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The Impending Disaster Of App Based Contact Tracing

by on April 13, 2020

easyDNS is pleased to sponsor Jesse Hirsh‘s  Metaviews.

Seeking a quick fix to restart the economy

As the inevitable embrace of pervasive health surveillance spreads with the speed of a novel coronavirus, a growing chorus of voices choose sides as the details of these data collection systems emerge.

This is a subject we’ve been following closely, yet in spite of feeling as if we’re relatively well informed, I still find myself thinking this is all a distraction.

The meme above does seem like a succinct and accurate summary of where we’re at. Rather than engage in the heavy lifting of necessary public policy and public programs, let’s all fetishize technology and pretend that it can magically solve everything. Readers of this newsletter know that is impossible, so the larger question is what is the agenda at play here? Who benefits, and why?

Before we answer that question of political economy, let’s catch up with the latest research and critiques of tracing apps:

The above is a good overview of the concerns with how contact tracing apps are being proposed and developed.

The biggest problem may be that few people will truly understand how they work. We’ll get into the problems this creates below.

However another significant issue is that many public health experts and epidemiologists are critical of these apps. This is true for reasons 3 and 4 above, but also because of concerns that these apps may create false pictures of how the virus is spreading, and as a result, flawed data.

The latter point is particularly important. The accuracy of such apps is questionable, and the consequences of a false positive test could be catastrophic to the individual it happens to.

I don’t feel we’re being honest about how precarious most people are right now. Economic precarity as people fear losing their job or have lost their job and are afraid of what happens next. This contributes to growing mental precarity as we’re all relatively stressed and anxious.

We should be asking ourselves, collectively, what can we be doing to mitigate our stress and anxiety? An increase in our collective mental instability is not good for public health, public safety, or the public interest.

However also significant is the former point made above, that widespread adoption would be necessary for such tracing apps to be effective.

What’s the difference between tempting and happening?

It is both amusing and tragic that people, especially companies, believed that they had any chance of doing this before the oligopolies would. Or that their solution would be viable in the face of the market power and concentration wielded by Apple and Google. This is the power of market dominance.

Remember when anti-trust was a thing? No? Me neither. If we wanted it to be a thing, should we not have taken action before a crisis?

Not only can a solution developed by these companies scale faster than any other, but it conveniently would have the capabilities to expand in scope and purpose.

We certainly should be encouraged that elected officials are raising these concerns, and that researchers are probing the way in which these systems might work. However we should not forget that there are certain elements of a contact tracing app which are fundamental to the concept or logic behind it.

A recurring theme of this newsletter is gaming the system and the steps people can and will take to manipulate or fool an algorithm, whether for their own enjoyment, or more acutely, for their own survival and livelihood.

This is the lesson to remember. Technology is never a fix. Rather it is a reflection of values or beliefs that we’ve translated into a tool.

At present, these values are not universal, and these beliefs are not backed up by scientific research.

Instead we should heed the caution offered by researchers, who rightly recognize that the solution to our current predicament is trans-disciplinary and enabled by labour not technology.

This is particularly important because our understanding of this pandemic and the impact of this pandemic are tragically skewed. While we experience it subjectively, most in the form of self-isolation, the pandemic itself is disproportionately impacting people who are already marginalized. Long term care facilities, homeless shelters, and in the US in particular, poor neighbourhoods, and communities of colour.

An app is not going to help those people. This is why rather than focusing on technology, we should be focusing on people as the solution to this crisis.

It’s not that cynical to suggest that continued deferment of the hard (public policy and public service) work by focusing on the easy fix could result in further pain and dysfunction. This is a crisis that will not wait for us, but rather evolves in spite of us. The more we neglect the social work the harder it will be to do it.

As we’ve been discussing, this crisis stems from a conflict between universality of public health and the selfishness of contemporary capitalism. This conflict is becoming more pronounced each day, as the public health efforts are deligitamized by people wishing for the easy fix.

Our politicians and institutional leaders cannot conceive of some grand public solution, nor would they believe it was feasible for a population that cannot think beyond themselves.

Yet that is exactly what is necessary to achieve the result that people are falsely wishing for technology to deliver.

While 300,000 may seem like a lot of people, in the context of the US population, that’s only 1 in 1,000. Here in Canada that would be 3,000 people. Seems quite reasonable given the current unemployment rates in either country.

How long do you think it will be before we collectively realize that this manual solution is the only viable for contact tracing? Or is it naive to think we’ll come to such a conclusion, when political economy suggests there’s money to be made selling snake oil in the midst of a crisis?

While we may have reason to be encouraged from falling infection rates and declining fatalities, I’m concerned we’re headed into a darker chapter of this story. Our leaders are focusing on quick fixes while our population grows restless. People are being fined for walking in the park, and obvious stupidities are difficult to ignore.

Conspiracies are increasing dramatically as the legitimacy of our institutions continue to wane. I worry that we’re distracted by the symptoms and ignoring the causes.

People are desperate for this to end. Many will embrace surveillance, in the hopes that it will enable a faster process. I don’t believe it will. My concern is that it will extend our crisis by distracting us from what really needs to be done. Caring for each other, and those most vulnerable.

Most tech driven solutions call for the opposite. The empowerment of the healthy and the punishment of the sick. Embracing such logic will only increase our trajectory towards doom.

Which is a good moment to remind ourselves that noting is inevitable provided you’re willing to pay attention. And that is part of what Metaviews is about. Paying attention by putting in the effort to see beyond the frame.

My brother (and Metaviews member) Jacob did this recently when he was offered hot chocolate while teaching an online course. I recommend checking out the video below as it offers a good reminder of what’s important during this crisis.

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