As I See It: Disruption Revisited
December 7, 2020 Victor Rozek
This time of the year, I generally write a predictive piece about IT trends and outside influences likely to impact the profession in the coming year. Three years ago I wrote an article titled As I See It: Disruption. In it, I posited that IT would have to contend with three main sources of disruption: major weather events, the impending demise of net neutrality, and widespread security breaches from what has become an international hacking industry.
I was right on two of three counts. Net neutrality is still limping along. But perhaps I was more prescient than I thought: weather and hacking will return as concerns next year, but I didn’t foresee a pandemic coming. Others, of course, did. Laurie Garrett published her prophetic book The Coming Plague in 1994. The superlative David Quammen published Spillover in 2012, a book about human intrusion into wild places where animal infections welcome fresh, unsuspecting hosts. Regardless, the prophecy business is uncertain and prophets tend to be ignored. But they were right and here we are with Covid-19 rampaging out of control.
If distribution challenges can be managed, promising vaccines are on the horizon that may hasten the return of office life. But as with every solution, they will present fresh problems. Among them, unanswered questions for both employers and employees: Once approved, can employers legally require their employees to take the vaccine? Will employees take it? And if not, what then?
According to Jena McGregor, writing in the Washington Post, those are the questions most frequently being asked of labor lawyers. Given how politicized the virus has become, and the existence of a vocal anti-vaxxer movement, coupled with concerns about safety, and the widespread distrust of the Trump administration, the odds are that a good many people will refuse. As one attorney put it: “If someone’s not willing to wear a mask, do you think they’re going to put a shot in their body?”
For the moment, corporations are waiting for specific guidelines from federal agencies. But such guidelines may prove more useful as legal cover than persuasion.
Initially the vaccines will be released under emergency authorization, which is not the same as full approval. There is no legal precedent, and whatever federal agencies decide will most likely be challenged in court.
The hope is that with full approval the vaccine could be treated like a flu shot, which can be legally mandated in healthcare settings. Some employers already have incentivized wellness programs and plan to fold Covid-19 vaccination incentives into existing benefits. But it’s tricky. A programmer who refuses to be vaccinated can be more easily isolated than an employee who has daily contact with customers. In that scenario the employer could fire an unvaccinated employee for safety reasons, but if half the workforce refuses to be vaccinated, what are the options?
Within this swirl of unknowns, employers are preparing for what’s shaping up to be vaxxigeddon.
McGregor reports that Ford announced “it ordered a dozen specialty freezers to store Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine at ultralow temperatures, and would make the vaccine available to employees.” A spokeswoman noted that the vaccine would be administered “on a voluntary basis.”
Target “plans to offer [vaccine] to employees and customers at its in-store CVS pharmacies once a vaccine is authorized and made available to the public.” No decision has yet to be reached on making vaccination an employee requirement.
Meanwhile, as in 2017 when I wrote in Disruption that hackers managed to access over 569 million commercial transactions, health care records, and personal credit information, hacking remains alive and well and is now infecting the vaccine distribution process. IBM security researchers in London warned that: “Sophisticated hackers, assumed to be state agents, have been carrying out a global phishing campaign targeting the vital “cold chain” that will protect coronavirus vaccines during storage and transport.”
According to William Booth, also writing in the Post, “The IBM team said the precision targeting of executives and key global organizations hold the potential hallmarks of a nation-state tradecraft.”
Their precise endgame is not known but IBM speculated that “the intruders might want to steal information, glean details about technology or contracts, create confusion and distrust, or disrupt the vaccine supply chains themselves.”
It is a warning to IT departments in any way involved in the vaccine rollout, (or any other venture, for that matter) to be exquisitely attentive to security and data integrity.
As for deadly and disruptive weather, it will remain a concern for the indefinite future. This year there were 30 major storms in Southern waters, exhausting usual naming conventions. Along the entire West Coast, fires raged with a destructive ferocity that wiped whole communities from the map and interrupted the lives of millions more. (Full disclosure, my wife and I were evacuated for six days, and spent 12 days in smoke so unhealthy it far exceeded existing measurement scales.) In 2017 I shared a predictive observation: “A time will come when environmental degradation will simply continue, with or without our participation.” Destructive weather events will likely worsen, and their numbers will increase. For IT the message is: Keep your data safe and plan for contingencies. A tested disaster recovery plan will be essential.
Finally, the economy will continue to be a disruptor for IT departments and the companies they serve. Unemployment remains high. Federal supports for businesses and individuals are expiring. Multiple sectors including service industries, travel, and main-street retail have taken major hits. Although Internet sales are booming, companies with an ancillary dependence on the Internet will postpone hardware purchases, software development and upgrades.
Consider too that the national debt stands at an almost unimaginable $27 trillion. This year’s contribution alone – a whopping $4 trillion – is four times as much as the accumulated debt in the first 204 years of the nation’s existence. Taxes will have to be raised, which means there will be less disposable income. The economy was built on debt, which is not sustainable, but will inevitably continue rising in the coming years. The only solutions are tax more or spend less, in either case bad news for the economy.
Likewise, the trade deficit, speeding toward $1 trillion, can be best thought of as a loss of national income. The money not kept in-house, not paid to American merchants and manufacturers, but siphoned off to foreign entities. As a result, the government will have less money to spend in the many sectors it props up with its patronage.
Further, American wages, adjusted for inflation, have essentially remained stagnant since the 1970s. In China, during the same period, average income rose more than ten-fold. Granted, Chinese workers started at a much lower baseline, but the trend is telling and accounts for much of the current disillusionment with government.
If there is good news it’s that IT is resilient in part because it is ubiquitous. Plus, the infrastructure supporting IT already exists. Ramping back up will not be as daunting as reconstituting industries that have been forced to close.
Recently a friend posted on Facebook that he planned to stay up until midnight on New Year’s Eve, not to ring in the New Year, but to make sure the old one left.
Yes, it’s been a tough year and congratulations to the survivors. But it ain’t over yet.