At the moment we are asked or even forced to live and work in self-isolation – without leaving home. We are told to use online tools to keep going. Teaching in classrooms, holding events, organizing for political causes – everything is supposed to completely move online. In the course of this, our workspaces are being shrunk to cells in the global city of bits. All contacts – all contagion – between human beings are now mediated more strongly than ever before by ‘intelligent machines,’ suggesting that no (potentially contagious) human labor is involved. As cyberspace is all of a sudden considered a ‘clean web,’ the ‘war on corona virus’ has “given the digital society a substantial push,” as Marie Rosenkranz states. In this vein, many are celebrating the current episode as yet another magic moment of the network age.
As if we were a ‘community of fate’ without a choice, we are told – and are telling ourselves – that we are ‘just coping’ by populating the web. Meanwhile, critics of the digital society are silenced or becoming very quiet these days. Privacy advocates, crypto-fighters, and cyber-communists are considered negligible. Strong digital rights and sustainable data infrastructure seem to be ‘luxury problems’ in times of projected extinction. On the Noah’s ark of the quarantined nation state, critical thinking has been thrown overboard. While ‘the masses’ seem harder to reach on issues related to digital politics than ever, a more realistic challenge seems to be the mobilization of those who work – more or less – professionally at the intersection of research, journalism, culture, and activism. The question is: what can we do? How can we work together towards a horizon of equality and liberation? How can we network a web of transnational care?
The choices we make today
The question of what we can do together is intrinsically and intimately tied to the keyboard used to type and the screen used to read these words. Perhaps even more universal than the keyboard, the screen is the interface to the ‘eyeball culture’ of clicking, liking, and sharing. Hence it is the interface of our work as producers of knowledge or culture. As we are now shifting to online-only mode the question emerges, will this be for a short moment only, just to creatively bridge the ‘dead time’ of the shutdown? Or will this digitally-enhanced survival training prepare us for an irreversible shift in working methods? Will the present proliferation of the online-only dogma become commonplace in everyday life of the future? These questions are pressing and urgent ones, last but not least because it is already very apparent that the threat of a pandemic will remain a latent fixture on the political radar – just as terrorism became a permanent feature of the psycho-political environment after 9/11.
Today, virologists and politicians are discussing possibilities to switch present quarantine measures on and off whenever the potential threat of a pandemic emerges. Meanwhile, critical voices are warning that whatever is implemented in the present emergency situation will stay with us for an indefinite period. This warning is by no means the product of alarmists. Rather, it is the lesson one can learn from history, including from most recent history. Just look at all the more or less silent adjustments that happened on the occasion of 9/11 that are still with us today: the curtailment of civil and human rights, the culture of fear, the speculative security politics of threat, to name just a few. So, rather than indulging in and mindlessly contributing to the “substantial push” digital society is currently experiencing, the causes of net activism and digital politics should be considered again. The voices of whistleblowers such as Kaiser, Wylie, and Snowden, who have exposed the corrupted state of the web, should be amplified again. Privacy advocates, crypto-fighters, and cyber communists should be heard again.
After all, as the digital society is experiencing a “substantial push,” all of us are complicit in the current renaissance of tech companies and their business models. Unsurprisingly, they are making huge profits in the midst of the global ‘corona crisis.’ Confused and unsettled by the crisis, a growing number of people are overlooking – and are being seduced to do so – that the problems with these companies and their tools are legion, and that these problems are in fact exacerbated during the current pandemic, problems ranging from privacy issues to mistreatment of workers. Now, more than ever, it is an important task to raise awareness and explore alternatives.
The miracles of technology in the midst of a crisis
Among the countless troubling aspects of the ‘corona crisis’ is the liberating effect it has on AI-based surveillance technologies and policies. Not only does the crisis provide unprecedented opportunities for data extracting tech giants to expand their reach and power. It also “enhances the ongoing transformation of global capitalism into a huge, democratically ungovernable tech laboratory,” as critic Tom Holert points out in a special issue of Rosa Mercedes. Perhaps the clearest indicator of this trend is the devices to track the infection by invading and controlling individual and group behavior. Clearview AI is the Benthamian name of a company that, according the New York Times, deploys shady, privacy-violating facial recognition software in attempts to control the virus. Like many other AI-driven initiatives deployed in social networks, online classrooms, train stations and other public spaces, facial recognition tends to violate individuals’ and groups’ data privacy. Based on AI, tracking and containment algorithms are ostensibly ‘reading’ faces, analyzing websites, news reports, and social media posts for signs of symptoms, such as fever or breathing problems.
As many AI experts, including Abeba Birhane, point out, such tech campaigns are thoroughly ‘phantasmagorical.’ This means that they are presenting AI as an infallible and efficient technology by catering to the misleading fantasy that one can detect from people’s faces or (web) behavior the state of their health – and even the proliferation of the virus. While entire populations are subjected to a speculative gamble, questions of privacy violation, discrimination, and racism are obstructed. This is justified by the claim that ‘all is being done in the name of protecting the population.’ But truly benefiting from AI-driven interventions are authorities and companies complicit with their politics – especially companies that are collecting, analyzing and storing ‘our’ data for ‘their’ commercial ends, as explored by a great number of initiatives, including “Big Data in Our Hands?”
