A.I. in the Time of COVID-19

The coming age of medical surveillance

It doesn’t take a crystal ball, or even the powers of the imagination to divine an ever-present pandemic future.  It’s all unfolding now as Silicon Valley forges long-anticipated partnerships with the government to provide the “solutions” that will eventually replace it.   Just as the ‘gig economy’ reduced dependence on employers, freeing them of their responsibilities in terms of healthcare coverage and benefits, a tech-based brain trust is poised to revolutionize all aspects of life with the instruments of “applied utopics”.  Already former Google CEO Eric Schmidt has been put in charge of dismantling New York City’s existing institutions for public health and education, while New York Governor Cuomo has struck a similar deal with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to implement “smarter” systems – or rather, replace the ‘dumb’ ones with education software helpfully provided by Microsoft, and medicines developed by pharmaceutical companies the billionaire couple have a stake in.

By now, we should be able to see where this is going while markets are rallying even as unemployment figures surpass the Great Depression’s.  As unhoused populations overwhelm New York City’s subways and San Francisco’s streets, their numbers rising in rhythm to the steady uptick of Amazon stocks hitting another all-time high.  As Wall Street celebrates what should be a funeral for global capitalism, it’s hard not to draw the conclusion that an engineered demolition of the ‘old’ economy is already underway.   Arguably, this risky maneuver was meant to stave off the inevitable and more unpredictable collapse that was coming down the pipeline, and hastened into its present implementation phase when a mysterious Coronavirus of disputed origin first hit the headlines.  You only have to look deep within your own black heart, (to paraphrase Gore Vidal describing the process he used to divine what the ruling class was up to) to envision the “new normal” that pandemic will necessitate maximizing its potential as both a social and economic force.

From this corrupted looking glass, we can just make out the contours of the ‘smart’ city beginning to take shape on the horizon.  Perhaps you vaguely recall this deferred utopia as a failed experiment by the Google-owned company Sidewalk Labs to transform Toronto’s waterfront district into a project dubbed “Quayside”, a “sustainable”, data-driven, showroom for subterfuge technologies of surveillance.  This time the “debacle” (as most critics described this wasteful investment into a real estate scheme by a company with no experience or expertise in the physical side of urban development) will be replicated with pandemic as its justification, rather than its downfall.

Unfortunately, for this Canadian prototype, its “innovations” were no match for the written-on-parchment laws still in existence that prioritized privacy over “progress”, and citizen-led resistance to the digitization of all basic infrastructure and business transactions to the detriment of those surrendering their unprotected data.   As Quayside’s pioneering architects presciently considered, (while overlooking the legal consequences of their careless handling of all this stealthily collected data intended for uses outside Quayside) traditional urban centers were to become obsolete.  Already, their their topography has proven incompatible with all the AI-driven infrastructure required to accommodate “new realities” like pandemic.

Quayside’s current status as a project on permanent hold should not discount its braintrust’s cockroach like ability to adapt to a climate of adversity:  As Sidewalk Labs CEO Daniel L. Doctoroff stated recently:   “The current health emergency makes us feel even more strongly about reimagining cities for the future”.   The Terminator, in other words promising “I’ll be back” with the same threat implicit in the catchphrase of a cyborg assassin.

All this non-human and non-contact technology (remote learning and telemedicine) will be instrumental in eventually re-shaping society to conform to the misanthropic ideals underlying this soon-to-be revived utopia, “reimagined” to reduce public engagement down to the level of a coffee order, and as “inclusive” as an ICU ward during lockdown. The smart city of this foreseeable future is less a Brave New World than a fear-driven fortress within it.

No longer a society mediated by images of wealth and prosperity (as French philosopher Guy Debord would define late stage capitalism) but a world is wholly given over to dismantling the notion of society itself and divestment from the “spectacle” it engendered to reflect a falsely held notion of participation within it.  False consciousness as Marx described this misidentification with the ruling class will soon give way to stark realization (and acceptance) of stagnation within a social vacuum administered by machines.  An already anachronistic social order will shift from a single organism with diverse tendencies to diffuse, identical components prodded into service by a single intelligence.

In contrast to the cumbersome apparatus of analog governance, “instrumentarian” power (as Harvard School of Business professor Shoshanna Zuboff describes this tech-based totalitarian structure in her landmark book ’Surveillance Capitalism’) will be a seamless integration of technology into every aspect of life, mediating every relationship to it, while burrowing itself deeper into our anatomies to extract value from all their plundered secrets.

This new and even more concentrated power base will demand a radical overhaul of what was once considered ‘society’, noting the present system is burdened to breaking point by human error.  They will demand that we distance ourselves from each other – and any ideas that run counter to the prevailing orthodoxy put forth by Valley’s Vatican-like power base.

Pandemic itself will be the underlying and guiding force of a new economy that has transitioned from the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services in the social domain into a more abstract realm.  Under this arrangement, the economy is no longer dictated by consumers or their demands, but the data they provide both digitally and biologically.  Environmental destruction and the scarcity of natural resources has necessitated this transition from the failed “free” market – regulated to some degree by the government – to a centrally planned ‘command’ model overseen by leaders in tech and pharmaceutical industries.  This intentional pivot from oligarch rule to an absolute and authoritarian technocracy, made possible by medically-imposed martial law, ensures that dwindling resources are not squandered on a surplus, no longer performing labor sector, but given over entirely to the class that rendered them obsolete in the first place.

Jennifer Matsui is a writer living in Tokyo and a columnist for the print edition of CounterPunch magazine.

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