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Editorial: Imagine the COVID-19 economy before Zoom and Amazon


In October, a delivery van departed from an Amazon warehouse in Dedham, Mass. Economists concerned about slowing productivity have spent the past decade hotly debating the value of free digital services such as Google’s web search and Amazon’s online store. But those online services have proven their worth during the pandemic. And COVID-19 ultimately might push our society to learn new ways of using digital technologies that accelerate productivity growth.

The allegation that online services didn’t help with the pandemic came on top of a pre-existing concern — prevalent among some economists, as well as critics of the technology industry — that these services add little to the real economy.

But let’s do a scary little thought experiment. Try to imagine what 2020 would have been like without Google, Amazon, Zoom, Slack or any of the other online services. It’s pretty terrifying.

First, because Amazon wouldn’t exist (nor would any other online marketplace), everyone would have to buy everything in physical stores. Imagine the lines stretching around the block as impatient mask-wearing crowds stood 6 feet apart, waiting hours for the chance to buy some toilet paper or soap. Not only would this be an incredible inconvenience, it would increase the risk […]

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