The information superhighway is being promoted as a powerful means to even out disparities and inequalities that afflict people inside the United States and throughout the world economy … a privately owned and managed information superhighway will be turned toward the interest and needs and income of the most advantaged sectors of the society. Significant modification of this systemic tendency requires the pressure of a strong political movement.
Herbert I. Schiller. (1995). “The Global Information Highways: Project for an ungovernable world.”
What Schiller wrote in 1995 could as easily be written, today, as it pertains to the new technologies which are regularly promoted as evening out disparities and inequities. It remains unclear to me that there has been any significant change in the systemic tendencies that are baked into the contemporary internet, nor that there is sufficient contemporary political pressure to reform existing inequalities let alone ensure that next-generation technologies will not reproduce them.
The coming war on the hidden algorithms that trap people in poverty || “A family member lost work because of the pandemic and was denied unemployment benefits because of an automated system failure. The family then fell behind on rent payments, which led their landlord to sue them for eviction. While the eviction won’t be legal because of the CDC’s moratorium, the lawsuit will still be logged in public records. Those records could then feed into tenant-screening algorithms, which could make it harder for the family to find stable housing in the future. Their failure to pay rent and utilities could also be a ding on their credit score, which once again has repercussions.” // The harms done by automated decision making are deeply under appreciated, and routinely harm those whom society has set aside as ‘appropriate’ test subjects for these inequitable technologies. It’s abhorrent, unethical, and unjust.
How Russia wins the climate crisis || “…agriculture offers the key to one of the greatest resources of the new climate era — food — and in recent years Russia has already shown a new understanding of how to leverage its increasingly strong hand in agricultural exports. In 2010, when wildfires and drought conspired to ruin Russia’s grain harvests, Putin banned the exporting of wheat in order to protect his own people, then watched as global wheat prices tripled. The world reeled in response. From Pakistan to Indonesia, poverty increased. High prices rocked delicate political balances in Syria, Morocco and Egypt, where about 40 percent of daily caloric intake is from bread. The shortages poured fuel on Arab Spring uprisings, which eventually pushed millions of migrants toward Europe, with destabilizing effect — a bonus for Russian interests. And much of this turmoil began with wheat. As Michael Werz, a senior fellow for climate migration and security at the Center for American Progress, says, “There’s a reason people demonstrated with baguettes in Cairo.”” // Bread will, once more, be a functional weapon of war as climate change devastates currently fertile land and enables authoritarian countries to express their will—and encourage chaos—by withholding the nutrients required for life itself. One can only hope that countervailing democracies in the Nordic nations and Canada can acts as sufficient counterbalances to withstand potential Russian malfeasance.
The outbreak that invented intensive care || “Comparisons are being made to the 1918 influenza pandemic — eerily, just over a century ago — which had a mortality that might turn out similar. But that outbreak occurred without a ventilator in sight. Is this new disease, in fact, more deadly? Thanks to what my predecessors learnt in Copenhagen almost 70 years ago, we can, in some parts of the world, offset the havoc of COVID-19 with mechanical ventilation and sophisticated intensive care that was not available in 1918. But it is as COVID-19 continues to spread in areas that do not have ICU beds — or not nearly enough of them — that we will, sadly, learn the true natural course of this new virus.” // It’s incredible that, until 1952, we didn’t have modern ventilators, and worrying that the ‘true’ mortality of the current pandemic may only be apparent after studies are conducted of countries where contemporary medical technologies are often unavailable.
How infectious disease defined the American bathroom || “When architects designed homes in the wake of the 1918 flu pandemic and World War I, they typically took one of two approaches to the recent traumas. The first was to start at the ground-up and rethink everything, like Modernists and the Bauhaus did in the 1920s. The second — and far more common — tactic was to try to forget about the trauma and make ourselves comfortable, which bolstered the popularity of Art Deco design, according to Dianne Pierce, adjunct professorial lecturer in decorative arts and design history at the George Washington University.” // The links between human perceptions of health and safety, and the design and configuration of where we live, are fascinating. The extent(s) to which there will be substantial changes in how we build out homes and living areas will similarly be curious: will design change as a result of the current pandemic or, instead, will we see an active effort to not change or to ignore the events of the past (and coming) year?
