As I See It: Adaptations
August 10, 2020 Victor Rozek
Back when it first became clear that COVID-19 was the real deal, my wife had scheduled a tentative appointment at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. It was only for an initial interview and some lab work. The problem was, Rochester is located 1,700 miles from where we live, and flying in a giant aluminum cigar tube with who knows how many other people, some of whom were possibly infected, didn’t seem like such a swell idea.
The solution seemed both simple and readily available: Computer technology. Conduct the interview over the internet, and have the tests done locally. It was safer, cheaper, and quicker, and also impossible according to the clinic. The reason was monumentally pedestrian: At the time, there was no ICD-10 Federal billing code for remote consultations!
But eventually the wheels of bureaucratic intransigence began spinning and in due course spat out a billing code and suddenly everyone was conducting doctor visits on Zoom. It was a simple software adaptation with far-ranging impacts. Like many such adaptations it was born of need and fashioned by technology. And, it’s an example of the thousands of small, essential fixes that have made living with the pandemic possible – like Plexiglas partitions in stores, removing magazines from waiting rooms, and working from home for those able to do so.
Adaptations, however, are only limited by imagination, which explains why they range from the practical to the farcical.
On the practical end of the continuum is an adaptation made by Walmart, the largest employer in the United States retaining about 1.5 million Americans. Globally, the company serves some 200 million customers across more than 11,000 stores. That’s a lot of people coming in contact with a lot of other people. If only one percent are infected (an exceedingly low estimate) that’s 2 million potential virus spreaders.
Perhaps inspired by the threat the pandemic presents to both employees and customers, or perhaps simply chasing the benefits of automation, Walmart recently began a pilot program in Houston, a place where tough Texans thought they could eat viral droplets like candy, until soaring death and infection rates suggested otherwise.
The program offers an elegant solution to the problem of grocery shopping that many elderly and otherwise compromised people face – especially in states where mask-wearing remains optional. Walmart partnered with a company called Nuro that makes robotic cars to deliver groceries to a customers’ home. A step beyond curbside pickup to curbside delivery. Think of it as FedEx without the driver, or Amazon without the excess packaging.
Likewise, robotics are being employed in China. In select hotels guests will find a small robot in the lobby shaped like R2D2 but with a tapered top. A clerk will explain that if you should want anything, just ask the robot. Coffee, extra towels, a late night snack, the robot rolls up to your door, you punch in a code, a little access door glides open and, viola, no human interaction, no need for tipping.
Japan, with its aging population, has long been a leader in companion robots. They are built to be cuter than a scrum of puppies, and more empathetic than Mother Teresa. Companion robots could play a role in child and elder care, especially as the urgency for parents to return to work grows.
But while adaptations such as the wide-scale use of mobile banking, and the resurgence of drive-in movies are understandable, some adaptations are just plain baffling.
Here’s a headline from The Washington Post that caught my eye: “Nearly 2 million people on Facebook are pretending to be ants.” Really?
According to psychologists, when people are isolated, as during a pandemic, they develop a burning need to join groups. Any group. Groups provide a sense of inclusion and community otherwise unavailable in isolation.
In terms of sheer numbers, it can be argued that ant colonies are the quintessential model of radical inclusion. One colony is known to extend for 3,700 miles (stretching from northern Italy, through the south of France to the Atlantic coast of Spain), replete with hundreds of millions of ants. Digging tunnels across the European continent may provide great yuks for tiny, crawly things, but what the hell do people do while pretending to be ants?
Tyrese Childs, the creator of the human ant colony, discovered that his was not the only pretense popular on social media. He also found people pretending to be “cows and farmers.” (Full disclosure: As a kid I remember pretending to be a cowboy or a superhero, but I can’t say that cows and farmers were ever high on my fantasy list.)
In any event, these other groups Childs found were already pretty crowded, so he started the ant colony for his friends. The rules were pretty simple: “Be kind, avoid politics, don’t employ any hate speech or bullying.” As for the wild, crazy, things you actually can do, Childs says: “We worship The Queen and do ant stuff.”
As a small sample of the fun available to the discerning virtual ant, one colony member may post a picture of a family having a picnic. There are “sandwiches, chips, chocolate-covered pretzels and a refreshing fruit plate.” The caption on Facebook reads: “HUMAN HAVING A PICNIC WHAT DO WE DO.” Soon, more than 2,700 colony members post commands: “STEAL,” “INVADE,” “BRING TO THE QUEEN.”
Ah, good times. Who could possible resist that?
Evidently, nearly 2 million people can’t. Hard to explain the attraction, but COVID-19 is going to be with us much longer than we care to admit. If pretending to be ants helps people endure life under strained conditions, bring on a virtual jar of honey.
Whether it’s Zoom or robotic grocery delivery or virtual ant colonies, in a time of restaurants without diners, bars without patrons, sporting events without fans, and churches without worshipers, technology offers a lifeline to people starved for connection and belonging, or just seeking safe ways to conduct their daily affairs. Hundreds of millions of people now spend more time on the Internet than ever before. I know of no other service that could seamlessly absorb such an instantaneous increase is usage. It is a tribute to IT professionals that the extraordinary benefits of computer technology remain available during a time of such pressing need.
Although I probably shouldn’t use the word “pressing” where ants are concerned.