COVID-19 and Technology: An Interview with Kevin D. Johnson

The role of technology in the present COVID-19 crisis is indisputable. We decided to interview Kevin D. Johnson, a Senior Managing Consultant for one of the world’s leading IT firms, and Senior Fellow of Technology and Global Development for the Center for Cultural Leadership. He holds four masters degrees (an MBA, a Master’s in Accounting, a Master of Arts in Theology, and a Master of Science in Global Technology and Development) and is engaged in PhD. studies in the Innovation in Global Development program at Arizona State University’s School for the Future of Innovation in Society specializing in the sociotechnical impact of artificial intelligence.

(This interview is the fourth in a series. The first was COVID-19 and Legality: An Interview with Jeffery J. Ventrella, the second was COVID-19 and Economics: An Interview with David L. Bahnsen, and the third was COVID-19 and Theology: An Interview with Brian G. Mattson.

PAS: Kevin, thank you so much for responding. Both positively and negatively, how has technology shaped the response, medically and otherwise, to the COVID-19 crisis?

KDJ: Technology has dramatically increased our ability to respond to a crisis like COVID-19, and it is being invoked on multiple fronts to help manage and resolve the crisis.  Mathematical models have been used to help experts provide estimates as to the extent of the crisis; large clusters of computers in the thousands are currently analyzing protein sequences searching for treatment solutions; banks have already capably lent out hundreds of millions of dollars of assistance to small businesses and others; emergency response personnel use technology to locate and help symptomatic people; doctors around the world cooperate and share knowledge about how to counteract the virus through the Internet, and they also provide treatment and care through tele-medicine; and governments keep people up to date through social media and more traditional media outlets. 

The sociotechnical impacts and uses of technology are so woven into our society that practically every action in reference to COVID-19 is technological in one way or another.  Additionally, as anyone online knows, people can talk to a much wider circle of friends, families, and others instantly and worldwide through social media in order to gauge the nature of the crisis and how to handle it.

Of course, the pervasiveness of technology in this crisis is not without its problems.  The sociotechnical impact of technology also signifies that human problems are going to be present in any use of technology, especially in a fallen world.  So, while social media remains a great gift by providing instant access to global information sources, it also carries with it several risks. Facebook has a way of equalizing voices so a kooky conspiracy theorist can speak just as loudly to what’s going on with the virus as a qualified medical expert might.  Unfortunately, some people will listen to and even promote conspiratorial wackiness and fake news.  Qualified experts should be consulted, and their contribution carefully evaluated and lifted above other voices when relevant.  However, even in the case of very capable experts, there is a danger in listening to them too much, since they speak from a position that is far different from the lived experience and capable judgment of the average American.  So, as usual, technology must be deployed and used with wisdom and discernment.

PAS: To put this in historical perspective, had COVID-19 appeared 50 years ago, how would our response have been different due to the comparatively primitive technology of the time?

KDJ: 50 years ago, our reaction to the crisis would have taken much longer to be effective and the virus would have been discovered long after it had already moved significantly throughout the population and killed a lot more people.  Medical science is significantly more advanced today than it was back then, and treatment options would have been much more limited.

The banking system in 1970 was much less robust than it is today thanks to technology and a host of other things we’ve learned since then, and COVID-19 probably would have caused something like the Great Depression with all the Nixon-era banking changes that struggled enough on their own to stabilize through the early seventies.  In short, the United States would have at least faced a repeat of the extent and impact of the 1918 Influenza Pandemic with additional economic issues and the Cold War in play at the time. 

Of course, there is also the chance that the virus wouldn’t have made it out of China since the nation was only just open to the West at the time, international travel to and from China was very limited, and a lot of the significant economic and urban development in China hadn’t happened yet sufficient to make the spread of the virus a global problem. After all, for China there was no global Belt and Road Initiative at the time that put countries like Italy and Iran at immediate risk. Had the virus been contained internally, the losses would have made the impact of Mao’s Great Leap even more devastating. 

Globalization has been both a boon to economic and technological progress as much as it presents our society with inherent weaknesses that are largely unintended consequences.

PAS: You’ve been critical of how some experts have (mis)used computer models during the crisis. What mistakes have they made?

