-to-ride electrical vehicle ecosystem, and I’m looking forward to watching that develop. The UK’s national health service has done an amazing job of modernising in challenging circumstances. I imagine some brave decisions were taken behind the scenes and I congratulate anyone working in digital healthcare to support their clinical and care colleagues. I’m also really interested in how digital technologies can help environmental sustainability, shortening supply chains, making better use of buildings, reducing waste, brokering reuse and enabling faster feedback loops. There is a shortage of digital specialists in the job market, making this is a really exciting time for people working with technology across the public and private sector. If current trends continue I see a bright future for people working in tech.
Please do share your own reflections with me!