How big technology poses opportunities and risks in life after the coronavirus
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The virus crisis has accelerated the tech revolution to breakneck speed, says JAMES BALL. We need to be careful we are not hurtling towards dystopia.
World leaders rarely get the tenures they expect, let alone the world they expected to have a hand in running.
Gordon Brown became the prime minister of the UK in 2007 wanting to push an international agenda of global development – and instead rapidly became a leading figure in responding to the global financial crisis. That crisis, and the economic crash it caused, brought his premiership to an abrupt end, but also made sure that his successor's premiership would be defined – for its first five years at least – in terms of his response to it.
Just as the management – or, through austerity, mismanagement – of the aftermath of the financial crisis shaped the politics of the last decade, rebuilding the world after the coronavirus crisis will shape the politics of this decade.
Whether or not that's the hand our world leaders wanted, it's the one that they've been dealt.
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The fallouts won't just involve handling the long-term recovery of those infected, or the economic damage dealing with coronavirus has caused, or working out how to be better equipped if and when this kind of natural calamity occurs again – it will also accelerate the need to handle the issues that were already bubbling up in society.
One of the biggest of those was what to do about a new era of big tech seemingly reshaping the world order around us.
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Whether it's in creating data monopolies that track every detail of our lives and sell it back to us, or the risk of AI and automation taking our jobs, the potential for untrammelled government power created by both, or the simple fact of getting tech giants to pay their fair share towards the cost of running society, tech merited our attention already.
We were already facing a world dominated by pervasive surveillance and an effective end of privacy, all of it dominated by just a handful of large corporations.
Coronavirus could easily serve to accelerate all of these trends and leave tech in something like an unassailable position.
This could easily be the result of many good impulses and many necessary decisions.
Given the wait for a vaccine could still be nearer to two years away than one, it is clear we will need at least some measures to lighten the restrictions on movement that we all face – there is only so long the government can keep the economy on life-support.
Lifting the restrictions wholesale would simply swamp the NHS – so it's little surprise the government is turning to the idea of trying to manage a hugely sophisticated track-and-trace operation via mobile phones.
The principle is that smartphones will track people anonymously, and alert them with instructions to get tested for coronavirus if they have been in contact with someone else who has subsequently tested positive for the disease.
The idea is a lot simpler in principle than in practice. To get such a system up and running would require the UK to first build a far more advanced testing infrastructure than currently exists, and to be confident it has access to sufficiently accurate tests in sufficiently large numbers.
And that's just the first few hurdles. The app itself would need to be tuned so as to trigger when people had a real risk of having contracted the virus, but not trigger too readily, since this could needlessly swamp testing facilities with people who, say, only passed an infected individual for a matter of seconds, at a distance of more than 10 metres.
Calibrating the system to ensure its effectiveness is all the more difficult given that we still don't know – because Covid-19 is a new disease – exactly how infectious it is, how long people are contagious, or any number of other crucial details.
The matter becomes even more thorny when we try to marry up the idea of keeping this system anonymous, while connecting it to the lifting of lockdown restrictions.
How do we track if people are complying and getting tested when they should? How do we see when people are or aren't following the advice? What do we do if lots of people seem to be registered as using the app but it triggers fewer alerts than it should?
The technological ability to de-anonymise the data would almost certainly exist, and the political pressure to do so could easily mount – giving government and industry alike unprecedented surveillance powers over all of us.
Tech could extend its powers in other ways too. An array of tech firms are involved in helping the NHS handle Covid-19 logistics. Their involvement raises concerns that the urgency of the response to the pandemic might mean that issues around patient confidentiality, NHS data ownership, and the digital privatisation of the NHS are sidestepped.
These have been matters for serious debate for years, but there is a risk that they will be rendered moot by the time the crisis has passed, as it will prove impossible to unpick what has already been done.
It is not hard, then, to see the technological risks in the world after coronavirus: big tech has more power and reach than ever, privacy protections could be left irreversibly eroded, and misinformation – corona misinformation has been rife – more widespread than ever.
The crisis could accelerate the worst-case scenarios we feared: what we thought was decades away could become a reality by 2021.
That's not, though, the only path open to us. A time of crisis is also a reminder of the good that tech can do for us, and the good we can do with it.
On a simple level, if most of us were going to be confined to our homes, we should be immensely thankful it has happened in 2020: we have reliable information, we have huge amounts of entertainment, our children have inexhaustible educational content, and we can use platforms like Zoom to keep in touch with our jobs, our friends and our families.
Communities have used WhatsApp groups to create neighbourhood networks to ensure vulnerable people are looked after. Start-ups have helped solve problems with ventilator machines. New apps have popped up to help organise volunteers for the NHS. We have been reminded that tech can have an incredibly enriching role in our lives, when we harness it properly.
From that stems a bigger opportunity. Like most times of crisis, the pandemic has reminded us what government is for and what it can do. With one short speech, Rishi Sunak reinvented – at least temporarily – the modern welfare state, allowing people furloughed from work through no fault of their own to receive 80% of their salaries, an unimaginable intervention just a few weeks ago. Days later, the government renationalised rail while no-one noticed. The state is playing an all-encompassing role in our lives once again.
Government needed to step up and make sure tech was working for us as a public – rather than the handful of people who own the companies – long before the coronavirus arrived. But we had years of thinking of governments as feeble, slow, and outmatched when it came to tech giants. We have been reminded that when they need to, they can act decisively.
If we seize the moment, we can try to use coronavirus to engineer a new social compact, with a new deal for the tech giants – and the next industrial era they are heralding – at its core.
If we fail to do so, and respond to the Covid aftermath with austerity 2.0 and exhausted inertia, we will entrench tech's power faster and further than seemed possible just months ago.
Coronavirus has shown us the possible paths ahead of us more clearly than ever before. Neither route is fated – our direction of travel is up to us. Which will we choose?
• James Ball's next book THE SYSTEM: Who Owns the Internet and How It Owns Us is published by Bloomsbury in August; pre-order at bit.ly/ReadTheSystem
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