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Technology and Covid-19: Be A.f.r.a.i.d.

Defend Truth

Opinionista

Technology and Covid-19: Be A.f.r.a.i.d.

Phindile Kunene is an educator at the Tshisimani Centre for Activist Education with an interest in the social implications of digital technologies.

We do not know what the world will look like after the Covid-19 public health emergency is over, but we can be certain that the relationship between technology and some of the freedoms we hold dear will become an area of fierce contestation.

The much-publicised use of drone technology as part of the strategies to enforce the lockdown and physical distancing in Limpopo’s Greater Tzaneen municipality was greeted with enthusiasm on social media. Limpopo gives us a glimpse into a bigger trend of how technology has become an integral part of fighting Covid-19 globally.

In Russia, thousands of street cameras fitted with facial recognition cameras boast the ability to catch people who are violating quarantine and self-isolation orders.

The Geo-fence, an app that uses mobile phone location to monitor people who are quarantined or in self-isolation, is extensively used in Taiwan. The technology monitors phone signals and alerts authorities – the police and nurses – when quarantined individuals leave their homes or turn their phones off.

Google and Apple announced a collaboration to develop an app that relies on bluetooth technology to automatically trace our contacts. If these two tech giants have their way, this app will become an inbuilt feature for all smartphones in the future.

In April, two publications – The Economist and the Washington Post – declared the tech industry the biggest winner in this crisis. It is not difficult to see why.

When it became clear that we could no longer congregate for political events – lectures and seminars – activists swiftly shifted the space for organising. The Facebook Live feature has gained a new lease of life and on any given day, activists are spoilt for choice with book talks, poetry, panel discussions and seminars being just a click away. Facebook recently increased its workforce by 10,000 people and, to gain a greater share of the lockdown boons, announced a new feature that will allow up to 50 people to communicate on video call.

The emerging consensus is that, other than digital platforms that rely on unrestricted travel and leisure activities like Airbnb and Uber, tech giants have made massive gains out of this crisis.

Following the adoption of work-from-home policy in many countries, Zoom recorded a massive increase in profits, users, and downloads as it became the one-stop meeting facility for government departments and companies alike.

Online learning has made the likes of Google Classroom and Zoom indispensable tools for schools and universities. Mobile network providers have also seen a spike in revenues and are hoping to see better earnings in the foreseeable future.

Where e-commerce was unrestricted, Amazon quickly filled the gap left by the closure of physical stores. With the recent lifting of restrictions on e-commerce, online retailers here at home are hoping to make similar gains.

The emerging consensus is that, other than digital platforms that rely on unrestricted travel and leisure activities like Airbnb and Uber, tech giants have made massive gains out of this crisis.

Tech optimists have used this moment to assert the social utility of technology and social media. Weighing in on this debate recently, Mark Zuckerberg proclaimed today’s data gathering and sharing capabilities as our best weapons we have against the coronavirus. 

Zuckerberg has many allies here at home – among them University of Johannesburg vice-chancellor, Professor Tshilidzi Marwala, who in a 28 May article in Daily Maverick argued that the coronavirus has forced South Africa into the fast lane of the 4IR super-highway, and praises this development as a much-needed remedy for our “deep-rooted social problems”. 

But this tech enthusiasm warrants further scrutiny, not least because it largely sidesteps questions of power and ignores big debates about the relationship between technology and human freedom.

While tech giants are cashing in on the pandemic, gig workers have not been as fortunate

Echoing Yuval Noah Harari’s take on the world after coronavirus, activists around the world are raising concerns about how surveillance measures adopted in the context of a global health emergency might outlive the crisis and become lasting features of our lives. Many activists fear that this increased reliance on surveillance technology – sometimes developed and applied outside the law – gives social legitimacy to what Shoshana Zuboff calls “surveillance capitalism”. There are big fears that this moment of crisis might consecrate the relationship between transnational tech giants and our governments – a relationship built on citizen surveillance.

In our context, we should wonder if drone technology will not be repurposed to monitor and quash movements of shack dwellers, backyarders and occupiers like Abahlali baseMjondolo and Reclaim The City.

We should also wonder about the long journey that some of these technologies are yet to travel. What will this sort of surveillance and control look like in our workplaces where workers are already complaining about how biometric clocking and facial recognition technologies have added a layer of surveillance on the shop floor? If India – where bosses and landlords are effectively forcing workers and tenants to download the government-backed contact tracing app – is anything to go by, we should all be very worried.

While tech giants are cashing in on the pandemic, gig workers have not been as fortunate. As essential workers in fulfilment centres and warehouses across the world, these workers have been leading walkouts and strikes over paid sick leave, danger allowance, more testing, protective gear, as well as draconian control and surveillance in the workplace.

With the enforcement of lockdowns, many gig workers in South Africa – on-demand drivers and cleaners – are battling to make ends meet. A recent report by Fairwork shows how the idea that gig workers are independent contractors has allowed digital platforms like Uber and Mr D to escape responsibility for providing social protection for workers who are often migrants living in informal settlements across our cities.  

The stage is set for more struggles and campaigns that home in on the high cost of connectivity, user control over data and the surveillance activities of major tech companies.

These stark realities embolden the position of many activists who call for a deeper reflection on how some of these technological shifts enable tech giants located in the United States to extend their tentacles and reach – a phenomenon that Yale-based Michael Kwet calls “digital colonialism”. These giants not only control almost every aspect of the digital world – from software, smartphone messaging, online meeting platforms, to email, but also extract rents in the form of intellectual property and swathes of information about consumers.

The Economist argues that the pandemic provides the perfect opportunity for the tech industry to cleanse its image and offer “a new deal for citizens of the world”. By making modest concessions like addressing privacy concerns and giving users more control over their data and its spinoffs, the tech industry could, according to the publication, stave off more radical demands that are likely to gain support during and after this pandemic.

We do not know what the world will look like after this public health emergency, but we can be certain that the relationship between technology and some of the freedoms we hold dear will become an area of fierce contestation.

Far from being “pessimistic” about technology, many activists are exploring visions of change premised on how digital technologies can serve us without robbing us of our freedoms.

The stage is set for more struggles and campaigns that home in on the high cost of connectivity, user control over data and the surveillance activities of major tech companies.

We are also going to witness more struggles for a better deal for gig workers – a deal that includes better pay and social protection.

The idea that the internet is a public utility very much like water, transport and electricity is already gathering steam.

All of this gives me hope that we have not surrendered the battle to what Evgeny Morozov calls “tech solutionism” – a well-meaning approach that often, in a desperate attempt to apply technological solutions to our problems, evades critical questions about power and domination. DM

Phindile Kunene is an educator at the Tshisimani Centre for Activist Education with an interest in the social implications of digital technologies.

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