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The Week in Tech: How to Stop Coronavirus ‘Doomsurfing’


Each week, we review the week’s news, offering analysis about the most important developments in the tech industry.

I should not have read the Imperial College coronavirus report before bed.

The now-famous report by a team of British epidemiologists, which was posted online this week, laid out the worst-case scenario for the coronavirus, predicting that as many as 2.2 million Americans could die if the disease was left to spread unchecked.

It’s an objectively terrifying document — scary enough that it jarred the American and British governments into taking bolder action to stop the virus’s spread — and I lay awake for hours after reading it, trying to repress visions of mass death as terms like “incubation period” and “gamma distribution” buzzed around in my head.

I’ve been doing a lot of this kind of doomsurfing recently — falling into deep, morbid rabbit holes filled with coronavirus content, agitating myself to the point of physical discomfort, erasing any hope of a good night’s sleep. Maybe you have, too.

There’s nothing wrong with staying informed. But we need to practice self-care, and balance our consumption of grim news with gentler kinds of stimulation, for our own health and the sanity of those around us.

One good solution is logging off. (Isn’t it always?) But there are nourishing things we can do online, too. As I wrote in my column, the coronavirus crisis has made the internet feel unexpectedly social. Every day, there’s an explosion of new, creative kinds of digital community-building happening, as we find new ways to use technology to replace some of the physical proximity we’re losing.

Teenagers are using the videoconferencing app Zoom as a makeshift social network, as my colleagues Taylor Lorenz, Erin Griffith and Mike Isaac reported. Art galleries and comedy clubs forced to close by the virus are streaming their shows instead. Musicians are giving quarantine concerts. There’s a new Instagram dating show called “Love Is Quarantine.”

Over the past few days, I’ve found a few ways to stay sane online. I’ve muted some group chats with panic-inclined friends, so I can avoid being interrupted every time one of them sees a new story about the virus. I’ve started meditating again. (Several meditation apps, including Calm and Headspace, have released free meditations to help people cope with coronavirus-related stress.) I’ve used Freedom, a productivity app, to lock myself out of social media during certain hours of the day.

I’ve also tried to do less surfing and more one-on-one connection: calling my family, setting up Zoom dates with friends, sending Instagram direct messages. Research has found that using social media actively makes us feel better than consuming it passively, and in my case, the finding checks out.

The other day, I asked my Facebook friends what they were doing to stay sane while they sheltered in place. Their answers included:

  • “I bought an Xbox after 13 years. Working on getting the old Halo gang together.”

  • “Reading, cleaning and organizing my house, making things more cozy since I’m spending a lot more time here. Talking on the phone and texting to maintain some connection with people.”

  • “I’m doing all the little tasks one never has time for like sharpening knives, washing the reusable shopping bags, cleaning out closets, etc., so I feel super accomplished! And keeps me from watching the pandemic coverage all day.”

  • “Get a group video chat together and play the online version of Code Names at horsepaste.com!”

  • “I’m a teacher, so I’m both planning and teaching 6th grade English and home schooling 2nd and 5th grades. So not really staying sane at all, but thanks for asking, Kevin.”

My Smarter Living colleagues also put together a list of 10 ways to ease your coronavirus anxiety.

A few more pieces of tech news that — like all news during the week — revolved around the pandemic. (And yes, I said I’m trying to avoid doomsurfing, but I promise these are worth your time.)

  • A gut-wrenching report by Kate Conger, Adam Satariano and Mike Isaac on how the coronavirus has affected the livelihoods of gig workers for companies like Uber, Lyft and TaskRabbit, who have few of the protections of salaried workers and no employer-sponsored health care.

  • From Brian X. Chen, a guide to solving your work-from-home tech problems, such as “Why is my Wi-Fi connection so slow?” and “Wasn’t the fridge full of snacks yesterday?” (OK, that last one is just my problem.)

  • Karen Weise on how Amazon is coping with a huge surge in demand from the virus by limiting shipments of certain goods and prioritizing medical items and household staples.

  • Two great stories from China: Raymond Zhong’s report on the country’s digital divide, which is leaving low-income families without the ability to connect to daily necessities like virtual classes, and Paul Mozur’s look at China’s “internet police,” whose investigations and power have only intensified since the coronavirus outbreak.

    Side note: Both Raymond and Paul are part of the team of New York Times reporters that is being ejected from China, as part of the country’s crackdown on American journalists. Both are phenomenally talented reporters who have been working in China for years, and it is both “irresponsible” (to borrow a word from a statement by Dean Baquet, the executive editor of The Times, about the expulsion) and very sad to see them being expelled from a country they have covered so well for so long, at a time when good, independent journalism is needed in China more than ever.

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