Every cloud has a silver lining, they say, and Italians do need to find some consolation, at a time when our usual life hangs in a sort of limbo, waiting to be reactivated. It’s certainly a small thing, compared to the grief and losses of many, but the Coronavirus emergency is forcing citizens and institutions to come to terms with digital technologies, at last.
For many years, the country steadily ranked among the less advanced European countries in the Digital Economy and Society Index published by the European Commission. As of 2019, three out of ten people in Italy were not regular internet users yet, and more than half of the population still lacked basic digital skills. Only Greece, Romania, Bulgaria and Poland fared worse. That’s very likely going to change.
Closed in their homes, not even allowed to take a stroll without carrying a self-signed document that explains where they are going, people are inventing new ways to stay together, work and have fun. Ways that, needless to say, rely on the Internet.
From theatres to museums, culture moves online
Lots of live events have been canceled, but culture doesn’t stop. From Genoa to Turin, from Palermo to Milan and Parma, theaters have found alternative channels to communicate with their audience. Under the #iorestoacasa (I stay at home) hashtag the Carlo Felice Theater in Genoa is streaming every day pearls from its archive: connect at 8 p.m. (CET) today, and Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker will be waiting for you, followed by La bohème, tomorrow. Opera and ballet are not your thing? What about some classical music, say Ludwig Van Beethoven directed by Zubin Metha? They’ve got you covered: just head to Palermo’s Teatro Massimo website to get that. The YouTube channel of Venice’s La Fenice is another unmissable bookmark if you want to enjoy some top-level shows for free. Museum and cultural institutions are also adapting. Milan’s Triennale is organizing every day on Instagram, “Decameron“, a digital festival with well-know Italian authors, singers, writers and journalists telling their “stories” following in Boccaccio’s footsteps. The Museum of Modern Art of Bologna is creating short videos in which artists exhibiting at the museum explain the meaning and the work behind their creations.
Teachers brushing up their digital skills
Since schools of every order have been shut by the government, the small “Insegnanti 2.0” (teachers 2.0) closed Facebook group has seen an explosion in admission requests, skyrocketing to 36.900 members. Everyone is looking for advice, tutorials, quick tips on how to handle the emergency and avoid losing precious school days. “How do you share your PC’s audio with Google Meet?,” one member asks; “In my school, virtual classrooms have been canceled. The network couldn’t cope,” says another.
As in many other fields, Google here is dominating: many Italian schools have subscribed to its G-Suite for Education. Microsoft Teams and Office 365 Education A1 are also widespread. Both for privacy and ideological reasons (not everyone is happy with Big Tech’s access to school data) and for the perceived limits of these platforms: some are looking for open-source alternatives: Jitsi, Jami, are among the most widely mentioned for videoconferencing and OBS Studio is going strong for screen capture and live streaming.
Besides mutual help on Facebook groups, there’s no shortage of public and private initiatives aimed at helping teachers bridge their skills gap in the digital sector. The national TV broadcaster, for instance, has launched a new section on the “Learning” channel of RaiPlay, with short educational pills for teachers.
Following an agreement with the Ministry of Education, the famous Treccani encyclopedia has made freely available to schools and students its e-learning platform Treccani Scuola, to help them collaborate remotely. Will this in-depth immersion in new technologies leave any trace in teaching methodology when the emergence is over? It’s too early to tell, and no one knows how long this period will last, anyway. Theoretically, schools should re-open in April, but much will depend on how the situation is evolving.
For those that have been freelancing from home for a while, the current lockdown doesn’t change much. But for many others, the need to turn to some sort of ‘smart working’ to keep things going, implies a huge shift in mindset and process. More for companies than for employees, perhaps. While corporations are more open, Italian SMEs, that make the most of the country’s industrial fabric, have traditionally been wary of letting their employees work from home.
According to Eurostat data, in 2018 only 3,6% of employed people worked from home in Italy, compared to 14% in the Netherlands or 6,5% in France. The reasons are mainly cultural: Italian companies are highly hierarchical and bosses like to have their employees close, where they think they can better control them. Besides that, ‘productivity’ is not always measured on achieved goals, but it is often confused with how many hours you spend at the office. With the result that people spend there much more time than in other countries – drinking coffee. The COVID-19 might have an impact on that.
New legislation introduced by the government during the first days of the lockdown allows companies to implement forms of smart working without the need of a previous agreement (as it was before). The financial newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore has asked their LinkedIn followers to describe how their employers were taking advantage of the opportunity. The instant survey paints a black and white picture, with positive reviews as well as negative experiences by struggling white collars. Many commenters, however, on LinkedIn as well as in newspaper interviews, see the disruption brought by the virus as an opportunity to modernize the Italian workplace routine.
Not everyone could work from home but, according to some studies, more than 8 million people in Italy could benefit from that, up from 570,000 right now. If only a fraction of them would be involved, the landscape would change dramatically.