Naomi Klein: How Big Tech Plans Benefit From Pandemic | Coronavirus outbreak



Or a few fleeting moments during New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s daily coronavirus briefing on Wednesday, May 6, the grim grimace that has filled our screens for weeks was briefly replaced by something akin to a smile.

“We are ready, we are all in,” said the governor. “We are New Yorkers, so we are aggressive about it, we are ambitious about it … We realize that change is not only imminent, but can actually be a friend if done the right way.”

The inspiration for these unusually good vibes was a video visit from former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, who joined the Governor’s briefing to announce that he will head a panel to reimagine the post-Covid reality of New York State, with emphasis in the permanent integration of technology in all aspects of civic life.

“The first priorities of what we are trying to do,” said Schmidt, “are focused on telehealth, remote learning and broadband … We need to find solutions that can be presented now and accelerate, and use technology to make things”. Better. “Lest there be any doubt that the goals of the old Google chair were purely benevolent, its video background featured a pair of framed golden angel wings.

Just a day earlier, Cuomo had announced a similar partnership with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to develop “a smarter educational system.” Calling Gates a “visionary,” Cuomo said the pandemic has created “a moment in history where we can incorporate and move forward. [Gates’s] ideas … all these buildings, all these physical classrooms, why, with all the technology you have? he asked, apparently rhetorically.

It has taken a while to gel, but something like a coherent doctrine of pandemic shock is beginning to emerge. Call it Screen New Deal. Much more high-tech than anything we’ve seen in past disasters, the future that is forging as bodies still accumulate treats our last few weeks of physical isolation not as a painful necessity to save lives, but as a living laboratory. for a permanent and highly profitable future without contact.

Anuja Sonalker, CEO of Steer Tech, a Maryland-based company that sells its own parking technology, recently summed up the new custom virus filing. “There has been a distinctive warm-up to human and contactless technology,” he said. “Humans are biohazardous, machines are not.”

It is a future in which our homes will never again be exclusively personal spaces, but also, through high-speed digital connectivity, our schools, doctors’ offices, our gyms and, if the state determines, our prisons. Of course, for many of us, those same houses were already becoming our never-ending workplaces and our main entertainment venues before the pandemic, and surveillance incarceration “in the community” was already on the rise. But in the rush-building future, all of these trends are poised for warp speed acceleration.

This is a future in which, for the privileged, almost everything is delivered to the home, either virtually through transmission technology and in the cloud, or physically through a driverless vehicle or a drone, and then the screen is shared on a mediated platform. It is a future that employs far fewer teachers, doctors, and drivers. It does not accept cash or credit cards (under the pretext of virus control), and it has skeletal public transport and much less live art. It is a future that claims to be based on “artificial intelligence,” but is in fact held together by tens of millions of anonymous workers hiding in warehouses, data centers, content moderation factories, electronic workshops, lithium mines, farms industrial, meat. processing plants and prisons, where they are unprotected from diseases and hyperexploitation. It is a future in which each of our movements, each of our words, each of our relationships is traceable, traceable and extractable through unprecedented collaborations between the government and the tech giants.

Eric Schmidt, through a video call, joins the press conference given by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo on May 6, 2020.
Eric Schmidt, through a video call, joins the press conference given by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo on May 6, 2020. Photograph: Lev Radin / Pacific Press / Rex / Shutterstock

If all of this sounds familiar to you, it’s because, before Covid, this precise app-driven, concert-packed future was sold to us in the name of convenience and frictionless customization. But many of us had concerns. On the safety, quality and inequity of telehealth and online classrooms. About driverless cars that shoot down pedestrians and drones that destroy packages (and people). About location tracking and cashless trading that erases our privacy and entrenches racial and gender discrimination. On unscrupulous social media platforms that poison our information ecology and our children’s mental health. About “smart cities” full of sensors that supplant local government. About the good jobs these technologies eliminated. About the bad jobs they produced en masse.

