The coronavirus pandemic has been packed with plenty of nasty tech surprises. We ran into the problem of a perpetual scarcity of hardware, like game consoles and graphics cards. Apple this year announced a major change to its data practices, including a tool to scan iPhones for child pornography, which critics labelled an invasion of privacy. And many of us who tried ordering high-quality face masks to protect ourselves from the coronavirus had to swim through an ocean of fakes. Yet there was a silver lining to all this: valuable lessons to improve our relationship with tech for years to come, like becoming savvier online shoppers and taking control of our personal data. Think of it as New Year’s resolutions, but for tech. Here are my top recommendations.
Resolution #1: Invest in infra first
The pandemic, which drove many white-collar professionals to work from home, showed how many of us had sluggish internet connections. That underlined how little we tend to invest in our tech infrastructure, like the networking equipment and broadband services that power the internet connection for our devices.
When people spend on technology, they generally buy gadgets before all else. Electronics like video streaming sticks were among the top-selling items on Black Friday, according to a research report published last month by Adobe.
But we should spend on infrastructure before devices. One-fifth of consumers hold on to their routers for more than four years, according to a survey this year from Consumer Reports. That’s cutting it close, since we should upgrade our Wi-Fi routers every three to five years, wireless experts say. New routers introduce new Wi-Fi standards that improve speeds and techniques to mitigate network congestion, making it easier for multiple devices throughout a home — like laptops and game consoles — to get a robust internet connection. If your router is fairly new and your connection remains subpar, look to your internet service provider. The broadband plan you subscribed to many years ago may no longer be sufficient, so consider investing in a faster plan. If your household streams lots of video and plays games online, shoot for roughly 40 megabits a second.
Resolution #2: Check before you buy
If you tried buying a high-quality face mask online in the pandemic, you probably ran into a fair number of fakes. Counterfeiters have flooded the market with poorly constructed masks, a problem that still persists today. While fake goods online have long been a problem, the pandemic has made the issue potentially life-threatening with masks. Amazon and other retailers have policies to ban sellers of fake masks, but new sellers with phony masks constantly emerge. It has become a game of whack-a-mole. The lesson? Always vet before you click the buy button. Read buyer reviews. Check the seller and if it’s an unknown brand, research its reputation. Some online tools like Fakespot can scan a product page to look for signs of phony products and fake reviews. Be especially careful when buying anything that can affect someone’s health, including vitamins and dog food. When in doubt, buy these goods at a reputable brick-and-mortar store.
Resolution #3: Self-reliance with data
Apple, which has long portrayed itself as a defender of digital privacy, delivered one of the year’s biggest tech surprises. In August, the company announced a software update with a twist. The software included a tool to scan iPhones for code linked to a database of known child pornography. Once a number of matches were detected, an Apple employee could review the photos before informing the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
Apple’s positive intent of preventing child abuse imagery from spreading was quickly overshadowed by the invasive implications of its content-flagging system, which ran counter to the company’s pro-privacy image. In response to the backlash, Apple postponed the software feature’s release and clarified that the technology could be disabled if people opted out of backing up their images to iCloud. The episode was a reminder that when we use cloud services, our data is at the whims of a tech company. The lesson? We should consider changing how we manage our data so that we are more independent of the big companies and their cloud services.
Taking a hybrid approach to our data is the best way forward, security experts advised. That involves backing up our data to the cloud but also storing it on devices like physical drives and miniature USB sticks. Having such a local backup ensures that you have access to important files even if there’s an internet outage. And if you become unhappy with a cloud service or get tired of paying subscription fees, you have an easy exit because you already have a copy of your information.
Only 17 percent of people take the hybrid approach, according to Acronis, a data protection firm. Don’t procrastinate: The longer you wait to create local backups of your data, the harder it is to pull it out of a cloud service if you decide to leave.
Resolution #4: Skip online sales
Last month, many shoppers who tried snatching up deals during Black Friday and Cyber Monday quickly learned there was something amiss. Many items that we typically buy at a discount, like new Wi-Fi routers and cheap laptops, were either not on sale or out of stock. That was largely the result of a global chip shortage and disrupted supply chains, which have snarled manufacturing and the shipping of items around the world.
Waiting until Black Friday to splurge has rarely been wise, but the pandemic-induced scarcity has made this clearer than ever. All year round, deals often emerge that are just as good — and sometimes better — than the promotions on Black Friday. The tricky part is knowing when the cool stuff is cheaper. There are many ways to scout for discounts, like following sites that alert you to sales. Our sister publication Wirecutter tracks deals on its Twitter account and website, for example.
Automated tools like Camel Camel Camel, a website that lets you plug in products sold on Amazon and set up email alerts for a price drop, can also help track promotions for specific items. In the future, you can get ahead of the holiday shopping frenzy and potentially skip Black Friday.
Brian X. Chen is the lead consumer technology writer for NYT©2021
The New York Times