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Companies Plan to Profit in High-Tech COVID Dystopia

The pandemic could transform our lives into a “permanent living laboratory for a highly profitable no-touch future.”

In her new report for The Intercept on the “Screen New Deal,” Naomi Klein looks at how the coronavirus pandemic is more high-tech than previous disasters — and how the future we’re being rushed into could transform our lives into a “living laboratory for a permanent — and highly profitable — no-touch future.” She joins us to discuss what she found, and says, “I think we’re going to see very incomplete so-called solutions … that massively benefit private tech interests.”


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Naomi, we wanted to turn right now to your major piece in The Intercept. You talk about the “pandemic shock doctrine” beginning to emerge, as we turn to your new report that looks at how this crisis is more high-tech than previous disasters and how the future we’re being rushed into could transform our lives into a, quote, “living laboratory for a permanent — and highly profitable — no-touch future.”

This future was on display a week ago during New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s daily coronavirus briefing, when he welcomed a video visit from former Google CEO Eric Schmidt and announced Schmidt will be heading up a blue-ribbon commission to reimagine New York state’s post-COVID reality.

ERIC SCHMIDT: The public-private partnerships that are possible with the intelligence of the New Yorkers is extraordinary. It needs to be unleashed.

GOV. ANDREW CUOMO: Well, great. You are the person to help us do that. We are all ready. We’re all in. We are New Yorkers, so we’re aggressive about it and we’re ambitious about it. And I think we get it, Eric. You know, we went through this period, and we realize that change is not only imminent, but it can actually be a friend, if done the right way.

AMY GOODMAN: This comes as Eric Schmidt has also been selling his services to the military-industrial complex. The New York Times reported on Schmidt’s, quote, “Pentagon offensive.”

Well, Naomi Klein, I want to ask if you can comment on all of this, and particularly lay out your piece in The Intercept, called “Screen New Deal: Under Cover of Mass Death, Andrew Cuomo Calls in the Billionaires to Build a High-Tech Dystopia.” Lay out your thesis.

NAOMI KLEIN: Sure. Well, the billionaires I was referring to is, he didn’t just announce that partnership with Eric Schmidt, who will be chairing this blue-ribbon commission to, quote-unquote, “reopen” New York state with an emphasis on telehealth, remote learning, working from home, increased broadband. That’s what they announced during that briefing. He also announced that he would be kind of outsourcing the tracing of the virus to Michael Bloomberg, another megabillionaire. And the day before, at the briefing, Cuomo announced a partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to, quote-unquote, “reimagine” education.

And during all of these announcements, there’s just been sort of effusive praise heaped on these billionaires. They’re called “visionaries” over and over again. And the governor talks about how this is an unprecedented opportunity to put their preexisting ideas into action. And this is what I’ve described as the shock doctrine previously.

And we have talked on the show during the pandemic about what I would describe as kind of lower-tech shock doctrines of the kind we’ve seen before — immediately going after Social Security, immediately bailing out fossil fuel companies. And I want to stress that all of this is still happening, right? The suspending of EPA regulations. So, there’s still this kind of lower-tech shock doctrine underway with the bailout of these industries, the suspending of regulations they didn’t want anyway.

But there is something else going on, that Eric Schmidt really epitomizes. And this is this, what I’m calling a “Screen New Deal.” And this is an idea that treats our months in isolation, those of us who are privileged enough to be self-isolating — and that, in and of itself, is an enormous privilege, because we have seen this sharpening and widening of a class dichotomy. And this relates to the calls to open up the economy, right? The people who are making these calls are not the people who are going to be most at risk. They’re calling for other people to be putting themselves at great risk, and there is a feeling of being immune to the worst impacts of the virus. But that’s another issue.

What this, what I’m calling a “Screen New Deal,” really does is treat this period of isolation not as what we have needed to do in order to save lives — this is what we thought we were doing, right? — flattening the curve, but rather — and Eric Schmidt has said this elsewhere. He said it in April in a video call with the Economic Club of New York. He described what was happening now as a “grand experiment in remote learning.” So, all the parents out there who are listening or watching, you’ve been struggling with supporting your kids on Google Classroom and Zoom calls, and you thought you were just trying to get through the day. Well, according to Google, you’ve been engaged in a “grand experiment in remote learning,” where they are getting a great deal of data and figuring out how to do this permanently, because they actually believe this is a better way of educating kids, or at least, and coming back to our earlier conversation, a more profitable way.

Eric Schmidt talked, in that clip that you just played there, Amy, about all of the opportunities for public-private partnerships. And what he is really talking about is public money going to tech firms, like Google, like Amazon, to perform public functions. So, once again, a bonanza for the tech companies — who, by the way, have been doing very well during the pandemic already — where they see huge opportunities in telehealth, in the educational market in public schools, in supporting us working from home and learning from home.

