Engineering To Death in COVID-19

The sheer existence of the Tech solution creates the “normal” regardless of whether the disease is actually contained and regardless of whether treatment exists and is accessible.

by tante on April 30th, 2020

The Coronavirus hit the World like a truck. First labeled “just like the flu,” or a problem “only relevant in Asia” by Western countries and experts, the pandemic quickly managed to shut down most things people considered essential (schools, factories, shops) while the bodycount kept going for a new record every day. 

This is where we still are: Fighting a pandemic without having an effective drug or treatment or a vaccine. Fighting an illness whose long-term effects on people we don’t really fully know yet. And we need help. Someone with a plan, a way forward. Someone to save us. Someone to solve this crisis. And in 2020, that often means we turn to Tech. 

As individuals and as society, we have developed what I think of as “Tech supremacy”: It’s the idea that any issue or problem can be and should be solved by a technologic solution. Climate change? We need better tech to optimize our carbon footprint away. Massive economic inequality? Build an app where people can have a fourth job while doing their third. Feelings of alienation and isolation? Here’s an AI that finds you a partner that you can fit into your schedule. No really, the AI just compared your Google calendars. 

This train of thought not only teaches society to always turn to Tech for solutions to challenges. It also teaches those people in Tech that they always have the solution. It promotes group exceptionalism and the belief that the skills in Tech translate to the competence to solve problems everywhere. No group in society has more armchair experts on literally anything than tech. Through tech supremacy a small, well-connected group of “entrepreneurs”, libertarian “thought leaders” and engineers and designers from a few prestigious schools influence and shape the public thought and what is accepted as “common sense” or “reason”. 

The danger with the COVID pandemic is that it’s too complex, too much of a Hyperobject, to be solved by an app or tech supremacy’s typical “thought leadership”. Confronted with this complex system, Tech massages the problem, churns through iterations and hackathons until it ends up with simpler problems it can engineer a solution to. Germany for example (the country I live in) is in the process of deploying a “contact tracing app” based on Bluetooth beacons that will allow people’s phones to “detect” if its carrier was “in contact” with someone infected. Amidst the debates on how a system like that should be implemented (decentralized just based on the phones, or centralized with the government and health agencies doing the risk analysis and matching on their servers), Google and Apple banded together to decide on the matter: Because of security and privacy restrictions, the planned apps wouldn’t work on many smartphones. So Google and Apple released APIs on the level of the operating system to support a decentralized approach with their new “Exposure Notification API,” putting the nail in the coffin for the centralized variant.

In the end, the call was not made based on the public discourse in Germany but by a bunch of engineers in Google’s and Apple’s offices. Aside from decentralized contact tracing, German tech companies are also hard at work to implement a digital “immunity pass” in some blockchain that will connect to contact tracing apps and other systems.

Given all these new infrastructures (and they are infrastructures and not just “apps”), Tech will soon declare that we’ve built the solution, that COVID-19 is “handled” with a bunch of apps and probably some “AI” or other opaque systems and that we can now go back to “normal”.

But what happens then? 

“We” (the neoliberal “we” that hates nothing more than collective action and community) will cut aid packages, making sure that even more people will have to go back to work. These, of course, will be primarily lower class workers. The arrival of “Tech solutions” will force lower class workers out to massively increase the risk of being infected and of dying: Contact tracing apps, immunity passes, video surveillance for tracing contact events or enforcing social distancing and many more “Tech solutions” will be deployed by governments in order to appear “in control” of the crisis, to create a “normal”. Employers will require participation in these – often labeled as voluntary – schemes in order to be allowed to work. And if we are “back to normal” that means we all have to get back to work. Especially for people working in lower paid jobs, this will mean massively increased exposure. Exposure not just because they have to leave their house to cut hair or staff stores, but because everyone else will go outside again as well. The amount of contact events will rise again massively. 

The sheer existence of the Tech solution creates the “normal” regardless of whether the disease is actually contained and regardless of whether treatment exists and is accessible. “The App” forces everyone out if they want to make rent and pay their bills. Well, let’s just hope that the tips were good enough so their kids can order a nice urn for their ashes on

It’s not that technology or the people in Tech cannot help in handling a crisis. But technology has to be embedded in social and political systems to make sure its use is just, is for the good of the people and their communities. Technology with its rigid structures and models is very often just a fancier word for bureaucracy and it needs to be handled like that: Power needs to be kept in check constantly to prevent these systems – or the humans in them – from turning on people, most often marginalized people. While programmers, administrators, scientists, artists and similar privileged classes get to work from home with their laptops sitting right next to their current sourdough experiment, these workers get called “heroes” while they die due to a lack of PPE. They didn’t sacrifice themselves like some Greek god or a movie protagonist, they are sacrificed

Facebook app with a skull printed over the logo.

Photo CC-BY Book Catalog.

In our current crisis, Tech supremacy shows how dangerous it is in the most existential way: These apps have death (mostly for poor people) as a side effect. Turning to Tech as soon as something unforeseen or frightening occurs, not only hands a few unelected people the keys to the city but it stops the political process of looking for and debating actual solutions that do consciously deal with the complexities of our world. But those debates are hard and the decisions made even harder. Having reduced the possible approaches to attacking a problem as massive as a pandemic to “building an app,” it becomes so much harder to talk about how to care for the sick, how to make sure people don’t lose their homes and have access to food, how to organize care for kids and the elderly.

And here we see the actual superpower of “Tech supremacy” that makes it so alluring even to politicians. Tech supremacy is a form of learned apoliticism: If everything is an engineering problem, political arguments and ideals have no real meaning and impact. In the end people want a “COVID App” so that when the lockdown gets lifted, when things go “back to normal,” the deaths that will follow are not the consequence of a political decision that someone has to take responsibility for, but a “bug” that needs “patches”.