How is a virus accelerating the digitization of Colombia?

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Perhaps the key transformation driven by the coronavirus is that it has accelerated the digitization of life; a process by which digital technology reaches social spaces where it was not previously present or well established.


The digitization of life in Colombia is not new; in fact, it has been going on for years, although its pace has been modest. As revealed by the Digital Readiness Index, Colombia is ranked 61 in Technology Adoption and 71 in Technological Infrastructure[1] Furthermore, it has had a notable bias as urban areas have developed more, while in rural areas, this digitization has been slower or almost non-existent.


Anyway, what we can see today is the acceleration of this process, a hasty and not very planned colonization of societal and personal spaces by digital technology, which leads people to renegotiate the role of digital technology in their daily lives. Here I present a set of observations that illustrate some changes in the working life of Colombians.


Work: Stefana Broadbent has explained that industrialization took work out of the domestic space, but then digitization brought it back in (Broadbent 2012). Until now, this process of domestication of work through digital technology in Colombia had been slow, shy and experimental, only tech-savvy and avant-garde companies were trying to do it. Now, remote working has become the norm; at least for those whose work includes a large dose of meetings and working in front of a screen.


What I have observed is that as a result, the working world has suddenly and drastically colonized the intimate space of the home. I have collected testimonies from people who claim to be more productive but also work more hours and simply struggle to dissociate their work life from their personal life. Without going too far, there are lots of videos circulating on Facebook showing bloopers of failed meetings (see also Dave Cook’s post).


As for small businesses; corner shops, pharmacies, and restaurants that are still open, I had already noticed in previous research, that their versions of digitization had been much more modest in terms of investment, but perhaps far more creative.


In these businesses, cell phones and social media platforms, not designed for commerce such as Facebook and WhatsApp, slowly went from being personal communication channels to true marketing and customer management tools. Certainly, the only thing not digitized in this way are the transactions that most of the time are done in cash.


Furthermore, the digital business strategies of these businesses also rely on word of mouth and the social networks of neighbours and customers away from social media, who amplify their message. An example of this was a hallway conversation I had with a neighbour, which concluded in that she would send me by WhatsApp the contact of a bakery, which behind closed doors, continues to produce and coordinate logistics and orders through various platforms.


The paradox is that these small-scale companies have successfully adapted platforms for their businesses. In contrast, bigger companies whose systems are more sophisticated and expensive have failed to operate smoothly. For instance, my mother recently ordered some medicines, but the health system is almost private in Colombia, and to get your medicines it is necessary to follow long bureaucratic procedures, after you get to see the doctor he would give you a receipt, then one needs to get the receipt authorized in another place and then go to a third party pharmacy to get the medicines. Instead of simplifying the process, the same steps are necessary but through an online platform and some email, also it is mandatory to print and sign the papers.

last thoughts

The digitization of the daily lives of Colombians is happening reactively and in parallel with the advance of the pandemic. As COVID develops, it will continue to impact the way in which Colombians fit digital technologies in their lives.