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Tech's pandemic narratives

By Katherine Huang, August 26, 2020

The US’s pandemic response leaves a gaping hole that private entities, including technology companies, have scrambled to fill. The tech industry, software in particular, has the power to influence the priorities on society’s agenda — what problems are worthy of tackling, what the criteria are for potential solutions — and realize those goals.

Some corporations own sociotechnical systems extensive and ubiquitous enough that we can study them using the same vocabulary reserved for infrastructure systems like power grids and communication networks. Many startups and larger companies partner with healthcare systems and governments. Solutionism, the ideology that technology fix all of society’s problems, pervades Silicon Valley and beyond. It’s critical to examine tech companies’ messages and the narratives they draw from and feed into — their rhetoric is at least a partial expression of their values.

Rollback to normal

In an unusual instance of collaboration, Google and Apple have developed a Bluetooth-based API to support contact tracing mobile apps. They’re motivated to “get society back up and running” and “accelerate the return of everyday life.” Lucid Drone Technologies, an alum of the prestigious startup accelerator Y Combinator, recently launched disinfecting drones in the name of “getting our country back on its feet.” Contact tracing app HealthyTogether aims to help governments, companies, and schools “get back to normal.”

This wishful thinking isn’t uncommon, though most of us rationally understand that many changes are here to stay. Remote work becoming a viable option in the mainstream is just one example of the pandemic accelerating changes that wouldn’t have been able to happen in the past.

In the framework of tech’s usual forward-thinking attitude that prizes “disruption” and the extraordinary, pining for normality is regressive. Rather than envisioning a world that has learned from the pandemic and working to make that future as resilient and good as possible, these companies prioritize the restoration and maintenance of the status quo. From a public health perspective, returning to normal too hastily can leave us more susceptible to future outbreaks, which happened during the 1918-1920 flu pandemic.

Private actors, public service

Companies have different stances about their relation to the government and large corporations. Apple and Google highlight their “close cooperation and collaboration with developers, governments, and public health providers.” Contact tracing app NOVID, on the other hand, assures potential users, “We’re just like you… We’re not a government agency. We’re not a huge corporation.” Citizen, a local emergency alerts app that has added a COVID-19 dashboard and contact tracing capabilities, seeks to fulfill the “burning need” for “tools that our government is unable to provide.” Yet others sell their solutions to government agencies — all a reminder that tech companies are far from monolithic.

Undergirding each of these examples is the phenomenon of private entities performing public services. To what extent should private entities be involved in a public health crisis response? Researcher Mike Ananny has inquired about “conversions” similar to these, including the time when media outlets suspended their paywalls on coverage of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing — analogous to today’s removal of paywalls on COVID-19 news. He asks, “Why do such conversions happen, what do they reveal about a platform’s definition of ‘public,’ and when should they happen?”

A potential limitation tech companies is that they may not fully understand and consider the needs of contact tracers and potential government partners. While products may offer reassuring statements and enticing features, their priorities don’t necessarily align with our best interest — this is the problem we have with addictive social media apps that farm users’ attention and data. Apple reassures readers that the API it co-created is “consistent with well-established privacy principles,” but who established that standard? Questions like this are exactly what solutionism brushes over, painting technology as apolitical yet capable of addressing society’s (fundamentally political) problems.

Mobilizing through mobile apps

Framing disease outbreaks as a national security threat using martial language is not new. The federal government has declared war on the virus and tech companies have followed suit in their rhetoric. Citizen spells out that it’s “waging war on Covid,” while several others employ phrases like “fight the spread” (NOVID), “join the fight” (Lucid Drones), and “help protect frontline workers… in the fight against COVID-19” (HealthyTogether).

To an American half a year into the pandemic, treating the virus as a national enemy may seem like the obvious approach, one that’s not too consequential. However, NYU professor and foreign policy expert Mark Hannah compares such a war declaration to “taking a marriage vow, placing a bet with a friend, or telling your boss you resign.” Particularly when speakers have the “authority and means to follow through” on their words, they are not merely describing reality, but rather creating a new reality. Not only are there other ways to view the virus, but the metaphor also has downstream effects.

In war, does the labor of companies become mobilization, and their products weapons? Who are the soldiers? Apple says, “Software developers are contributing by crafting technical tools to help combat the virus,” reimagining developers as craftspeople. This statement perhaps constructs a romanticized narrative of the individual contributor making impact through humble work. For many professions, there’s a discrepancy between how people view themselves and how they’re recast through a war lens. Healthcare workers, for instance, generally don’t aspire to be hailed as warriors — as Mark Hannah puts it, “[t]hey have an altogether different sort of calling, and their work is honorable enough as it is.”

I’ll close with a final observation: Oura is a wearable sleep and activity tracker that’s partnered with the NBA to “help bring players, coaches, and staff safely back to basketball.” With the University of California, San Francisco, they’re developing an algorithm to “identify patterns of onset, progression, and recovery for COVID-19.” To encourage people to enlist in the study, they assure you, “Every contribution counts. Ready to join?”