KDJ: The epidemiological models that have been used to estimate the impact of the virus have received a lot of criticism in the last few weeks mostly because of the consistent overestimating that has been done in terms of the suggested mortality risks to the United States and the rest of the world. However, the models themselves are not really the problem.  Highly developed and constantly improving statistical epidemiological models have been in play since the early twentieth century and in fact simple mathematical models have been in use for things like smallpox mortality since at least 1766. 

The largest problem here is the lack and type of data in reference to COVID-19 more specifically.  The data used early on depended on sources that were less than reliable and presented without context such as official numbers from China and Italy and there simply wasn’t enough data to reliably forecast what was likely to happen in terms of the impact of COVID-19 on the United States.

There has also been some question as to when the virus appeared, since a lot of anecdotal accounts about a very heavy respiratory condition during the 2019 holiday season have been reported sufficiently to make national press, lending at least some question as to whether the data sets are really complete enough to accurately predict what’s going on with the virus.  Regardless, as each week goes by, more data improves the models currently in use, and that’s why we see the potential impact of the virus constantly reduced in the models more in line with what’s happening throughout the country.

Though it varies by state, health departments have in some cases only presented the public with minimal amounts of data when a lot more could be made available given what hospitals record every day about patients. Though hospitals across the country have received a steady influx of COVID-19 infected patients where affected, the hospital systems are not overloaded and, in many cases, have laid staff off due to canceling other normal medical procedures. 

Reporting COVID-19 deaths has also been problematic in line with the vagueness that attends complications in how the CDC reports influenza and pneumonia deaths together. The lack of transparency and availability concerning the complexity in the data that exists is problematic for the American people. 

The sociotechnical impact of these problems becomes clear once one realizes that the ambiguities present in the data and its reporting gives space for a development narrative that provides a cognitive frame advocating dramatic political changes, the political use of data on the part of politicians and others with motives that are less than pristine, and a potential abuse of the public trust.  Meanwhile, it allows Congress to pass an unprecedented $2 trillion bill while governors nationwide issue indefinite stay-at-home orders and the ceasing of large segments of the economy.

Additionally, even though the models themselves are stable and have stood the test of time, there are new methods that haven’t been employed that could invoke the use of artificial intelligence (AI) to better model how the virus might interact with society, where hot spots might appear throughout the country, and how COVID-19 might be effectively countered without having to shut down everything in sight.  More interdisciplinary work between data scientists who specialize in AI and epidemiologists who use standard epidemiological models needs to take place in order to more effectively counter the virus going forward.

The experts know about the limitations with their own models but somehow only the worst-case scenarios continue to be presented to a public that does not understand the models in play, their potential significance, and the strengths and weaknesses they present, while sweeping political changes are continuing to be made. Questioning the received opinion of Dr. Fauci and others results in article takedowns on platforms like Medium.com and algorithmic notices of fake news on Facebook.

In short, we need a public that is more technologically savvy than we have now, and this is especially true in Christian circles where a fear of change and new technology still pervades social media conversations reminiscent of the overwrought concerns of authors like Nicholas Carr. 

AS: Now fast-forward 50 years. If a new virus appears in the US, how will the technology of the time likely combat it?

KDJ: The future is hard to predict, but here are some potential paths forward. 

First, we have a lot more information about people today in terms of who has contracted the virus versus the days of the 1918 Pandemic. Once the crisis is over, scholars will take a close look at the networks involved in how COVID-19 spread, why it flashed so quickly in a place like New York City, how communities were involved, whether herd immunity is really viable, and many other concerns not previously tested or examined due to the lack of data. Future responses will take all this in mind eventually.

As technology improves, the layers involved continually abstract themselves to enable new planes of innovative possibilities. When computers were first invented, their programming was hard-wired into the system. That means changes came only when hardware was switched out and replaced. Then, we moved to cards that were punched to tell computers what to do. Eventually, we started writing software, and change became only a matter of writing and running different programs. As a result, the technological rate of change only exponentially increased as innovation continued to change the nature of computing. 

