Special Feature
Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: Coronavirus: Business and technology in a pandemic

Keep calm and carry on: How the internet will see us through COVID-19 crisis

When the history books are written about the COVID-19 pandemic, they'll report that this is as much an internet culture story as it is a health and infrastructure story. Here's why.

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7:00

We are good friends with our next-door neighbors. The woman who lives there is having some challenges sewing a mask. Yesterday, my wife told me how much she wished she could just go over to our neighbor's house and show her how to do it. They are thinking of setting up a Zoom session.

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We are now in a world where we can't walk 50 feet to visit with a friend. It's heartbreaking.

But amid the heartbreak are all these amazing, ordinary people who are keeping calm and trying to carry on. As I write this, my wife is watching a woman on YouTube explain how to make protective face masks. There's an entire army of YouTubers teaching how to source the most effective materials for DIY face masks, how to make your own sewing supplies, how to sew protective gear in many different ways, and how to deploy masks most effectively, whether they will be used by healthcare workers or individual people.

We can't visit our neighbor, but a woman from somewhere on our planet is on our living room TV here in Oregon teaching mask construction. At the same time, on my laptop, a young 3D printing professional in Australia is demonstrating how to create a foot-pedal controlled faucet, so medical professionals and others don't need to use possibly contaminated hands to touch the sink.

The guy who played Jim in The Office started a YouTube channel dedicated to sharing good news. Any good news. Late-night TV hosts, who are used to having huge crews in large studios, have discovered what some of us have known for years: Broadcasting alone from a home studio is doable, just different. The Boston Symphony Orchestra performed together -- from their homes. Grammy-award winning songwriters are holding streaming-only fundraisers. Tabletop gamers are enjoying their latest gaming con remotely. College students are building virtual campuses in Minecraft so they can celebrate graduation together online.

And that doesn't even begin to cover the singing in Italy (and the amusingly pure New York "shut the f*ck up" response when New Yorkers attempted the same thing). That doesn't cover balcony stars who sing opera to entertain their elderly neighbors. That doesn't cover apartment complexes running bingo competitions on rooftops and balconies. It doesn't cover the organized cheering some city dwellers put on by clapping from balconies and flashing their living room lights as a way to show thanks for health care workers.

The internet is keeping us together, allowing us to chat, to teach, to see each other's faces, to peek out of our caves, if only virtually, to see what's going on in the world. Services like Zoom, Skype, Slack, and other collaboration tools are keeping newly home-based workers connected. Netflix, Hulu, and the other streaming services are providing us with excellent entertainment options to help us get out of our heads and keep us sane. And YouTube is allowing individuals all over the world to help others keep calm and carry on.

What helps me get through each day in the face of all this uncertainty are all the people I see (virtually) each day who are doing their best, keeping a brave face, helping others settle into this new reality, and keeping our society alive.

As divided as we've been, and as steeped in partisan election politics as we've been, we're now all bound together (in spirit, anyway) by a common cause: The need to come together by physically distancing from each other to save lives. This is a worldwide situation and only by all of us working together, apart, can we overcome it.

What's starting to give me peace -- and I hope you as well -- is seeing our fellow humans, from all nations and walks of life, take on this challenge. The fact that so many online and off are doing it with a "keep calm and carry on" attitude is an incredible gift we're giving each other.

Those of us who have access to the Internet might want to take a moment, now and again, to be grateful for the technologies we've often taken for granted. Think about how you might be able to help others hold it together. If you're able to make YouTube videos, what can you teach that can help? If nothing else, the world still needs more cute cat and puppy videos to help us enjoy a few uncomplicated, cheerful moments.

If you're a long-time home worker, who can you help make the transition to home-based work easier for others? If you're a writer, what can you write that can help others keep a stiff upper lip? No matter what you do, what can you do to help? Even if it's just staying home and making sure you don't become one more burden on an overtaxed medical system, it'll help.

If you derive benefit from the content other people are making, be sure to thank them. Little things mean a lot these days.

We're probably going to be in lockdown for quite some time. This is going to be as much a psychological battle as a medical one. It's not just the people who will make it livable. It's not just the technology. It's people and technology amplifying each other that are helping us survive as a sequestered society while still retaining that critical sense of connection.

Stay safe. Keep calm and carry on. Just do it by staying inside and getting out online. 


You can follow my day-to-day project updates on social media. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz, on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz, on Instagram at Instagram.com/DavidGewirtz, and on YouTube at YouTube.com/DavidGewirtzTV.