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Legacy

QRCode-2-Structure.pngThe first months of the pandemic saw a burst of energetic discussion about how to make it an opportunity to invest in redressing inequalities and rebuilding decaying systems - public health, education, workers' rights. This always reminded me of the great French film director Fran├žois Truffaut, who, in his role as the director of the movie-within-the-movie in Day for Night, said, "Before starting to shoot, I hope to make a fine film. After the problems begin, I lower my ambition and just hope to finish it." It seemed more likely that if the pandemic went on long enough - back then the journalist Laurie Garrett was predicting a best case of three years - early enthusiasm for profound change would drain away to leave most people just wishing for something they could recognize as "normal". Drinks at the pub!

We forget what "normal" was like. London today seems busy. But with still no tourists, it's probably a tenth as crowded as in August 2019.

Eighteen months (so far) has been long enough to make new habits driven by pandemic-related fears, if not necessity, begin to stick. As it turns out the pandemic's new normal is really not the abrupt but temporary severance of lockdown, which brought with it fears of top-down government-driven damage to social equity and privacy: covid legislation, imminuty passports, and access to vaccines. Instead, the dangerous "new normal" is the new habits building up from the bottom. If Garrett was right, and we are at best halfway through this, these are likely to become entrenched. Some are healthy: a friend has abruptly realized that his grandmother's fanaticism about opening windows stemmed from living through the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic. Others...not so much.

One of the first non-human casualties of the pandemic has been cash, though the loss is unevenly spread. This week, a friend needed more than five minutes to painfully single-finger-type masses of detail into a pub's app, the only available option for ordering and paying for a drink. I see the convenience for the pub's owner, who can eliminate the costs of cash (while assuming the costs of credit cards and technological intermediation) and maybe thin the staff, but it's no benefit to a customer who'd rather enjoy the unaccustomed sunshine and chat with a friend. "They're all like this now," my friend said gloomily. Not where I live, fortunately.

Anti-cash campaigners have long insisted that cash is dirty and spreads disease; but, as we've known for a year, covid rarely spreads through surfaces, and (as Dave Birch has been generous enough to note) a recent paper finds that cash is sometimes cleaner. But still: try to dislodge the apps.

A couple of weeks ago, the Erin Woo at the New York Times highlighted cash-free moves. In New York City, QR codes have taken over in restaurants and stores as contact-free menus and ordering systems. In the UK, QR codes mostly appear as part of the Test and Trace contact tracing app; the idea is you check in when you enter any space, be it restaurant, cinema, or (ludicrously) botanic garden, and you'll be notified if it turns out it was filled with covid-infected people when you were there.

Whatever the purpose, the result is tight links between offline and online behavior. Pre-pandemic, these were growing slowly and insidiously; now they're growing like an invasive weed at a time when few of us can object. The UK ones may fall into disuse alongside the app itself. But Woo cites Bloomberg: half of all US full-service restaurant operators have adopted QR-code menus since the pandemic began.

The pandemic has also helped entrench workplace monitoring. By September 2020, Alex Hern was reporting at the Guardian that companies were ramping up their surveillance of workers in their homes, using daily mandatory videoconferences, digital timecards in the form of cloud logins, and forced participation on Slack and other channels.

Meanwhile at NBC News, Olivia Solon reports that Teleperformance, one of the world's largest call center companies, to which companies like Uber, Apple, and Amazon outsource customer service, has inserted clauses in its employment contracts requiring workers to accept in-home cameras that surveil them, their surroundings, and family members under 18. Solon reports that the anger over this is enough to get these workers thinking about unionizing. Teleperformance is global; it's trying this same gambit in other countries.

Nearer to home, all along, there's been a lot of speculation about whether anyone would ever again accept commuting daily. This week, the Guardian reports that only 18% of workers have gone back to their offices since UK prime minister Boris Johnson ended all official restrictions on July 19. Granted, it won't be clear for some time whether this is new habit or simply caution in the face of the fact that Britain's daily covid case numbers are still 25 times what they were a year ago. In the US, Google is suggesting it will cut pay for staff who resist returning to the office, on the basis that their cost of living is less. Without knowing the full financial position, doesn't it sound like Google is saving money twice?

All these examples suggest that what were temporary accommodations are hardening into "the way things are". Undoing them is a whole new set of items for last year's post-pandemic to-do list.


Illustrations: Graphic showing the structure of QR codes (via Wikimedia).

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.

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