Now, we’re working on having the computers write programs for us and extending our intelligence into the systems themselves. While this revolutionary change in programming was going on over the last 80 years, the actual physical architecture of the systems and its processors continued to miniaturize. So now, the smartphone in your pocket is millions of times more powerful than the computers that sent men to the Moon. The width between individual transistors in CPU’s is now moving toward a mere 10 or so atoms wide and getting smaller. Meanwhile, the systems grow in complexity at each level but are abstracted by higher levels as innovations are added making them easier to use and implement in society.

Development in artificial intelligence will likely move in a similar direction. All these layers of abstraction are filled with complexities that exponentially increase the value and function of the technology in play.  This is also part of the reason our economy has expanded so dramatically in the last 50 years. As AI becomes easier to use and more abstracted and transparent for your average person, less in the way of data scientists will be needed for normal people to adequately use the power of AI to do things like track and estimate the impact of a virus like COVID-19. The bottom line of all this means that we will respond faster, more accurately, and more capably to a crisis like the one we face today with COVID-19.

PAS: Finally, can you mention a few leading truisms of a distinctly Christian approach to technology? How have Christians made mistakes in their assumptions about and suspicions of technology?

KDJ: One mistake I’ve already hinted at is a sort of neo-Luddism of Christians that are increasingly negative and fearful of new technology and the changes they bring to our society. The original Luddites were fearful of technology and its implications for society.  This includes people who say we should stay away from social media, that participating on social media is a waste of time, that children shouldn’t spend time online and instead should play outside; and perhaps the worst example is found in recent conspiracy theorists wildly trying to blame COVID-19 on the presence of 5G technology. 

As Christians, however, we know that technology is a gift from God and that its use is inherent to Christian religion.  We come to the Lord’s Supper with a table that’s been made by human hands, bread cooked in an oven, and wine stomped out from the vine — all processes of both ancient and modern technology today. 

Another problem: Christians who think that participating in social media or the Internet is somehow not a part of real life, as if “virtual” means something that isn’t real. “Virtual reality” is a sort of misnomer that for some implies an experience that is less real, when the truth is that it’s just a different type of experience that one has in engaging on the Internet versus face-to-face contact experienced elsewhere.  Christians need to think with a Christian mind and consider that all our experiences in the world are real and they all call for contextual considerations depending on the nature of the experience in question. Most recently, the move toward church services online is a place where getting this right is essential.

Our true position in Christ is being seated in the heavenlies with him by the power and work of the Holy Spirit. That’s a victorious posture we hold now and not just later, a mystical presence that is real even though it’s imperceptible to our own senses. Likewise, we don’t lose physicality when meeting together online and being one in Christ carries with it both physical and spiritual implications that some forget when the mode of worship changes to something different than what we’re used to doing. 

When we gather virtually in worship via Zoom or some other platform, we’re not less physically connected to one another. All we’ve done is increase the physical distance between us. Of course, when the church meets together in more normal circumstances, the biblical dictate and command is to always be present in worship in one place with one another. But these are extraordinary times that deserve the full attention of our theological understanding of worship both on and offline.  The Holy Spirit is still there, still with us as we’re in Christ, and we’re still held by the Father as we worship together even when doing so with a web browser on the Internet.

The outcry in some online groups about having to do church online and the potential danger to our religious freedoms is interesting because it has been long and loud since the crisis made clear that staying home would be a safer strategy for all involved, at least for the time being.

However, you see very few people complaining about how they can’t go into work anymore at the office, and that we need to preserve the right to do so. Few seem to be disappointed that they get to stay home and maybe half work, if they work at all, nor are they unhappy because they can login to work from their laptop at home and somehow miss the water cooler sessions. In my view, that posture is telling in that it speaks to how many times we as Christians might mistakenly maintain our own interests, rights, and privileges above other important concerns, like the safety of the community and loving our neighbors as ourselves.

Author: P. Andrew Sandlin

I am founder & president of the Center for Cultural Leadership, core faculty of the H. Evan Runner International Academy for Cultural Leadership and De Yong Distinguished Visiting Professor of Culture and Theology, Edinburg Theological Seminary, and an ordained minister in the Fellowship of Mere Christianity. I am happily married to Sharon Lynn Sandlin (nee Habedank) and have five adult children and four grandchildren.

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