Screen New Deal and the World After COVID: a Technological Dystopia?


In aliis linguis

(Trascript of video published by the author on her Youtube channel on June 1st, 2020.)

Hello there.

So the other day I came across this article by Naomi Klein: “Screen New Deal”. At first I thought it referred to these weird face screen masks that you’re starting to see everywhere because of the coronavirus —but as I read it, things got even worse: screens, you know, phone, computer, iPad, they may become even more part of our daily lives than they currently are. You may think, is that possible? It actually is, and I decided to make this video because I find that possibility quite concerning.

I’m going to be talking in English for a change. Españoles y españolas, quédense a ver el vídeo que me he currado los subtítulos por ustedes.

What I’m going to do is kind of go over Klein’s article for The Intercept, an on-line news publication, because I think it’s worth it, and along the way I’ll introduce additional points of view and information that I find relevant.

So let’s go.

Okay, so the term Screen New Deal derives from the position that some public authorities and prominent voices from the high-tech sector are adopting in the US in response to the coronavirus. One example is NY state governor Andrew Cuomo, who made the following statements in a briefing on May 6th. Let’s watch it.

Cuomo’s statements are self-explanatory. In this era of coronavirus, we have been forced to lock ourselves in our homes, work telematically —unless you are among the thousands of people who lost their job—, study telematically, keep the distance with one another to avoid contagion. All this seemed like a transitory stage, after which we would be able to go back to normal —but every day, normal seems less likely to come back, and that could be a good thing for a number of reasons, because old normality sucked, but it is also a matter of concern. A lot of people are worried about going back to agglomerations, there’s fear of new outbreaks of the coronavirus, and the fear is founded: many of us live in big cities, crowded with people in the subway, in the office, in the café, everywhere; cities that are also global nodes where inflows and outflows of goods, information and people collide. So these places are often a focus for virus spreading. In short, the urban, modern way of life in this globalized world where everything travels everywhere all the time is not only quite unsustainable, but also multiplies the chances of a pandemics like this to spread over the world (if you want to know more about this I would recommend my last video about the causes of coronavirus and what we can learn from it).

So, instead of tackling the problem from the root, American politicians like Cuomo talk about a different kind of solution. That, ladies and gentlemen, is the solution of Silicon Valley gurus like former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, Bill Gates or companies like Amazon: voilà! invest in high technology. In artificial intelligence, tele-education, tele-health, centralized transportation of virtually everything, including food and sanitary material. It’s easy to identify how the story goes: all this was previously being sold to us under the slogans of convenience, comfort, personalization of our on-line experience, bla bla bla, so amazing. Now, it sees a renewed impulse: in the name of protection against the coronavirus, of keeping people at distance, “meeting the needs of the time”.

Why is this so scary?

If we summarize Klein’s arguments we get an idea why. The first thing that she notes is that this future envisioned by high tech representatives would be a future with less workers. A future with less teachers, doctors and drivers, and more roboticized devices incorporated in our life. A future with less local stores, all of them simply broken due to the double blow of the pandemics and the triumph of Amazon.

It would also be a future in which cash and credit cards would probably not be accepted with the excuse of preventing virus spreading. Next thing is our ID or passport, every piece of paperwork you can think of —everything would be electronic. Our phone —or maybe a chip under our skin, I don’t know— would become the centralized place for every single piece of information about us. And it already is, kind of, but trust me, they are preparing the ultimate blow. Our identity, the money we spend and how, our school, health and criminal reports, our tastes regarding consumer habits and regarding the people we’d like to date, our social relationships, the places we go, what we do, our conversations, our whole life would be centralized in a single device, recorded and stored by private technology giants in alliance with governments.

I bet that most of you have seen Black Mirror. For those who haven’t, okay, think of Big Brother or Matrix. This is the incarnation of those technological dystopias. We actually have real-life examples of this today.

Let’s go to China

Over the last decade, China has become the global mobile leader, in terms of mobile users and revenues for the industry, and is the largest market in the world for electronic commerce (e-commerce for an abbreviation), literally dwarfing the US. Giant corporations like Tencent and Alibaba have developed incredibly sophisticated forms of shopping through the smartphone; electronic supermarkets like Amazon Go, where you simply go, get your items and pay by scanning a QR code with your phone, and there’s no need to hire any workers to attend you, are becoming extremely common in China.

