Vigilance needed as we adopt new crisis technologies
The challenge of the pandemic is to find long-term solutions, not to adopt technology for technology’s sake, says Connect's Dr Tom O Dea
10 July 2020 | 0
Technology is central to several initiatives currently allowing us to take tentative steps back to normality. But viewing technology as a golden ticket out of our Covid-19 difficulties blinds us to potential drawbacks. We need to continue interrogating the motivations behind their implementation and, more than ever, we need to be vigilant to ensure the Covid-19 crisis is not used as an opportunity to deploy technologies that up until now have been considered problematic.
Limitations on physical contact, for instance, have meant a near total switch from cash to contactless payments, bringing us closer to a cashless society. This move has been widely supported in order to reduce the risk of Covid-19 infection in the short-term. In the long-term, however, the switch to cashless transactions can limit access to services, negatively impacting the most vulnerable in our society especially older people, those on social welfare and people in low-paid and irregular employment. Beyond the question of immediate access, placing the monetary system fully in private control, removes our ability to ensure the system’s equality and fairness in the future. The pandemic has generated a huge community effort to protect the most vulnerable in the short-term; it has also highlighted the importance of publicly owned infrastructure and services in the responding to unforeseen crises in the long-term. The switch to a cashless society also exposes all our financial transactions to the already sprawling surveillance and tracking infrastructures of new financial players like Facebook, Google and Apple. Contactless payment may offer solutions to our current situation, but these may not be in our best interests once normal contact has resumed.
Drones and automation have also been proposed as vital weapons in our fight against coronavirus. News reports have shown robots delivering packages to people’s doors, ferrying medicines around hospitals in China and even acting in the role of police officers enforcing quarantine rules in the UK. In each case, the reduction in interpersonal contact is highlighted as evidence of their important public health role. But this uncritical coverage misses another element: those delivery drones and hospitals robots were all in development long before Covid-19. Their purpose was to solve the ‘problem’ of labour costs for employers. The fact that the delivery drones in Wuhan were operating on already empty streets where the risk of encountering a person was much reduced, or that the UK police operating the drone were censured for overreaching their legal powers, tend to spoil a neat narrative of ‘tech for good’. Instead, they serve as uncomfortable examples of serious issues which remain to be dealt with when more normal conditions return. If anything, rather than demonstrate the power of automation, the pandemic is demonstrating that the adaptability and humanity of many low-paid workers has been most crucial to maintaining our public services.
Other developments also have downsides, which are not immediately obvious. Remote working, for example, may reduce unnecessary travel and allow greater flexibility to support family and social life, but it also the potential to reduce the security and regularity of employment contracts and, as anyone is a family zoom group will attest, cannot replace the connection of face-to-face interaction.
Similarly, the technology involved in contact tracing, which has been in the spotlight for legitimate privacy concerns, appears to have been adopted without in-depth scrutiny of its effectiveness or the long-term impact of normalising mass health surveillance.
The global response to coronavirus has highlighted our ability to tackle global challenges and to act in our collective best interest. Massive systems that were previously deemed uncontrollable, such as the global economy, have been shown to be within our control. It is critical that we use this moment to think about the future relationship that we would like to have with pervasive technologies. The challenge of the pandemic is not to adopt technology for technology’s sake, but to find solutions that will be effective in the immediate term, while also being beneficial in the longer term.
While an increasingly technological future might seem inevitable, what is not inevitable is who will benefit most from this future.
It is important to remember that we have power to decide our future relationships with technology. The outcomes of this crisis will be shaped by those who contest them. This makes it increasingly urgent that different voices and diverse types of knowledge are included in decision-making about technology. Tentative steps in this direction already exist such as the European Forum for Advanced Practices at BAK in Utrecht, or at the School for Poetic Computation in New York. It’s critical that the immediate needs of the current crisis do not derail these.
The pause forced on us by the pandemic is the ideal moment to reflect on our relationship with these technologies and to decide what is worth keeping, and what is best left behind.
Dr Tom O Dea is an artist and Research Fellow at Connect, the Science Foundation Ireland research centre for future networks, at Trinity College Dublin.