And above all, we were concerned with the wealth and power that threatened democracy accumulated by a handful of technology companies that are masters of abdication, avoiding all responsibility for the remains that remain in the fields that now dominate, be it media, retail or transportation. .

That was the ancient past, also known as February. Today, a huge wave of panic carries away many of those well-founded concerns, and this heated dystopia is undergoing an urgent job rebranding. Now, in a heartbreaking context of mass death, we are sold with the dubious promise that these technologies are the only possible way to protect our lives against a pandemic, the indispensable keys to keeping ourselves and our loved ones safe.

Thanks to Cuomo and his various multi-million dollar partnerships (including one with Michael Bloomberg for testing and tracing), New York State is positioning itself as the bright showroom for this bleak future, but ambitions go far beyond the borders of any state or country.

And at the center of it all is Eric Schmidt.


Before the Americans understood the Covid-19 threat, Schmidt had been in an aggressive lobbying and public relations campaign, precisely driving the vision of the Black Mirror society that Cuomo just gave him the power to build. At the heart of this vision is the perfect integration of the government with a handful of Silicon Valley giants: with public schools, hospitals, doctor’s offices, police and military, all the main functions (at a high cost) for many private companies in technology.

It is a vision that Schmidt has been advancing in his duties as chair of the Defense Innovation Board, which advises the US Department of Defense. USA On the increased use of artificial intelligence in the military, and as chairman of the powerful National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence, or NSCAI, which advises Congress on “advances in artificial intelligence, developments related to machine learning and associated technologies” , with the goal of addressing “the national and economic security needs of the United States, including economic risk.” Both boards are filled with powerful Silicon Valley CEOs and top executives from companies like Oracle, Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook and, of course, Schmidt’s former colleagues at Google.

As president, Schmidt, who still owns more than $ 5.3 billion in shares of Alphabet (Google’s parent company), as well as large investments in other technology companies, has essentially been carrying out a Washington-based restructuring on behalf of from Silicon Valley. The main objective of the two boards is to request exponential increases in government spending on AI research and infrastructure that enables technology, such as 5G, investments that would directly benefit the companies in which Schmidt and other members of these boards have broad participations. .

First in closed-door presentations to lawmakers, and later in public opinion articles and interviews, Schmidt’s argument has been that since the Chinese government is willing to spend unlimited public money to build high-tech surveillance infrastructure , while allowing Chinese technology companies like Alibaba, Baidu and Huawei to reap the benefits of commercial applications, the dominant position of the US. USA In the global economy it is on the verge of collapse.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center (Epic) recently gained access, through a Freedom of Information Request (FOI), to a presentation made by Schmidt’s NSCAI in May 2019. Its slides make a series of alarmist claims about how China’s relatively lax regulatory infrastructure and its bottomless appetite for surveillance is causing the US to move ahead. USA in various fields, including “Medical Diagnostic AI”, autonomous vehicles, digital infrastructure, “smart cities”, carpooling, and cashless commerce.

The reasons given for China’s competitive advantage are innumerable, from the large volume of consumers buying online; “The lack of legacy banking systems in China”, which has allowed it to jump on cash and credit cards and unleash “a huge market for e-commerce and digital services” using digital payments; and a severe shortage of doctors, prompting the government to work closely with technology companies like Tencent to use AI as “predictive” medicine. The slides point out that in China, tech companies “have the authority to quickly remove regulatory barriers, while US initiatives are mired in HIPPA compliance and FDA approval.”

A slide from the Chinese Technology Landscape Overview (NSCAI presentation) on surveillance.
A slide from the Chinese Technology Landscape Overview (NSCAI presentation) on surveillance. Photography: NSCAI

However, more than any other factor, the NSCAI signals China’s willingness to adopt public-private partnerships in mass surveillance and data collection as a reason for its competitive advantage. The presentation promotes the “explicit support and participation of the Chinese government, for example, the deployment of facial recognition.” He argues that “surveillance is one of Al’s” first and best clients “and, furthermore, that” mass surveillance is a killer app for deep learning. “

A slide titled “State Data Sets: Surveillance = Smart Cities” notes that China, along with Google’s main Chinese competitor, Alibaba, are running ahead.

