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Is Silicon Valley leveraging the Covid-19 crisis for a permanent transformation?

FCI has previously dedicated several posts to the ambitious climate change agenda – the Green New Deal. Naomi Klein, in a critical article describing the role of Big Tech in the Covid-19 crisis, has made a variation on this by warning against a “Screen New Deal” – referring to the idea that Big Tech wants to turn the world into “a living laboratory for a permanent – and highly profitable – no-touch future”.

For many years, the goal of Big Tech has been to permanently integrate technology into every aspect of civic life. Being sold in the name of convenience and personalization, it has met resistance from the public due to concerns about the security and quality of concepts such as telehealth, online classrooms and driverless cars, and more generally the democracy-threatening wealth and power accumulated by a handful of monopolistic companies.

In the weeks and months before the Covid-19 outbreak tech companies had already been calling for more public-private partnerships and massive public expenditures on high-tech research and infrastructure, with the idea that public schools, hospitals and military would come to outsource many of their core functions to private tech companies. What the pandemic has changed is that this high-tech expansion is now explicitly presented and justified to protect our health.

Developments prior to Covid-19, such as the public pushback against tech companies and the fact that even presidential candidates were openly discussing breaking them up, are seen by Klein as a successful example of democratic engagement. Since Covid-19, however, Big Tech has successfully positioned itself as an indispensable partner whose technologies are presented as the only possible way to pandemic-proof our lives. Thus, Google is keen to develop programmes on telehealth while the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation wants to develop a smart, remote education system. Klein notes that Big Tech’s role is increasing very fast in this crisis, with the Australian government contracting Amazon to store the data for its coronavirus tracking app and Canada contracting Amazon to deliver medical equipment, thereby deliberately bypassing the public postal service.

If Big Tech succeeds, Klein warns, this will lead to a future that employs far fewer teachers, doctors and other professions that are considered “vital” for society. While recognizing that overcrowded classrooms present a health risk during a pandemic, she points to alternatives to Bill Gates’s remote learning agenda, for example by hiring double the number of teachers and cutting class size in half. These measures would also create the much-needed jobs in a depression-level unemployment crisis.

As governments are broadly interpreting their powers after first declaring the state of emergency and are making decisions that will have a long-term impact, Klein ends with a key question for all of us: “Will technology be subject to the disciplines of democracy and public oversight, or will it be rolled out in a state-of-exception frenzy, without asking critical questions that will shape our lives for decades to come?”.

Edited by Dr. Olivier Vonk

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