Disaster Capitalism in Covid times

Naomi Klein, author of The Shock Doctrine, writes in The Intercept about how the Tech industry is rushing to capitalise on the pandemic induced crisis:

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 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.

If all of this sounds familiar it’s because, pre-Covid, this precise app-driven, gig-fueled future was being sold to us in the name of convenience, frictionlessness, and personalization. But many of us had concerns.

Today, a great many of those well-founded concerns are being swept away by a tidal wave of panic, and this warmed-over dystopia is going through a rush-job rebranding. Now, against a harrowing backdrop of mass death, it is being sold to us on the dubious promise that these technologies are the only possible way to pandemic-proof our lives, the indispensable keys to keeping ourselves and our loved ones safe.

This narrative will be familiar to those who’ve read her work on ‘Disaster Capitalism’, which, as she explains in a VICE interview, “describes the way private industries spring up to directly profit from large-scale crises.”

So “the ‘shock doctrine’ is the political strategy of using large-scale crises to push through policies that systematically deepen inequality, enrich elites, and undercut everyone else. In moments of crisis, people tend to focus on the daily emergencies of surviving that crisis, whatever it is, and tend to put too much trust in those in power. We take our eyes off the ball a little bit in moments of crisis.”

Which, according to Naomi, is exactly what’s happening with the Covid-19 crisis today.

She singles out Eric Schmidt, ex-CEO of Google, for orchestrating this move towards an AI-driven, surveillance based economy. Before Covid, his lobbying strategy was based on instilling the fear of (the U.S.) being overtaken by China. Now, however, the same intent is being advanced under the guise of fighting the virus. And he is faring much better in reaching his goals.

Until recently, “democracy — inconvenient public engagement in the designing of critical institutions and public spaces — was turning out to be the single greatest obstacle to the vision Schmidt was advancing”, but now:

…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.

The problems here are many, but the fundamental issue is that the primary beneficiaries of this technology-based approach are the tech companies (and their investors or shareholders). Not the children who are being taught remotely, not the nurses whose jobs are being affected by telemedicine, and so on.

In each case, 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.