The shock of the coronavirus health crisis and the threat of Chinese digital giants, led to massive investment in the American digital giants. What does this mean for democracy and for the future “surveillance capitalism”?
This article was published on 27 July 2020 at the site of Syriza’s newspaper “Avgi”. The article is translated into English by Wayne Hall and is republished with the permission of the author Dora Kotsaka.
A few months ago the Green New Deal was the new central and highly urgent demand on the political agenda, with the consequences of climate change expanding in tension and environmental costs.
…a column on the way things are operating
A few months ago the Green New Deal was the new central and highly urgent demand on the political agenda, with the consequences of climate change expanding in tension and environmental costs. It had concentrated very broad political alliances, it had been documented scientifically and elaborated in public relations terms to a level where as a demand it was considered “politically mature”. A great amount of public funding is required for a Green New Deal and for that reason it is a political gamble that meets with intense reactions – particularly in countries like the USA where a broad section of the population is sceptical of the very existence of climate change. The state coffers are limited in their capacity and the all-powerful corporate and other lobbies throw all their resources into the arena for the sake of diverting the flow of public monies towards reinforcement of their own vested interests.
After the pandemic it seems there was a change in the balance of forces. Digital technologies emerged as saviors of humanity as they inserted themselves into every aspect of everyday life. From telework and education to recreation and personal life it is now no easy task to find a sector of human activity in which some corporate digital platform is not implicated – with oligopolic status in most cases. Given all this, the negotiating power of the technological colossi has grown even further. And it was already huge.
Obviously the energy transition and the Green New Deal are not included in the agenda which the latter are tirelessly and systematically promoting. The consequences of the pandemic are today paving the way for discussion of a Screen New Deal and the choice of the term is exceptionally apt, because it is a development that is transforming the modus operandi of the economic model. Everything has been moving very fast lately. The Australian government has concluded a contract with Amazon for storage of data from the controversial Corona virus contact tracking app.1 The Canadian government has signed a contract with Amazon for delivery of medical equipment, prompting questions as to why this facility could not be provided by the public postal service.2 New York announced the city’s adaptation to the post-Covid reality, with emphasis on the steady integration of technology into every aspect of life in the polity and priority for Eurozone-related tasks and the provision of digital services in health and education. Indicatively, in May collaboration with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation was finalized “for development of smarter education systems”. 3 Citing B. Gates as a visionary, the Governor of New York asserted that “the pandemic created a moment in history in which we were truly able to benefit from the ideas of Gates… All these buildings, all these classes – why? with all the technology we possess?” he wondered.
Naomi Klein, the author and journalist who through her work exposed the operations of the “Shock Doctrine” to very wide audiences, argues that it took a little time for the picture to be clarified but something that seems to be a unifying dogma for the pandemic shock is beginning to emerge and is much more hi-tech that anything seen with previous disasters.4 Klein designates as the “Screen New Deal” this future that is currently being implemented and notes that a prerequisite for it was utilization of the weeks of physical isolation – not as a painful necessity for the sake of saving lives but as a real-life laboratory for the purpose of instituting a permanent and highly profitable future without physical contact.
The “Chinese” project
The mission of the United States’ National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence (NSCAI) is to advise Congress on questions related to “upgrading of artificial intelligence, machine learning and associated technologies”.5 In the course of the last year it has clearly identified the extremely urgent problem that has arisen in consequence of Chinese technology companies acquiring the ability to bypass the regulatory restrictions applying for workers’ rights or respect for privacy.6 The protracted crisis in technologies for surveillance of citizens has resulted in an undeniable supremacy in a host of fields including medical prognosis with the use of artificial intelligence, driverless cars, digital infrastuctures, “smart cities” and electronic commerce.7 Last November the NSCAI published a report to Congres in which it was asserted that mass surveillance is the crucial application for basic instruction of artificial intelligence.8 “We are participants in strategic competition. Artificial intelligence will be at the epicenter. The future of our national security and economic is at stake”, they note.
The centerpiece of the argument – in presentations to policy makers or in articles and interviews for public consumption – boiled down to the Chinese threat. The assertion is that American dominance of the global economy has been on a knife-edge since the moment that the Chinese government has become willing to spend unlimited amounts of public money for the sake of creating the required infrastructures of high-tech surveillance, while at the same time allowing Chinese technology companies such as Alibaba, Baidu and Huawei to reap the for commercial applications. But more than anything else the NSCAI notes China’s willingness to make public-private partnerships in the field of mass surveillance and data collection the basis of its competitive advantage.
A further ingredient in the above formula is provided by the revolving door between state functions and executive management in the technological giants. Indicatively, the President of NSCIA Eric Schmidt, who occupies the same position on the Defense Innovation Board, the US defense sector’s consultative body for the expanding use of artificial intelligence in the armed forces, previously served as CEO of Google.9 J. Marcuse, executive director of the USA’s Defense Innovation Board announced in May that he was resigning from this position so as to undertake full-time employment with Google as head of public sector strategy and innovation globally.10 The basic objective of these two committees is exponential increase in government funding for research on artificial intelligence and technological infrastructures, something which presupposes investments which will be of direct benefit to companies in which not only Schmidt but also other members of the two committees maintain substantial shareholding. All of these committees are staffed by executives of the most powerful technology companies such as Oracle, Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook, Google. Naturally their vested interests rarely include just their salaries.