A slide from the Chinese Technology Landscape Overview (NSCAI presentation) on surveillance.
A slide from the Chinese Technology Landscape Overview (NSCAI presentation) on surveillance. Photography: NSCAI

This is notable because Google’s parent company Alphabet has been driving this precise vision through its Sidewalk Labs division, choosing a large portion of the Toronto coastline as its “smart city” prototype. But the Toronto project closed after two years of relentless controversy related to the enormous amounts of personal data Alphabet would collect, the lack of privacy protections, and questionable benefits for the city as a whole.

Five months after this presentation, in November, the NSCAI issued an interim report to Congress that further raised alarm over the need for the United States to equalize China’s adaptation of these controversial technologies. “We are in strategic competition,” states the report, obtained through FOI by Epic. “AI will be at the center. The future of our national security and economy is at stake. “

Sidewalk Labs, an Alphabet affiliate, planned to build a neighborhood
Sidewalk Labs, an Alphabet affiliate, planned to build an “online” neighborhood on Lake Toronto. But the project closed after two years of controversy. Photography: AFP via Getty

In late February, Schmidt was taking his campaign to the public, perhaps understanding that the budget increase his board of directors was asking for could not be approved without further acceptance. In a New York Times article titled “I used to run Google. Silicon Valley could lose China, “Schmidt called for” unprecedented partnerships between government and industry “and, once again sounding the yellow danger alarm, he wrote:

“Artificial intelligence will open new frontiers in everything from biotechnology to banking, and it’s also a priority for the defense department … If current trends continue, China’s overall investments in research and development are expected to outpace those of of the United States 10 years from now, nearly as long its economy is projected to be larger than ours.

Unless these trends change, in the 2030s we will compete with a country that has a larger economy, more investment in research and development, better research, a greater deployment of new technologies, and a stronger computing infrastructure … Ultimately Instance, the Chinese are competing to become the world’s leading innovators, and the United States is not playing to win. “

The only solution, for Schmidt, was a stream of public money. Praising the White House for requesting a doubling of funding for research in artificial intelligence and quantum information science, he wrote: “We should plan to double funding in those fields again as we build institutional capacity in laboratories and research centers. At the same time, Congress should comply with the President’s request for the highest level of defense R&D funding in over 70 years, and the defense department should capitalize on that increased resources to develop innovative capabilities. in artificial intelligence, quantum, hypersonic and other priority technological areas. “

That was exactly two weeks before the coronavirus outbreak was declared a pandemic, and it was not mentioned that the goal of this vast high-tech expansion was to protect American health. Only it was necessary to avoid being overtaken by China. But of course that would soon change.

In the two months since then, Schmidt has brought forward these pre-existing demands: massive public spending on research and high-tech infrastructure, a host of AI “public-private partnerships” and the loosening of countless privacy and security 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 new virus that will accompany us for years to come.

And the technology companies with which Schmidt has deep ties, and who populate the influential advisory boards he chairs, have repositioned themselves as benevolent protectors of public health and munificent champions of the essential workers of the “everyday hero” (many of whom, As delivery drivers, you would lose your jobs if these companies got away with it.) Less than two weeks after the close of New York state, Schmidt wrote an article for the Wall Street Journal that set the new tone and made it clear that Silicon Valley fully intended to take advantage of the crisis for permanent transformation.

“Like other Americans, technologists are trying to do their part to support the frontline pandemic response …

But every American should ask himself where we want the nation to be when the Covid-19 pandemic ends. How could the emerging technologies deployed in the current crisis propel us towards a better future? … Companies like Amazon know how to supply and distribute efficiently. They will have to provide services and advice to government officials who lack the computer systems and experience.