Things get even more funny with the so-called social credit system, a rating system developed by the government which, based on all the big-data stored and collected from every citizen, including facial recognition, rates the Chinese in terms of credit history, behavioral habits, ability to pay off debts, personal information, and social relationships. High scores give the Chinese discounts on certain products and other advantages, while low scores can mean difficulties getting loans or seats on a train. So this means that depending on who your friends are and how they think, on whether you don’t speak shit about the government and do what it expects from you, you’ll get rewarded. It’s an extremely efficient mechanism of control of the population in the hands of the government.

But the government’s is not the only social credit system; there’s also Sesame Credit, by Ant Financial Services Group, owned by Alibaba. This one rates you using information gathered from your activities on Alibaba. A private corporation managing your life. 1984 fell short.

So basically China is the world leader in AI, facial recognition, there’s cameras everywhere tracking every movement, and two big companies, Alibaba and Tencent (the owner of We Chat) centralize most social networks, online-payment and e-commerce platforms, digital medical diagnosis softwares, even dating platforms just like Tinder —everything that has to do with data. And they’re quite ahead of the US in this. In China, these corporations are in close collaboration with the government. And we tend to look at it like, omg, China, Communist, gov’t is repressive, no freedom, and like, Google and Amazon got our data, but that’s alright, we live in a democratic country, we haven’t done anything wrong, we don’t have to worry. But let’s not forget the essencial: in China, the government cooperates with profit driven companies in a planned economy oriented towards global competitiveness and growth. And if you take a close look, what Google and Bill Gates are proposing is quite similar. Partnership between governments and industry to develop high-tech, big data systems that encompass almost every aspect of our lives, including education and health, and you know why? Exactly, because we can’t let the Chinese get there first, because they’re already ahead, and, my God, they’re going to control the world, we have to avoid this at any cost!

You know, the fact that China is a planned economy, a communist country, is meaningless if we look at the whole picture. The outcome is the same. A display of a mass surveillance system conducted by private corporations with the support of governments, a display that largely responds to private interests, although it may also be put at the service of political purposes. A display that is possible due to favorable political conditions, to the transfer of unthinkable amounts of public money to private hands, yes, privatization it is called. Eric Schmidt and his friends are in a huge hurry to develop this net of technological advances because they’re afraid of China and very greedy. With the excuse of coronavirus, they are going to lobby governments to do what it takes and give them the floor to start -and may even manage to get around regulations in the middle of this paranoia, when things need to be done quickly.

And then there’s the whole issue with 5G. You know, the least of my concerns is whether 5G towers cause cancer. What I worry about is that it is going to make possible this technological dystopia much earlier than we think and to an extent that we can’t even imagine. Yes, China is championing 5G technology, and because of the diffuse line between the Chinese gov’t and Chinese companies, Trump was concerned that China may spy on the US using this technology… but that’s just distracting public attention from what’s really going to happen. Yes, of course we’re gonna be spied upon, but not by China: it’s going to be a handful of high-tech companies, once they solve their trade war and reach some sort of agreement, including Google, Amazon and such, an alliance of governments and capital that is literally going to have the whole world in its hands. Doesn’t matter what government they serve —they serve, primarily, profit, economic growth, money, power, the perpetuation of an agonizing global capitalism. They do not serve the people. And this, in exchange for a bit more speed in Internet connection and a smart car that drives and parks alone because it connects to the closest parking slot.

Are we mad?

Our enemy is not the communist government of China. China may not be liberal, but it’s capitalist in every meaningful sense of the word. Our worst enemy is not even coronavirus. Our enemy is an obsession with endless economic growth, power and competition that is going to lead us straight to an ecological disaster, and before that, to a technological dystopia, all because we simply couldn’t have enough.

Can we please assess the implications of all this nonsense?

The first obvious and very real concern is the absolute violation of privacy that all this entails. Yes, Alphabet, Facebook and Amazon have been collecting our data for ages, but many people truly worried about this from the beginning. All this data, all this information about us, is allegedly used to personalize our online experience. In truth, it is traded between big tech companies and used to monitor our tastes, keep us buying shit from Amazon by putting in front of us exactly what we were talking about, because they freaking listen to what we say through our phone’s microphone; to know what we want even before we do. That is not personalization. That is manipulation and interference with human agency. And it’s only a step away from China —where they use incentives to guide people’s behaviour towards doing certain things and not others, directing the people to meet the interests of big corporations and the government. That, ladies and gentlemen, is not freedom. It is the end of democracy. It is the maximum exponent of our society of manipulation, which is not new but can get worse, a society in which we think we are free to choose what we want, what we like, but we’re constantly being bombed with advertising and propaganda that shape our final decisions, from who we will vote for to who we will marry, if we allow Google, Amazon and friends to get along with their marvelous plan.