In the case of the President of NSCAI, it is well-known that he owns shares worth more than 5.3 billion dollars in Alphabet (the parent company of Google) and that at the end of February – when the lock down in China had already shown the dynamic of the situation – he was ringing the alarm bells with calls for “unlimited partnerships between government and industry” and a deluge of public money: 11
“Artificial intelligence will open new horizons for all sectors from biotechnology to banking services and moreover represents a priority for defense of the country…. If matters keep evolving at the present pace, overall Chinese investments in research and development is expected within ten years to overtake those of the USA. This is about the same time as is needed for their economy to do the same. If this situation does not change, around 2030 we will be competing with a country that has a larger economy, more investment in research and technology, better research, more wide-ranging utilization of new technologies and more powerful digital infrastructures. Literally, the Chinese are competing with a view to becoming global leaders in innovation, and the USA is not playing to win.”
“And after that came the bees”: utilization of the pandemic as second chance after September 11
In the months that followed everything that had been regarded as dubious demands became a reality. Massive public investment and research in and high-tech infrastructures, a plethora of public-private partnerships in the field of artificial intelligence and relaxation of a great number of regulations for protection of privacy and security. All the above creates a new opportunity for restructuring of the relevant regulatory landscape worthy of comparison with 11th September, when the transformation of US policies on respect for privacy and protection of personal data was encapsulated in the mass surveillance program Total Information Awareness (TIA) in collaboration with the technological colossi. And if we learned something in the years that followed, it is that changes of that kind that are made in emergency periods are anything but emergency solutions. They come to stay.
11th September completely transformed the landscape when it came to management of personal data. The legislators in Washington had started to become uneasy about the personal data that had been concentrated in the hands of private companies on the internet, which offered free services in surveillance and recording of users’ activities. Indeed on 10th September 2001, one day before the attack on the twin towers a discussion was on the agenda for Congress which many thought would lead to institution of strict rules and abolition of the facilities for surveillance and recording of the activities of internet users. Within the space of a day everything changed.
The 2020 health crisis offered an opportunity for the next leap forward in the project. Everywhere that lock down was imposed there was a dramatic increase in internet activity. In January the speed of the internet connection in Hubei province, China, was reduced by half. On the global level the use of search engines increased by 25%-30%. There was a sudden increase in demand for services such as contact tracking, location data, face recognition, instruments such as thermometers devices for measuring distance between employees. Infrastructures required upgrading. By the end of April more money had been spent in data centers than in all of 2019. In order to cope with demand Amazon and Microsoft rapidly opened fifty new and very large data processing centers.
In this new context, with renewed vision and self-confidence, the President of NSCAI changed the tone in which he addressed his compatriots, summoning them to imagine how life would be without Amazon12 : “Companies like Amazon know how to supply and distribute efficiently. We will be required to provide services and advice to government authorities deficient in technological systems and know–how. We must speed up the tempo in distance learning, which today is being implemented on a scale that we have never before had the opportunity to try. Through the internet we avoid proximity, enabling children to receive instructions from the best teachers, irrespective of where they happen to reside…. People should be more or less grateful to those companies that have the capital and make the investment necessary for developing the tools we are using today and which are able to help us.”
In recent years ever intenser anxieties and ever more vehement objections have been expressed over the model of “surveillance capitalism”. But this climate of suspicion is a thing of the distant past, as long ago as……….February. Today many of these firmly documented anxieties have been washed away by the wave of panic. Against a backdrop of mass deaths we are being offered dubious promises that these technologies are the only possible way to protect ourselves from the pandemic and keep ourselves and our loved ones safe. At the heart of this vision is a seamless coalition of the American government and the giants of Silicon Valley. The public schools, the hospitals, the private clinics, the police, the armed forces, are outsourcing a whole host of their basic functions, at high cost, to private technology companies.
It would be useful to remember that until very recently public reaction against these corporate practices was rapidly intensifying. American presidential candidates were openly discussing the break–up of the colossal technological companies13, Amazon was forced to abandon its plans for establishing itself in New York after powerful negative reaction from residents. Google’s plans in Toronto were cancelled14 and its employees refused to work on creating technologies for surveillance with military application.15 In brief, democracy and the inconvenient processes of public accountability in planning crucial institutions and public spaces seems to be the last major obstacle to Silicon Valley’s vision. Amid the disarray of the pandemic the opportunity is created for these companies to acquire as much power as their Chinese rivals, who are able to function without the burden of labor regulations and political rights.
Obviously technology will be a key sector for the protection of public health in the immediate future. Nevertheless, as N. Klein never tires of repeating in her public appearances these days, the problem that arises in periods of collective shock is that decision-making takes place in the absence of public dialogue. The question we are called on to answer has to do with whether this technology will be subject to democratic authority and public control or will proceed in a delirium in a perennial state of emergency. These questions cannot be ignored because they are linked to our future as it will take shape in the coming decades. If we really recognize how crucial digital connectedness is in periods of crisis, should we leave these networks and our data in the hands of private players like Google, Amazon or Apple, who operate under the sole constraint of their obligation to make their shareholders and managerial cadres steadily richer? If public funding is climbing to such heights should the public sector not have ownership and control of the resulting product? If the internet is important for our survival should we not manage it as a non–profit service of public benefit?
The Barricade is an independent platform, which is supported financially by its readers. Become one of them! If you have enjoyed reading this article, support The Barricade’s existence! We need you! See how you can help – here!
Lecturer in Political Sociology (University of Athens, University of Essex, UK) specializing in political behaviour and political parties. In recent years she has worked as a researcher for institutes and research bodies and collaborated in international research networks. Her research projects have focused on international trade agreements, common goods and the field of human rights in a digital age. She has produced articles and monographs and written for collective publications in Greek and English. Inter alia she has worked as a specialist in her fields in the Hellenic Parliament and ministries, as an election observer for the OSCE, as a lecturer in Political Science and in the European Commission ((Trade, Tourism, Small and medium enterprises)