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Screen New Deal: Naomi Klein on How Companies Like Google Plan to Profit in High-Tech COVID Dystopia

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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.”

Transcript
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 —

NAOMI KLEIN: Sorry.

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 —

NAOMI KLEIN: Right.

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.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: “The Damnedest Thing” by Beauty Pill. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman in New York, the epicenter of the pandemic. Juan González is in New Brunswick, New Jersey, as is our guest today, because both Juan González and Naomi Klein are professors at Rutgers University. Naomi has now just written a “piece”:piece for The Intercept, “Screen New Deal: Under Cover of Mass Death, Andrew Cuomo Calls in the Billionaires to Build a High-Tech Dystopia.”

I wanted to go back to Tuesday’s surreal Senate Health Committee hearing, where the chair was there remotely because his staffer had tested positive for COVID. Those who were testifying were all remote, in various levels of quarantine. But we’re going to go right now to North Carolina Republican Senator Richard Burr, who was criticizing the CDC, the Centers for Disease Control, for being too slow to develop and implement surveillance tracking. This is Burr talking to the Centers for Disease Control director, Dr. Robert Redfield. We also hear some off-screen barking.

SEN. RICHARD BURR: We’ve seen the private sector go out and use data available to track the progress and spread of coronavirus around the world. Why has CDC not contracted with private sector technology companies to try to use their tools for biosurveillance?

DR. ROBERT REDFIELD: This is under critical review now. We do have contracts with some of the private sector groups now to try to make the type of availability of data that we’ve seen with Florida available in all of our jurisdictions across the country, and in the process of making that happen.

SEN. RICHARD BURR: I’m hopeful that we won’t just talk about surveillance, we’ll actually execute it, and we’ll focus the unbelievable amounts of money that we’ve provided for you, that they will show some — some benefit to the American people.

AMY GOODMAN: So, there you have Redfield being questioned by Burr. Naomi Klein is our guest for the hour, senior correspondent at The Intercept. If you can talk about what he’s asking about surveillance? Also, just as we came to the show today, BBC did a piece on Israel turning surveillance tools on itself, that they developed for Palestinians, and then turning it on themselves to track people during the pandemic. Your thoughts, Naomi?

NAOMI KLEIN: Well, I think it’s — we talked about that a little bit earlier. Israel has been doing this from the beginning, and there’s been lawsuits about it, about their use of tracking apps. But it goes well beyond that. And I think one of the things that’s important to understand about Israel is that the technology that they use in their surveillance state — and for the most part, it is Palestinians who are under this constant state of surveillance, but, as you say, that BBC story is talking about a kind of a migration of those surveillance technologies into being used against Israelis — these are all technologies that Israel looks to export. There is a huge amount of cross-pollination between police forces, military forces, intelligence services, you know, going to Israel, communicating with Israeli intelligence, where all of these technologies often migrate to the rest of the world, are sold by Israeli companies as the solution. We saw it after September 11th.

And I think a lot of what we’re seeing, frankly, follows a pattern that Shoshana Zuboff, the Harvard professor who wrote The Age of Surveillance Capitalism — she talks about how before the September 11th attacks, there had been an aggressive move to protect consumer privacy against increased surveillance by tech companies, and that immediately after those attacks, there was, rather, a very aggressive push by government to collaborate with tech companies to get at the access — to get access to the same data that they were worried about the tech companies mining before the attacks. And so, now we’re in a moment where there was a huge amount of concern about what Zuboff calls surveillance capitalism, and now many people who had been raising those alarms are going, “Well, maybe it’s OK if we let our governments collaborate with tech companies to store this very, very sensitive data about us.”

Now, I want to be clear. I think there is absolutely a role, an important role, for technology in figuring out how we are going to live under these extraordinary circumstances. But the question is whether tech companies and government get the kind of carte blanche that they got in 2001 to massively invade our privacy. What is going to — where is this data going to be stored? Who is going to have access to it? Australia has rolled out one of these apps very quickly, and it turns out that Amazon is controlling the data. So, you know, that clip, I think, is a very worrying one.

The other thing that I think we need to be really acutely aware of is, a lot of the narratives that we’ve heard early on about countries that successfully controlled the virus, or at least much more successfully than the United States, a lot of it was attributed to these kinds of apps, to this kind of surveillance. And that narrative is a very convenient one for these tech companies. And in many cases, it erases the role of a functioning public healthcare system, of the fact that it was not merely an app that was placed voluntarily on people’s phones, but, much more importantly, a well-staffed public health system that allowed human tracing and tracking of the virus, which means a human being. Not an alert on your phone, but a human being calls you — best of all, a human being in your community, somebody who you might trust, who speaks your language — and says, “OK, you may have come in contact with this virus. What would you need to be able to self-quarantine? Can we get you a hotel room? Can we help you to make sure that your kids are cared for?”

This is the kind of human work and job creation that it actually takes. And what we’re being sold now, whether with the idea that everything is going to be solved with more surveillance and an app or remote learning and telehealth, is really taking the humans out of the equation. Right? It is humans who are setting up these systems. It is humans, like whether it is the teachers in their homes or the parents in their homes, who are helping students learn right now. It isn’t just Google Classroom that is doing it. But humans are being erased from this story. And we aren’t hearing the kinds of human solutions that, with proper control over good technology, we could actually come up with some viable models here.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Naomi, I wanted to ask you — in your article in The Intercept, you talk about this new form of yellow peril that Eric Schmidt is peddling, that now it’s China that is the threat when it comes to artificial intelligence. The United States is falling behind. It dovetails with Trump’s blaming China for the trade gap of the United States. What about this issue of artificial intelligence and whether we are in a new space race with China over it?

NAOMI KLEIN: Yeah, absolutely. So, in my article, I quote some documents that were FOIA’d by EPIC, which is Electronic Privacy Information Center. They got a trove of documents out of the National Security Commission on AI, NSCAI, which is the commission that — one of the two commissions that Schmidt chairs. And it advises Congress on ways that it can increase its uses of technology, particularly AI, but not exclusively AI.

And it’s all framed in this yellow peril language of China is on the verge of beating Silicon Valley in the technology race that began in Silicon Valley. So, basically, the narrative is, you know, American innovation is responsible for these technologies — of course, Silicon Valley takes much of the credit, but, as we know, a lot of it comes from public research, and a lot of it comes from military research — but because China does not have the same privacy concerns — indeed, you have a government that is erecting a high-tech surveillance state — and because China has leapfrogged over a lot of what this report calls sort of legacy structures — so, they go directly to cashless, digital payments; they are going directly to telehealth because there’s a big shortage of doctors — they —

AMY GOODMAN: Naomi, we have 20 seconds.

NAOMI KLEIN: Yeah. So, basically, the idea is China is leaping ahead of the United States, and the only way to fight back is to have a China-style surveillance state here in the United States. And that’s the message that Schmidt has been peddling for a long time now.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to thank you so much for being with us. There’s so much more in the piece, and people can read it. We will link to it. Naomi Klein, senior correspondent at The Intercept. The new piece, “Screen New Deal: Under Cover of Mass Death, Andrew Cuomo Calls in the Billionaires to Build a High-Tech Dystopia.” Naomi is the author of many books, including The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism; her latest, On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal.

That does it for our show. Democracy Now! is working with as few people on site as possible. The majority of our amazing team is working from home. We thank them all. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Stay safe.

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