New World Same Humans #17

New technologies have fractured the relationship between states and their citizens. Meanwhile, our AI overlords are confused by the pandemic.

Welcome to New World Same Humans, a weekly newsletter on trends, technology, and society by David Mattin.

We all know that in a connected world, the boundaries between public and private have shifted. But how far how far will we let that go?

This week, news from Singapore got me thinking about the relationship between technology, government, and all of us.

Let’s do this!

Somebody’s watching me

Last week the hivemind got obsessed with a robot dog in Singapore. You’ve probably seen the video of a Boston Dynamics robot, called Spot, patrolling Singapore’s Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park, but no one will judge you if you watch it again.

Right now, all roads lead back to the pandemic. The video brought news that Singapore authorities have launched a two-week trial in which a remote-controlled Spot wanders the park, broadcasting pre-recorded messages that remind citizens to keep their social distance. Spot is also fitted with cameras to collect data on foot traffic; Singapore authorities say no identifying data will be stored.

Boston Dynamics has a track record when it comes to viral videos. But there’s something that feels particularly urgent about this one. That’s because the sight of Spot on patrol perfectly symbolises something about this moment. That is, the strange collision of surveillance, technology, and first attempts to ease coronavirus lockdowns.

The central predicament is clear. To ease the lockdown safely we need detailed oversight of the virus: who has it, where they’ve been, who they’ve come into contact with. That means a level of surveillance far beyond anything most of us are used to. One that would in normal times be highly unusual in Singapore, and unthinkable inside a liberal democracy.

Sure, your local park is unlikely to be invaded by a Boston Dynamics robot anytime soon. Instead, in most places the predicament described above will play out primarily in the form of arguments over contact tracing. If contact tracing apps can be made to work properly, they’ll be a hugely powerful tool in the effort to ease lockdown while controlling the virus. They’ll do that by close surveillance of entire national populations. Get ready for a near-future in which your Sunday afternoon can be interrupted by an urgent notification: someone in the coffee shop you visited three days ago has tested positive. You should self-isolate, and wait for a testing kit to arrive in the post. Indeed, in China that isn’t the near-future, it’s now. Many Chinese shops and much public transport are only accessible to citizens who can scan a green profile on their ‘close contact detector’ app; if your profile turns red, you have to stay at home.

Contact tracing won’t last forever. But via arguments over how it should work, the pandemic is throwing some key issues into sharp relief. These are issues that NWSH has covered before and will again: about human values, power, and the relationship between technology, society and the individual. And they won’t go away once the pandemic is over. Rather, the approach we take to these questions will help shape our lives for decades to come.

Two related, overarching themes are emerging.

First, we can no longer ignore the radical redistribution of power that has occurred when it comes to government and technology companies. The race to create functional contact tracing apps has seen Google and Apple join forces and essentially dictate the terms to national governments. In a reversal of the typical narrative around Big Tech, this time the Silicon Valley giants have been able to present themselves as the defenders of our privacy: they’ve insisted that contact tracing apps take a decentralized approach to information sharing, whereas many national governments initially wanted to take a centralized approach that would allow them to aggregate and analyse all the data.

As many have pointed out, Apple and Google were in a tricky situation. Had they agreed to centralized data collection they would have fuelled the ‘Big Tech is Big Brother’ narrative. But all that shouldn’t blind us to the underlying, uneasy reality. We now live with a set of overmighty technology companies that are often an equal, if not senior, partners in discussions with our governments. A technology company that unilaterally decides to protect our privacy today can infringe that privacy tomorrow. Government should be the guarantor of our rights, not Big Tech.

The truth is that digital technologies are now woven so deep through the fabric of our lives that it’s impossible to govern without them. That leaves government petitioning social media companies for help to find terrorists, or taking orders from a phone manufacturer when it comes to dealing with the most acute global crisis since WWII. This isn’t right, nor is it sustainable. A reckoning must surely lie ahead.

The second issue is related, but broader. It’s that new technologies have fractured the traditional liberal democratic settlement when it comes to the relationship between states and their citizens.

That relationship consisted of a government with limited powers over free individuals. Privacy was a crucial part of this settlement, because it was rightly believed that a government that knows too much about its citizens is bound eventually to use that knowledge to infringe upon their freedoms. Liberal thinkers, then, set much store by the idea that citizens were concerned above all else to preserve their freedom and the privacy rights that helped sustain them. And for much of the history of liberalism, when the big threat faced by individuals was totalitarian or arbitrary state power, that was true enough.

But now, in the liberal democratic west at least, that threat has receded. In the meantime digital technologies have offered citizens a range of new settlements that ask them to swap a certain amount of privacy in exchange for other powerful benefits. Billions worldwide have shown themselves willing to swap some privacy for, say, the convenience provided by Amazon, the distraction of Instagram, or the knowledge superpowers brought to them by Google.

These developments tap into a deep underlying truth. That is, that life is always a matter of trade-offs between important but mutually incompatible human values. Liberals liked to believe they’d solved this riddle permanently, via a philosophy that says freedom is the value that outweights all others. But the last ten years have shown that this settlement, like any other, is contingent, and liable to be overturned.

In this way, a connected world poses huge challenges to the liberal democratic west. And the pandemic has exposed that challenge in powerful new ways. It’s not hard to imagine that in future citizens inside liberal democracies will prove willing to trade away much more privacy in return for services that help protect them from another viral pandemic. Who will drive that shift: Big Tech or government? And where will it leave our traditional belief in a limited state and individual liberty?

Right now, the argument over contact tracing is rightly focused on the present. But these two questions – about Big Tech vs government, and the individual and the state – are not going away. Once we have a vaccine, we’re going to have to address them. The psychological imprint of this crisis, and the ways in which that imprint will shape the answers we come to, may turn out to be the pandemic's most lasting legacy.

Machines think we’re weird

Three quick snippets for when you’re unmuted this week:

AIs are puzzled by humans during the pandemic. Machine learning models can’t understand why everyone is suddenly buying hand sanitizer, and that’s causing trouble at some businesses. It all raises the idea that we should expose our AIs to more data from freak historical events, such as the Great Depression.

Speaking of government and Big Tech, Google’s Sidewalk Labs has walked away from its landmark partnership with Toronto. The controversial project would have seen Toronto Waterfront become a prototype smart-city complete with autonomous vehicles, rubbish-collecting robots, and lots of data collection. As per the essay above, expect much more along these lines.

Twitter will start putting warning messages on misinformation about the coronavirus. The move will apply to tweets from any sources, including those from world leaders (we all know who we’re talking about).

Happy data trails

Time for us all to get back to daily life, and the ever-more frenetic generation of personal data.

Until next week, go in peace.


David Mattin sits on the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on Consumption.