In the two decades before the Corona virus outbreak, data was celebrated as “the oil of the 21st century.” The thirst for data was already enormous then, and it has become even bigger during the present pandemic. Governmental and corporate actors seemingly know no limits in this regard. The mining of location data – via mobile phones – is on the public-private agenda in countries as diverse as Israel, South Korea, and Germany. Meanwhile, the collection of health data is accelerated by IT giants such as Google. The now dormant Google Flu Trends initiative indicated clearly enough that the IT giant has discovered health-related data as an inexhaustible source of ‘constant capital,’ as media researcher Annika Richterich and social critic Max Haiven argue. Now, Google’s Project Baseline is among the most recent attempts to capitalize on data in the health-related domain. There are many critics, for instance, the founder and CEO of Cool Quit, who is fighting the coronavirus pandemic (and tobacco addiction) through telemedicine. In a tweet he comments on Google’s Project Baseline: “The coronavirus screening website appears to be one huge data mining operation to collect your health information for commercial purposes. It does not appear to follow HIPAA privacy laws.”
As digital society is experiencing a “substantial push” to the great benefit of data capitalism as a whole, as people are getting ever more addicted to online services, more and more cloud space is required to 1) expand online activities during the current pandemic and 2) hoard the data generated in the process. These days this cloud space is provided primarily by Amazon, so it is not surprising that Amazon is one of the main profiteers of the current pandemic. In the first ten days of the pandemic the Amazon founder Jeff Bezos gained 10 billion Euro in personal wealth, while his corporation gained 100 billion Euro market value. Celebrated as a miracle – as many businesses are going bankrupt in the current crisis – people seem too dazzled to ask about the labor struggles underlying this newest of magical tricks performed by AI-driven capitalism's model company.
Alternatives to miracles
Intensifying this tendency is the fact that amidst the ‘Corona crisis’ – which is also an economic crisis – there is a relentless quest for profits. Needless to say, not only US tech companies are after profits, but also start-ups in Germany, France, China, and Russia. Moreover, these countries are building their ‘own’ data-mining initiatives; and they are growing their ‘own’ high tech security market. But they – and this is crucial – are challenged to face civil society actors who are opposing these trends and fighting for civil rights in the realm of data and net politics. In the US the main civil society actors, for instance the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, have taken a stance on digital technologies in the context of the pandemic. In Germany, the Chaos Computer Club is also tackling the issue with regard to human/digital infrastructure.
This said, one is not alone in raising awareness and exploring alternatives to current data capitalist regimes. And one can do a whole lot with little effort. Using the collaborative online editor Etherpad hosted by yourpart.eu for writing and sharing documents, rather than Google doc; using mail servers like Posteo that support encryption, rather than just paying with one’s data for so-called ‘free’ email providers; and using Jitsi or Big Blue Button for multi-user video calls in online class and event situations, rather than Zoom with its shady data collection and privacy policies – these are only the very first steps towards more (data) autonomy and a more sustainable digital ecosystem with beneficial effects for individuals and societies at large.
Needless to say, the question of tools has always been a political one, and has always been inextricably related to the larger structures of power that we are up against – now and then. Knowing that the data centers that support the Internet use a huge amount of energy, it is time to ask about the environmental toll of the “substantial push” digital society is currently experiencing. Knowing that the digital technologies that have most contributed to the rise of interconnectivity have bolstered a feeling of alienation between people, we need to inquire into the foreseeable effects of the current ‘normalization’ of ‘social distancing’ as coupled with the boom in ‘social media.’
Knowing that the web is not only run by bots (currently perhaps the most popular form of AI) but also by human beings who secretly enable or optimize the performance of bots, we cannot take the web and its current renaissance for granted, and we need to inquire into the hidden human labor struggles of tech or so-called ‘turk’ workers. Knowing that technologies are never neutral but always prone to instrumentalization by powers that be, it is of the utmost importance to ask how a pandemic-driven turn to authoritarianism among governments can be resisted – last but not least, in the everyday use of work-related technologies.
Outside the box of the quarantined mind
Embarking upon these inquiries in a collective fashion, sharing the insights and deepening them with further reading, can create the necessary basis for collective awareness building in the context of the present pandemic. And it can also put collective appropriation of digital competence on a stronger footing. After all, it is digital competence that nowadays – during the “substantial push” in question – is so urgently needed, but is not (or only inadequately) promoted. ‘Learning by doing’ could be activated as an approach to counter this trend.
To this end learning as inextricably linked to doing should be understood as a form of labor, that we usually try to avoid because we prefer to see the use of the web as a form of play or a matter of convenience. Yet, becoming aware of our daily use of the web as a form of labor could open up the possibility for a common space of conflict to arise, shared with those on the other end of the spectrum – those who are coding, running, supervising, or maintaining the machines. Ultimately, this could render porous the walls of ‘self-isolation’ and the boundaries between otherwise separated domains of work.
Would this also bring us closer to the precarious field of supply, care, and health work – this vast and growing site of escalating emergencies? Nation states are now not only ‘discovering’ their defunct public health systems, but also trying to compensate for these deficiencies with ‘national security’ measures that harness citizens and non-citizens alike. The latter – for instance those stranded in refugee camps or hot spots at the EU’s external borders – are obviously affected in the hardest way. They are simply erased from any priority list, as if there was nothing more ‘natural’ than tying something universal like health care to citizenship. However, as soon as we demystify the ostensibly ‘clean web’ as the digital mirror world of the quarantined nation state, then we will also get a stronger sense that such things are not ‘natural’ at all. Once we begin to think outside the box, we may realize that all of us can contribute to build a web of transnational care.
About SILENT WORKS
The SILENT WORKS project is dedicated to excavating forms of labor that are buried under present regimes of AI-capitalism. Find all details and up-to-date information on the SILENT WORKS project here: silentworks.info.