We should also accelerate the trend towards remote learning, which is being tested today like never before. Online, there is no proximity requirement, allowing students to obtain instruction from the best teachers, no matter what school district they reside in …

The need for rapid and large-scale experimentation will also accelerate the biotech revolution … Finally, the country has long needed a real digital infrastructure … If we want to build a future economy and a tele-everything-based education system, we need a Connected population and ultrafast infrastructure. The government must make a massive investment, perhaps as part of a stimulus package, to turn the nation’s digital infrastructure into cloud-based platforms and link them to a 5G network. “

In fact, Schmidt has been relentless in pursuit of this vision. Two weeks after the publication of that article, he described the ad hoc home schooling schedule that teachers and families across the country were forced to improvise during this public health emergency as “a massive experiment in remote learning.”

The aim of this experiment, he said, was “to try to find out: how do children learn remotely? And with that data we should be able to build better distance and distance learning tools than, when combined with the teacher .. will help children learn better. ” During this same video call, organized by the New York Economic Club, Schmidt also called for more telehealth, more 5G, more digital commerce and the rest of the pre-existing wish list. All in the name of fighting the virus.

However, his most revealing comment was as follows: “The benefit of these corporations, which we love to smear, in terms of the ability to communicate, the ability to deal with health, the ability to obtain information, is profound. Think about what your life would be like in the United States without Amazon. “He added that people should” be a little thankful that these companies raised the capital, made the investment, built the tools we are using now, and have really helped us. “


Chmidt’s words are a reminder that until very recently, public rejection of these companies was increasing. The presidential candidates openly discussed the breakdown of big technology. Amazon was forced to abandon its plans for a New York headquarters due to fierce local opposition. Google’s Sidewalk Labs project was in a perennial crisis, and Google workers refused to build surveillance technology with military applications.

In short, democracy, an inconvenient public engagement in the design of critical institutions and public spaces, was becoming the greatest obstacle to the vision that Schmidt was advancing, first from his position at the top of Google and Alphabet, and then as president of two powerful boards advising the United States Congress and the Department of Defense. As the NSCAI documents reveal, this inconvenient exercise of power by the public and tech workers within these mega-companies, from the perspective of men like Schmidt and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, maddeningly slowed down the AI ​​arms race, keep life-threatening driverless car and truck fleets off the roads, prevent private health records from becoming a weapon used by employers against workers, prevent urban spaces from being covered with facial recognition software and much plus.

Now, amid the carnage of this ongoing pandemic, and the fear and uncertainty about the future it has brought, these companies clearly see their time to sweep away all of that democratic commitment. Having the same kind of power as your Chinese competitors, who have the luxury of operating without being hampered by civil or labor rights intrusions.

Schoolchildren walking under surveillance cameras in Akto, in the Chinese region of Xinjiang.
Schoolchildren walking under surveillance cameras in Akto, in the Chinese region of Xinjiang. Photograph: Greg Baker / AFP via Getty Images

This is all moving very fast. The Australian government has contracted with Amazon to store the data for its controversial coronavirus tracking application. The Canadian government has contracted with Amazon to deliver medical equipment, raising questions about why it skipped the public postal service. And in just a few days in early May, Alphabet has launched a new Sidewalk Labs initiative to remake urban infrastructure with $ 400 million in seed capital. Josh Marcuse, executive director of the Defense Innovation Board chaired by Schmidt, announced that he would be leaving that job to work full-time at Google as head of strategy and innovation for the global public sector, which means he will help Google capitalize. on some of the many opportunities he and Schmidt have been actively creating with their lobbying.


To be clear, technology is certainly a key part of how we must protect public health in the months and years ahead. The question is: will technology be subject to the disciplines of democracy and public oversight, or will it be implemented in a frenzy of a state of emergency, without asking critical questions that will shape our lives for decades to come? Questions like these, for example: If we are really seeing how critical digital connectivity is in times of crisis, should these networks and our data really be in the hands of private players like Google, Amazon and Apple? If public funds are paying much of it, should the public also own and control it? If the Internet is essential to many things in our lives, as it clearly is, should it be treated as a non-profit public utility?

