The Looming Healthcare Market of Big Tech: Why We Should All Be Worried

In an ominous echo of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) last week, we learned how Amazon.com Inc. is placing Alexa, the company’s artificial-intelligence assistant, to track consumers’ prescriptions in addition to communicating personal health information. This is Amazon’s attempt to insert its technology into private, everyday health care as now Alexa is capable of transmitting personal healthcare information while allegedly keeping within the legal requirements for health-privacy. This after Amazon purchased the online pharmacy, PillPack, last summer and after its announcement in November to sell software that can read medical records. If you think Amazon has the public interest at heart, think again.

Let’s not forget that the marketing of e-cigarettes, despite their health benefits for those quitting smoking, are still being sold on Amazon, skirting the rules that are in force to protect children. Also essential to this move by Amazon is that the rise of the e-cigarette market in which this corporation is cashing in, follows the same old rules of the traditional cigarette market. Or to quote Warren Buffett: “I’ll tell you why I like the cigarette business. It costs a penny to make. Sell it for a dollar. It’s addictive. And there’s fantastic brand loyalty.” While Buffett’s fortune didn’t come from the cigarette trade, this model represents a cynical approach to capitalism over human life.

So keeping this ethos in mind, it should come as no surprise that Amazon alongside Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway (BRKB) and JPMorgan Chase (JPM) are planning to launch Haven, a health care venture, in an effort to lower health care costs for the employees of all three companies. It looks, on the surface, quite legitimate: two leftist leaning multi-billionaires teaming up with with a CEO of JPM, Jamie Dimon. But then, Dimon, who claims to have a heart of a democrat and a brain of a Republican, is merely a good liberal just as are Bezoz and Buffett. On the outside, they offer lefty-ish rhetoric steeped in gooey sentimentality that lays the claim that Haven will “save the healthcare free market.” But the inner core of this plan is where the Republican “brain” exerts its will: the grasping for money just like Buffett’s dream of the cigarette model. Keep them dying and make money until their last breath. Now Buffett will have this vision realized with the upside being that he can also sell life-saving technology and healthcare all the while looking to takeover a new list of companies, like Target, which pays barely over minimum wage. Who needs healthcare when you can barely survive? Having tapped Atul Gawande, a surgeon, public-health researcher and New Yorker writer who pushes for a Cheesecake Factory-style of healthcare, as Haven’s CEO, it looks like it’s business as usual with all the neoliberal key words evidenced for the media.

So, Amazon is out to capitalize on healthcare and new technology for healthcare while selling the very goods that land patients in the hospital. For those who thought that McDonalds was perilously endangering the food market twenty years ago, given Amazon’s recent ventures outside retail, we are witnessing the very cynical birth of McLife.

But Amazon is not alone in attempting to elbow its into the medical market as Apple is also swiftly heading towards healthcare and here’s how. While Apple has held itself up as the model to other tech giants as how to handle consumers’ personal data (eg. iPhone users can block cookies on Apple devices to avoid targeted advertising), the company has constantly refused to share users’ encrypted data with law enforcement. In January, however, Apple announced its plans to enter the healthcare market while having been investing in the health sector in recent years and having introduced its electrocardiogram-equipped Apple Watch. Now Apple CEO, Tim Cook, claims his company is up for “democratizing” health care and using our private information to build its empire.

While Apple also doesn’t store health care data on its own servers, its privacy policy has allowed the company to forge relationships with hospitals and medical researchers in building a new electronic health record system (EHR). Other Apple health products such as the iPhone Health App and health monitoring features on the Apple Watch are part of the company’s relatively new focus on healthcare. Still, other big tech firms like Facebook and Alphabet’s Google — have launched their own healthcare projects and it is time that people pay attention at what is going on. We are being sold a dream of better healthcare by companies telling us of the current healthcare system’s woes—from administrative problems, to price opacity to patient disappointment. In other words, big tech sees a market to exploit.

The reasons we are being given for big tech’s move into healthcare is that “data analytics in health care promise to detect the onset of diseases and save lives.” That’s the cover story at any rate. But why on earth would these companies really want to be involved in healthcare given their current mandates? And when you have Uber trying to tiptoe into the ambulance market, you know that the best interests of healthcare are the last priority here. This all smells of dental marketing being conducted by those passing out sweets to children and surprisingly few in the medical field are raising red flags over what seems to be a hijacking of medical services by big tech. To boot, we are being told that the data they are using to drive their new ventures is totally on the board. But how legitimate is it for our private information to be used to kickstart big tech’s business ventures into life itself?

This move to take our private information in order to create new business is something that need ethical oversight and protection. Michel Foucault previewed this sort of mechanism decades ago when he wrote about biopower as a market for capitalist ventures:

This bio-power was without question an indispensable element in the development of capitalism; the latter would not have been possible without the controlled insertion of bodies into the machinery of production and the adjustment of the phenomena of population to economic processes.

Just as Foucault noted the use of biopower an operational power over populations from the 18th century onward, we need to assess how big tech is attempting to own human life through the management of the body through healthcare.

Julian Vigo is a scholar, film-maker and human rights consultant. Her latest book is Earthquake in Haiti: The Pornography of Poverty and the Politics of Development (2015). She can be reached at: julian.vigo@gmail.com

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