It has taken some time to gel, but something resembling a coherent Pandemic Shock Doctrine is beginning to emerge. Call it the “Screen New Deal.” Far more high-tech than anything we have seen during previous disasters, the future that is being rushed into being as the bodies still pile up treats our past weeks of physical isolation not as a painful necessity to save lives, but as a living laboratory for a permanent — and highly profitable — no-touch future.
For Klein, such a future is ripe for abuse and exploitation.
This is a future in which, for the privileged, almost everything is home delivered, either virtually via streaming and cloud technology, or physically via driverless vehicle or drone, then screen “shared” on a mediated platform. It’s a future that employs far fewer teachers, doctors, and drivers. It accepts no cash or credit cards (under guise of virus control) and has skeletal mass transit and far less live art. It’s a future that claims to be run on “artificial intelligence” but is actually held together by tens of millions of anonymous workers tucked away in warehouses, data centers, content moderation mills, electronic sweatshops, lithium mines, industrial farms, meat-processing plants, and prisons, where they are left unprotected from disease and hyperexploitation. It’s a future in which our every move, our every word, our every relationship is trackable, traceable, and data-mineable by unprecedented collaborations between government and tech giants.
Much of this push has been built on the back of preexisiting lobbying, that has pivoted based on the current climate.
Schmidt has put these preexisting demands — for massive public expenditures on high-tech research and infrastructure, for a slew of “public-private partnerships” in AI, and for the loosening of myriad privacy and safety protections — through an aggressive rebranding exercise. Now all of these measures (and more) are being sold to the public as our only possible hope of protecting ourselves from a novel virus that will be with us for years to come.
Klein’s concern is that in desperate times, companies often see an opportunity to step uo and fill a gap.
In the midst of the carnage of this ongoing pandemic, and the fear and uncertainty about the future it has brought, these companies clearly see their moment to sweep out all that democratic engagement. To have the same kind of power as their Chinese competitors, who have the luxury of functioning without being hampered by intrusions of either labor or civil rights.
All of this is moving very fast. The Australian government has contracted with Amazon to store the data for its controversial coronavirus tracking app. The Canadian government has contracted with Amazon to deliver medical equipment, raising questions about why it bypassed the public postal service. And in just a few short days in early May, Alphabet has spun up a new Sidewalk Labs initiative to remake urban infrastructure with $400 million in seed capital. Josh Marcuse, executive director of the Defense Innovation Board that Schmidt chairs, announced that he was leaving that job to work full-time at Google as head of strategy and innovation for global public sector, meaning that he will be helping Google to cash in on some of the many opportunities he and Schmidt have been busily creating with their lobbying.
The issue with this is that such ‘clear’ decisions are not always clear.
While there is no doubt that the ability to teleconference has been a lifeline in this period of lockdown, there are serious debates to be had about whether our more lasting protections are distinctly more human. Take education. Schmidt is right that overcrowded classrooms present a health risk, at least until we have a vaccine. So how about hiring double the number of teachers and cutting class size in half? How about making sure that every school has a nurse?
The question really comes down to human vs technology.
We face real and hard choices between investing in humans and investing in technology. Because the brutal truth is that, as it stands, we are very unlikely to do both.
This is an interesting read in regards to Douglas Rushkoff’s work Team Human.