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10 March 2021

How Covid-19 is creating the tech dystopia that we always feared

Novelists had it right: plugged-in humans stare at screens all day as corporations become more powerful than governments. 

By jamie Bartlett

Sometimes it takes a crisis to reveal what’s really going on. Covid-19 ripped off whatever sticking plasters still just about covered our unequal health outcomes, paltry free school meals, underfunded care work and feeble sick pay. Less noticed, but equally dangerous, is our relationship with technology. Our smartphone addiction and digital dependency was already bad enough. But in 2020, technology’s metallic grip on our lives Zoomed ahead faster than the most ardent Silicon Valley accelerationist could have ever imagined. Is there any way back? 

It seems like a different age, but before the pandemic there were signs of a necessary rebellion against the tech giants. A flurry of books warned of attention span deficits, digital overload and mega-monopolies. Opinion polls found growing numbers of people tightening privacy settings or deleting accounts. Negative opinions towards Facebook et al seemed to be the only thing US Republican and Democrat voters could agree on: in one survey a majority of both felt that social media firms did more to divide the country than unite it. People – ordinary people, I mean – were discussing an obscure data company called Cambridge Analytica and pondering the pros and cons of the EU’s “General Data Protection Regulation”. A meta-critique of Big Tech was brewing. 

[see also: Revealed: The army of Big Tech lobbyists targeting Capitol Hill]

But then Covid arrived, and who has time to complain about the impact of Amazon Prime on the high street when you’re out of loo roll? Who can possibly worry about “data rights” when you need to speak to your lonely parents? These became luxury problems. Even the most ardent techno-pessimist struggles to stay offline these days. I have gone from avoiding Amazon to having a dedicated area for cardboard. Besides, the wizardry of connectivity made forced isolation bearable. Try to imagine lockdown without Zoom calls, online shopping, Deliveroo, TikTok or Netflix. (People in other countries can and did of course, but we were too far in.) 

For decades technologists promised that connectivity was humanity’s prime directive and they were here to make our lives smoother and easier. I’d concluded that this was just a convenient cover story for dramatic wealth accumulation, but suddenly the internet really did bring people together in useful and meaningful ways: the online support groups, the remote working, the FaceTimes with families. Who would previously have willingly held “Zoom Quizzes” with extended family? Not me. And yet there I was, week in, week out.  

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But nothing is ever really free on the internet. These undeniable conveniences come with a price tag.

There were the predictable problems, of course, adapted for a pandemic. The misinformation and 5G anti-vax conspiracies whose damage is still unknown. Online fraudsters, never ones to miss a crisis, have exploited every angle, selling fake masks, processing fake payments and pushing fake vaccine certificates. There’s currently so much Covid-related fraud that the UK government has even created a dedicated helpline. Future generations will look back at 2020 as the year even scientific research about mask-wearing or R-numbers got pulled into the black hole of the online culture war. What’s next I wonder. Gravity? 

For a decade – that’s the entire adult life of people who now hold down serious jobs and bring up children – we have been behaviourally primed by Big Tech’s obsessive need to keep us online and outraged. I can’t have been the only one who watched the daily Covid numbers with the same frenetic addiction as checking notifications. The internet has turned everything into checkable numbers, even death itself.

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You only need to consider the following statistics to see how quickly things changed last year. Amazon’s net profits rose by 84 per cent in 2020. Apple banked $28.7bn in profits in the final quarter of last year alone, its most profitable quarter ever. Facebook’s monthly and daily users rose by more than 10 per cent, which is good going for a company that was running out of humans to connect. According to one study, global online content consumption doubled, as hundreds of millions of people joined WhatsApp, Netflix and TikTok. 

All-conquering Zoom went from under 700,000 UK users in January 2020 to over 13 million three months later. It’s hard to think of a company that has grown faster. Not even early-years Facebook comes close. 

Then there were the online deliveries – where would we be without this heroic second front line? The lockdowns have surely changed shopping for good. TopShop on Oxford Street, possibly the UK’s most famous store, couldn’t endure and even the mom-and-pop stores have been forced to transform into e-commerce sites. A recent study by the US consultancy McKinsey found that “digital interaction” between consumers and business has been sped up by approximately three to four years and digital product and service offerings by seven years, a trend that is unlikely to ever reverse.

[see also: The innovation trap: how the economy of ideas creates inequality]

Seen from a certain vantage point, we’re already living in 2030. The dystopian novelists had it broadly right: plugged-in humans stare at screens all day, corporations become more powerful than governments, and high streets are replaced by button pushing. It was reported recently that Amazon offered to help the US government with vaccine delivery – a generous thought, but also a worrying sign of things to come. Some kind of tech dystopia was already heading our way, and it’s certainly preferable to the alternative dystopia of total isolation during a pandemic. But we were supposed to have more time to deal with it. 

When the lockdowns are over, we will doubtless rush into the sunlight and nod to each other about how “nothing beats real-world connection”. Maybe the experience of online-only life will stimulate a greater appreciation for the non-digital. But technology rarely allows a retreat: it takes a piece of territory and colonises it. Our post-pandemic phones will have apps installed that we already rely on (For example, according to one poll last summer, 40 per cent of us say we’re going to buy more online now than we used to).

Our businesses will have shiny new websites and online delivery systems. Social media companies will know more about us than ever. And having spent millions removing deadly misinformation from their platforms, these companies will also direct their parsing systems to another social problem: deciding what content we see and don’t see. 

Beyond that, who knows? I suspect we’ll emerge from all this with a strange new inverse tech-inequality, where the wealthy can afford to ditch their devices as the rest of us become increasingly monitored and addicted. One account of the pandemic spoke of how the rich escaped to their acreage and second homes, while the rest stayed in and complained about it on Instagram. As one wit recently noted, there’s no lockdown, there is only middle-class people hiding and working-class people bringing them stuff.

There are many reasons why we need the pandemic to end. Avoiding a tech dystopia isn’t top of the list. But the march of the tech giants is accelerating – what took years now takes months. It’s already difficult to imagine a world without them everywhere: connecting, collecting, delivering, censoring, entertaining and providing. Much more of this and we might not even notice them at all – and the takeover will be complete.

[see also: Adam Curtis: “Big Tech and Big Data have been completely useless in this crisis”]