And while there is no doubt that teleconferencing capability has been a lifesaver in this period of lockdown, there is serious debate over whether our most durable protections are clearly more humane. Take education. Schmidt is right that overcrowded classrooms pose a health risk, at least until we have a vaccine. So how about hiring twice as many teachers and cutting class size in half? How about making sure every school has a nurse?

That would create much-needed jobs in a depression-level unemployment crisis, and give everyone in the learning environment more leeway. If the buildings are too crowded, how about dividing the day into shifts and having more outdoor education, taking advantage of the abundant research that shows that time in nature improves children’s ability to learn?

Introducing those kinds of changes would certainly be difficult. But they are not as risky as giving up the tried and true technology of trained humans that teach younger humans face-to-face, in groups where they learn to socialize with each other to boot.

Upon learning of New York State’s new partnership with the Gates Foundation, Andy Pallotta, president of the United Teachers Union of New York State, reacted quickly: “If we want to reimagine education, let’s start by addressing the need for social workers, counselors mental health, school nurses, enriching arts courses, advanced courses and smaller classes in school districts across the state, “he said. A coalition of parent groups also noted that if they had actually been experiencing a “remote learning experiment” (as Schmidt put it), the results were deeply troubling: “Since schools closed in mid-March, our understanding of the Deep deficiencies in screen-based instruction have only grown. “


n in addition to The obvious class and race biases against children who lack access to the Internet and computers at home (issues that tech companies are eager to pay with big tech buys), there are big questions about whether remote teaching can serve many children. with disabilities, as needed. by law. And there is no technological solution to the problem of learning in a home environment that is overcrowded and / or abusive.

The problem is not whether schools must change in the face of a highly contagious virus for which we have no cure or inoculation. Like all institutions where humans gather in groups, they will change. The problem, as always in these moments of collective commotion, is the lack of public debate about what those changes should be like and who should benefit: private technology companies or students?

The same questions should be asked about health. Avoiding doctors’ offices and hospitals during a pandemic makes sense. But telehealth loses a great deal. Therefore, we should have an evidence-based debate on the pros and cons of spending scarce public resources on telehealth, rather than having more trained nurses, equipped with all the necessary protective equipment, who can make home visits. to diagnose and treat patients. at home And, perhaps most urgently, we need to strike the right balance between virus-tracking apps, which, with the right privacy protections, have a role to play, and calls for a “community health corps” that It would put millions of Americans to work, not just tracking contacts, but making sure everyone has the material resources and support they need to safely quarantine.

A teacher in Maryland, USA. USA, Delivering computers to students for remote learning.
A teacher in Maryland, USA. USA, Delivering computers to students for remote learning. Photograph: Win McNamee / Getty Images

In each case, we face real and difficult decisions between investing in humans and investing in technology. Because the brutal truth is that, as things stand, it is highly unlikely that we will do both. Refusal to transfer necessary resources to states and cities in successive federal bailouts means that the coronavirus health crisis is now turning into a manufactured austerity crisis. Public schools, universities, hospitals, and traffic face existential questions about their future. If tech companies win their fierce lobbying campaign for remote learning, telehealth, 5G, and driverless vehicles, their Screen New Deal will simply not have any money left for urgent public priorities, regardless of the Green New Deal that our planet urgently needs. Rather: The price of all shiny devices will be the mass layoff of teachers and the closure of hospitals.

Technology provides us with powerful tools, but not all solutions are technological. And the problem with outsourcing key decisions about how to “reimagine” our states and cities to men like Bill Gates and Schmidt is that they have spent their lives demonstrating the belief that there is no problem that technology cannot solve.

For them, and for many others in Silicon Valley, the pandemic is a golden opportunity to receive not only the gratitude, but also the deference and power that they feel has been unfairly denied them. And Andrew Cuomo, putting the old Google chair in charge of the body that will shape the reopening of the state, seems to have given him something close to free rein.

• Reissued with permission from The Intercept. Sign up for The Intercept newsletter here.

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