We are experiencing new challenges as we try to re-open law libraries and have staff access physical spaces. One thing I had not anticipated was how much we would rely on technology to enable it, and how little concern for equity there seems to be in doing so. Our need for normalcy should not create new barriers to information access and to our libraries both as resource centers and places to work.

The first place I noticed was with QR codes. In the past, I’d thought of them as helpful additions. An adjunct to a typed URL to save someone time. But now they are gatekeepers.

We are also making mandatory technology changes that will impact our ability to hire and retain people. For people who are already on staff, it may mean more restricted options than co-workers. It may also be seen as a push towards the door in favor of staff who can meet the new technology standards.

Questionable Results

The vaccine had finally reached me! I got my appointment and headed out to the nearby government facility where they were giving the jabs. I queued up with everyone else and then, as I got closer, I saw people scanning a QR code.

The QR code, as I’m sure you’ve figured out, was linked to a form. An online form, so that when the QR code is scanned, your device opens a web browser, connects to the internet, and delivers the form to your screen.

That’s great … if you have access to the internet. But the only option in this situation was wireless data. There were no open or freely accessible wireless networks (wi-fi) as one might find in a law library.

This focus on a second device may become even more common now that Microsoft has released a passwordless option. It eliminates the need to have a password, but in exchange, you have to have a second device (and internet access to receive the passwordless communication). This will become another have/have not technology.

The people who design these interactions have therefore also assumed everyone has access to data as part of their mobile plan. I don’t. My phone is primarily a music player (of music that I place on the phone’s storage) and very occasionally a device I use to make a phone call or send or receive a text. I can at least make the choice to carry data or not, which is a choice some people can’t make.

This issue arose again when we started our return to the office. For the entire pandemic, the organization had used a paper sign-in process for the ubiquitous COVID check: have you been around anyone, do you have any symptoms, etc. Ironically, they implemented a QR code on my first day back.

This was great for staff and visitors who had (a) a mobile device with a camera, (b) data access, and (c) familiarity with QR codes. I mention familiarity because the access point is a security desk which allows for no social distancing. It is a one-person wide funnel that is about 10 feet long. As soon as any person stops, it impedes everyone else. So a QR code in this instance also assumes a fluidity that may not exist.

You may have heard about QR code vaccine passports. Unlike QR check-in, the tech requirements are shifted to the checker. The person with the vaccine passport just needs a QR code (printed, on a phone) and the checker needs an internet-connected device. I think this burden-shifting is more reasonable.

As I was trying to figure out how to get on the public wi-fi (it isn’t actually public, there is a secret username and password, which I didn’t know), I started to bottleneck the line. As I stepped out of line, around a barrier, I saw someone else stop. As someone later remarked, “now I have to have a $500 device to get into work!”

A mobile device doesn’t cost $500 but you get the point. A phone, plus a data plan, can be expenses beyond the reach of people who need access. In this case, just as there was at the vaccine, the paper option remained. But it was an after thought, available only at the expense of fluidity.

There are alternatives. For example, touchscreen kiosks. Or pre-registering so that someone can use a device at home and email compliance to an address. Or just use paper for everyone. It would be interesting to know what the processing speeds are between the different options, and a law library implementing a choice should probably know. But each option has its own challenges and, it seems, the QR code is preferred because it offloads those challenges away away from the organization and onto the individual.

Standardized Out of Work

I’m not a big fan of work control culture but at least it created some commonalities. Everyone who went into the office could rely on certain technology being available. It might depend on your caste – executives may get things that are prohibited to other staff – but at least there was some uniformity.

That seems to be changing. As the pandemic hit, the only way some people could work from home was with a work-provided computer. This meant some people had laptops and others used what they had in the way of personal technology. I think everyone would probably be comfortable with those sorts of disparities in a crisis.

As we return, though, the organization is removing desktop PCs for anyone with a laptop. It’s neither a standard (if you don’t have a laptop, you keep your desktop) nor does it take into account the employee’s situation. Some people are uncomfortable carrying a laptop for any number of reasons.

Alternatives: desktop PCs or thin PCs for home users. Expand the number or type of devices supported. Allocate an amount to staff to purchase what’s appropriate for their situation (may not need always need the same computing power).

Some organizations are also approaching hybrid work environments – where sometimes you’re in corporate space and sometimes not – as an additional opportunity to exert control. One policy I’ve heard about is minimum bandwidth. The US FCC terms broadband as 25 Mbps but notes a variety of bandwidths required for different types of activity.

If your organization decides to start mandating minimum home internet speeds, the cost to each employee will depend a lot on other choices the organization has made. For example, the FCC suggests 5 to 25 Mbps for telecommuting but only 1 Mbps for general Web activity. Those are substantial differences.

I realize there are those of you who can get 100s of Mbps download and possibly as much in uploads. As someone who only recently upgraded from 6 Mbps down to 25 Mbps, I can assure you your experience isn’t universal. It may be a cost issue but it can also be a location-based issue.

If your company has embraced the cloud, you can probably get along pretty comfortably at the 1 Mbps end of that scale. But you will need more bandwidth for companies that rely on VPNs or remote desktop (RDP). This frustrates me (I use RDP) because I’m often accessing a web page on the other end that could – technically – be accessed without RDP if the organization decided to allow it.

The catch will be when organizations start to both mandate minimum home internet speeds as part of the corporate IT standard and at the same time refuse to pay for that minimum. Current staff may find that they are unable to take advantage of a hybrid environment because they can’t afford it, even if the costs are about control and not getting the work done. Or they may just live in the wrong location.

One sentiment is to let the chips fall as they may. Staff who can’t take advantage of hybrid work because of policies will have to live with it or move on. Future hires will have to meet the standards as part of their application. That can sound good, perhaps, except that you are setting an economic requirement (income or housing affordability) for your future hires.

I think one of the unfortunate outcomes to the freedom from control that the pandemic has made possible will be for organizations to apply control in other domains. This will inhibit our ability to hire and deliver services if our organizations create these sorts of constraints. It reflects a lack of creativity in envisioning what could be and focuses more on how to get back to what was.