Digital Refugees of the COVID-19 Crisis

Insight categories: Perspective

Many of us are 鈥渄igital citizens鈥; we are used to living in a technical world. Some of us were born into it, others migrated to it and became 鈥渘aturalized,鈥 and a few are still around who helped create that world in the first place.

To us, living online is an everyday thing, and has been for a long time. Video conferences, 鈥渄rop boxes,鈥 live chats, and many other forms of digital communication are everyday, normal things for us. Even before the crisis, we shopped online, got our entertainment online, connected online 鈥 and we are therefore very much at home with the digital aspects of the current environment.

While we 鈥渃itizens鈥 certainly miss our daily contact with actual fellow humans, alternate means of connecting are second nature to us. While not as satisfying, perhaps, they are also not in themselves a major challenge for us to use and cope with.

This is not the case for a large number of people, some of them our own loved ones. Some people are being forced by the COVID-19 crisis to connect in ways they never have before. For them, this is its own source of stress. These are the 鈥渄igital refugees鈥 who find themselves driven to our native or adopted 鈥渄igital country鈥 as a result of the COVID-19 crisis.

I have several of these 鈥渞efugees鈥 in my own family, and I bet you do too. Like many Silicon Valley couples, I am a 鈥渢echy鈥 married to a 鈥渘on-techy.” My wife is, in fact, a clinical psychologist who鈥攚hile certainly not tech-averse鈥攊s also not a digital citizen. She has found herself having to meet clients and staff using鈥攖o her鈥攗nfamiliar video conferencing tools. While she has been pleasantly surprised to find that therapy can still be very effective in this way, the tools themselves drive her crazy. As a fellow shut-in due to shelter-in-place orders, I鈥檝e found myself in the tech support role at very frequent intervals. I鈥檒l bet that most of us 鈥渃itizens鈥 also find ourselves giving aid to the 鈥渞efugees鈥 in our circle.

My 89-year-old father is also a very surprising refugee in our digital world. My siblings and I have been trying for years to get him connected to the internet, but he has been resistant. This is despite the fact that when you google my name (鈥淛ames F Walsh,鈥 same as his) my father鈥檚 memoirs about the Korean War in the Library of Congress聽are page-ranked much higher than anything I鈥檝e ever written.

As another couple sheltering in place (he and my Mom still live independently), my Dad was cut off from his sole connection to the Internet鈥攖he public library. Persuaded by my daughter, his granddaughter, he finally agreed to try. I sent my Dad my last-generation iPad and鈥攖o my surprise and delight鈥攈e loves it. He has been FaceTiming the whole family, accessing the internet, responding to email鈥攁nd generally taking to the digital age like a duck to water. I was thrilled to see this refugee to our land鈥攁t 89 years old鈥攍ook like he wants to stay.

I in no way want to minimize the plight of physical refugees who are fleeing from oppression, warfare or starvation and trying to find a better life. In fact a member of my own family experienced this early in the 20th Century. However I am struck by the parallels of the current situation to the physical one.

Forced to retreat by this disease from many forms of engagement with the 鈥減hysical鈥 world, we have fled to a digital one. While many of us are at home there, others most definitely are not. We who are at home find ourselves in a position where we must help these refugees live in our world. Some of those refugees will like this new land and want to stay; others will 鈥済o home鈥 as soon as they can. And all of us, refugee and citizen alike, will be very much altered by this event鈥攍et鈥檚 hope, in some ways at least, for the better.

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Dr. Jim Walsh

CTO

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