I’ve been thinking about how high technology is continuing to develop at a pace that outruns the least well off in our Western societies. I think that this was best crystallized in Amazon’s opening of its first Amazon Go store, which does away with cashiers and replaces them with cameras and sensors that automatically identify what you acquire for purchase and charge you as you leave the space. There are at least three (immediate) concerns that strike me with regard to these kinds of technologies:
As noted by Hanna Brooks Olsen, these are inherently cashless technologies. Consumers will enter the store with their smartphones, cameras and sensors will track them, and be billed automatically to their debit or credit card(s) associated with the Amazon account. For persons who have a hard time acquiring a smartphone, or having it repaired when damaged, or opening a bank account or obtaining a credit card, or possessing a language barrier, or without access to a convenient and reliable place to charge their devices, or those who rely on the cash economy, these kinds of ‘convenient’ stores are nearly impenetrable fortresses. Those who cannot enter and purchase goods in the stores will be those who are often the least privileged and, rather than being confronted by the diversity of the human population, shoppers in Amazon Go-type stores will have some portion of society’s diversity simply deleted from their shopping experience. As stated by Olsen, “cashless life … is necessarily one of privilege.”
These are anti-labour technologies. In promoting ‘convenience’ Amazon Go and equivalent technologies remove a certain portion of low skill jobs that many people depend on for their livelihoods. While the popular conception is that it’s just students who have these kinds of jobs, simply looking at service jobs belies this point: the age groups which have sales or sales service jobs are rising, and this is exacerbated by an older population who has to work longer into their retirement years simply to survive, let alone thrive. By removing, or at least significantly reducing, the number of low-skill jobs the numbers of persons who are struggling and unable to find work will increase and their social hardships be exacerbated.1
Cashless systems and those which remove labourers are inherently political technologies. They are technologies designed for a particular set of people, to solve what one group in society regards as ‘problems’, and which could significantly reshape how elements of society operate. Should these technologies cease to be ‘technology’ per se and be normalized as ‘infrastructure’ then it will be challenging to ‘reformat and replace’ the technology and ameliorate its long-term social impacts.2 Transforming cashless into infrastructure threatens to deepen the the aforementioned difficulties.
Aren’t there solutions to the aforementioned problems? Of course there are. But any solutions will likely impose costs on those who are developing, advocating for, and using convenience technologies that detrimentally affect the least well off or privileged. Solutions might entail:
establishing a guaranteed way for all persons to obtain banking accounts with diminished identification or language requirements;3
providing either a basic living wage or reducing the barriers to accessing social welfare benefits, to offset the reduction of low-skill employment opportunities; or
reducing educational costs or fully subsidizing such costs so that we as a society can improve the educational status of many of those affected by shrinking low-skill labour. However, education is often seen as the silver bullet when it should be regarded as a tarnished and dented brass shield instead: educational requirements for mid-skilled labour may be too onerous for some persons who have mental, psychological, or physical challenges. Similarly, if there is a major gap between initial education and when it is (re)required, such as when a middle income person loses their job after 25+ years of performing the same tasks, then a short 6- or 12-month course may be insufficient. Education may help to address some job loss linked to convenient technologies but education, alone, is insufficient to ‘solve’ the social challenges linked with such technologies and infrastructures.
It’s pretty rare that major news reports about novel and emerging technologies are accompanied with real-work implications of the technologies, should they transform to infrastructure. It’s even rarer for minor news reports to consider the social, ethical, or political implications of new technologies. Instead, the focuses tend to be on whether a new user interface is ‘fun’ or ‘convenient enough’ or ‘fast enough’. Those are the concerns of the majority. We need to far more seriously consider how our developing technologies will affect those least well off, or else risk further stratifying social and economic divides and widening the rift between the most and least privileged members of society.
Quotation of the Week
“We cannot retreat to the convenience of being overwhelmed.”
The current Amazon Go location does have employees working there, just not as cashiers, and the company hasn’t taken the population of would-be-cashiers and moved them to other locations. The very point is to remove cashiers as an occupation and number of employees from the experience. ↩
One of the challenges to obtaining a bank account is that customers may require a fixed address, telephone number, or other identifiers. While such identifiers are often stable and available to the majority of the population they are fluid for those who lack secure housing, employment, and other ‘normal’ components of daily living. ↩