But there’s much more. I mean, what kind of world awaits us if we allow this robotization of society? I said it before: a future in which machines and screens would substitute millions of workers. A future in which your teacher may be a heartless robot. A reality that further atomizes us, that tears human relationships apart for good. It is an absolute attack against the physical realm. “all these buildings, all these physical classrooms —why with all the technology you have?” (Cuomo). Against the world we know. A blow that aims to disconnect us from the ground, from the sky, the rivers, the smell of flowers and the warmth of a hug, and connect us to a reality made of bits. That is, connect those who are privileged (or miserable) enough to have access to all this, because the rest will remain tied to the hardships of a life of increased inequality and poverty, a life on an Earth that will continue to perish under the abuse of a capitalist society of information that turns its back to it, they will continue to sustain our system with their work, in sweatshops, in mines to get all the fancy materials for our technological gadgets, in meat-processing plants, in silence.

Yes, discrimination will increase

And it will do so entrenched, as usual, with class, race and gender bias. Klein explains it well: households that lack a good internet connection or can’t afford a computer for every family member, imagine if all of them have to be connected at the same time because they work telematically; children with special needs that it’s very questionable that technology will attend properly. How is it better to learn from home if you live in an abusive or overcrowded household, how is it better to grow up without socializing with other kids. But technology solves everything, right? We’ll simply buy more computers and have virtual friends. I’m sorry, but I don’t see how this benefits students or the people. It benefits private tech companies. Although they’re gonna tell us, again, that this is a great thing. I’m gonna quote Eric Schmidt:

The benefit of these corporations, which we love to malign, in terms of the ability to communicate, the ability to deal with health, the ability to get information, is profound. Think about what your life would be like in America without Amazon. […] People should be a little bit grateful that these companies got the capital, did the investment, built the tools that we’re using now, and have really helped us out.

Thank you, Google, my Almighty God! I confess, I use you every day of my life (I mean, I have no choice if I want to get my university degree). But you know what? I am confident that, one day, the tools you created will be held in the hands of the people and turn against you. And my secret hope is that, tomorrow, we will not need them anymore.

An alternative

So yeah, I think it’s clear that I don’t agree at all with Schmidt’s, Andrew Cuomo’s, Jeff Bezos’s, and Huawei founder’s vision of the future, with their SCREAM New Deal. If we have to deal with coronavirus or future pandemics, I am more inclined to invest money in solutions like extending classroom size or reducing the number of kids per class; hiring more teachers; making bigger and better hospitals and nursing homes, with more physicians and sanitary personnel and human people working, shit; re-localizing industries that produce basic stuff, including sanitary material, so that we do not rely on the global market to bring us what we need; promoting a sustainable farming that doesn’t keep thousands of animals together in small spaces, because this is known to be a focus of diseases; I would invest in the planet, shifting towards a society that is in harmony with all ecosystems, and not simply by promoting a sustainable growth based in speculation and miraculous technological solutions, but by empowering local and regional initiatives that aim towards energetic and alimentary self-sufficiency, that look to the countryside instead of having us clumped together in massive metropoli, because the more independent from global flows, the more resilient, my friends, the more prepared to resist and survive if the global apparatus should fail. I would want to see the sprout of smaller communities, not atomized individuals. Interconnected, democratic, healthy communities that will need less of Google because they’ll have more human networks, because they will live in true proximity and cooperation.

That is the world I want to see after Covid, not the Black Mirror version of it. So we have to stay alert. The Black Mirror version did face a lot of public opposition before, but it is going to try and use the coronavirus to circumvent it. We must not allow this if we want to preserve truly human societies. We need to say no to techno-fanaticism and say yes to the people and to the planet. This sounds like an empty political slogan. Take it however you like. It’s just a basis upon which to build. Many things can be built, and in many directions. If we use technological tools and solutions, which may indeed help us (thank u again, Google), let us do it with a very clear purpose: make human and non-human lives better, not serve the pocket of a greedy CEO. We’ve had enough of that crap. When technology stops making our life easier and starts fueling inequality, stealing jobs, creating mental health issues and de-humanizing the people, it is time to say BASTA YA. Maybe we should have said it long ago. Let us do it now.

It’s more lucrative to finance Apple to put new things to the iPhone than to finance something to save humanity from destruction. —Noam Chomsky

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Virginia Soler. De nombre artístico Birch, cantautora y miembro de Fridays for Future Barcelona.

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