And they’re not looking for a kind of a traditional reopening, but, rather, a new paradigm, where the privileged classes, who are able to isolate themselves, basically get everything that we need either delivered through digital streaming or by drone, by driverless vehicle.

And we’re seeing a massive rebranding effort going on in Silicon Valley, where all of these technologies that were very, very controversial, and where there was a lot of pushback way back in February — whether it’s driverless vehicles, because there have been all kinds of accidents, or drones delivering packages, or telehealth, because of concerns about security for patients’ sensitive information, or the benefit of having our kids in front of screens all day. I mean, I could go on and on. There was a lot of pushback.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Naomi — Naomi, if I can —


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I’d like to raise something here, both in terms of remote learning and in terms of telehealth services. My students at Rutgers did a survey of their fellow students on this issue of remote learning. And they found — they did a survey of several hundred students. Eighty-five percent of them said that their ability to concentrate on subject matter had been seriously reduced since the move to remote learning, and 65% of them said that their homes were not conducive to remote learning. So, no one is taking into account the impact on the actual quality of the kind of education that students are receiving.

The other aspect of this, I think, also is that, whether it’s in telehealth services or in remote learning, all of the material is then saved by the providers, so that —


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: — whether it’s a professor’s lecture or whether it’s the interview between a doctor and a patient, that is no longer a private situation. It’s now recorded and saved, to possible detriment of both the professor’s right as a teacher or the patient’s right in their private discussions with their doctors.

NAOMI KLEIN: Well, these are huge concerns. And what is, I think, a truly toxic combination is the preexisting for-profit model that Silicon Valley has been looking at and pushing when it comes to telehealth and remote learning, and the economic crisis that is being offloaded onto the states and onto municipalities by Washington. Right? So, we’ve had a series of bailouts, and again and again, the states and cities have been shortchanged, right? So the national economic crisis becomes a local austerity crisis, where you no longer have funds to pay for public health and public education. Right?

And that’s where these so-called solutions, that do allow you to archive information and engage in what they call predictive medicine, which requires fewer healthcare professionals, supposedly, or remote learning, where you can archive the videos put online by teachers. And they don’t have to do it again; you just replay them the next year. Right, Juan? So there’s two forces here, right? There is the desire to cut back the actual human beings who are employed on an ongoing basis, in favor of these kind of one-off, big-ticket payments for Silicon Valley.

And, you know, what you were talking about before, Juan, about these huge inequalities in who is able to work comfortably from home — and I personally don’t think it’s a — you know, I think most students are not enjoying this experience. There are huge inequities in who has access to broadband, who has access to laptop computers and tablets, but also who is able to learn well on screens. You know, there are kids with developmental disabilities who have much more trouble just sitting in front of a screen for long periods of time.

The tech companies are very quick to say, “We can solve the technological gaps. We can buy tablets for every kid.” Right? Because that’s another bonanza for them. That’s public dollars that are going to go to paying for tech.

Schmidt, in his capacity as chair of the Defense Innovation Board and the National Security Commission on AI, which is — Amy, you talked about that New York Times piece — where he has been engaged in this long — well, long, a couple of years — push to increase federal spending on all of these technologies, and saying, you know, “We’re losing the AI arms race to China, because they’re investing much more in surveillance tech and also on 5G infrastructure.” So, all of these tech companies benefit massively if there are big public investments in broadband. So those are things that they’re saying they can solve.

But what they can’t solve is whether kids are in a home environment that doesn’t have a private space for them to work, that is very loud, that is abusive. These are not things that Eric Schmidt and Google can solve. And they can’t solve for developmental disabilities that just mean that kids need to move around, as most kids do, right?

So, I think we’re going to see very incomplete so-called solutions, and solutions obviously that massively benefit private tech interests. And we’re not having a discussion about, “Well, look, if it is true that we are going to need to be spending more time in our homes, and if it is true that access to technology is a lifeline, then should we be treating the internet as a commons, as a public utility, that we govern, that is governed by our regulations and by democracy?” As soon as you outsource the solutions to Eric Schmidt, who still has $5.3 billion in Alphabet shares, which is the company that owns Google, and who has holdings in all kinds of these tech companies, they are not going to put those public interest questions on the table.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break and then come back to our discussion with Naomi Klein. She has a new piece out at The Intercept, “Screen New Deal: Under Cover of Mass Death, Andrew Cuomo Calls in the Billionaires to Build a High-Tech Dystopia.” We’ll be back with her in a minute.

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