Opinion: An increasingly automated society harms the working class

The Jetsons, a 1960s cartoon, followed a high-tech family, who lived high enough above the clouds to dwell with aliens, but not necessarily their neighbors. A trip next door would require them to teleport or travel by flying car. Everything they needed was ordered through numerous devices decorating their home, and could easily be delivered right to their door through some cyber-conveyor.

Before you write this vision off as unrealistic: Plans for the first “smart city” in Toronto, Canada, were already underway before the pandemic. The sensor-laden 12-acre partnership between Google’s sister company Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto touted affordability and sustainability through technology, but has come under scrutiny over privacy and data-harvesting concerns.

American venture capitalist Roger McNamee wrote to the Toronto City Council: “The smart city project on the Toronto waterfront is the most highly evolved version to date of … surveillance capitalism,” and he suggested Google will use “algorithms to nudge human behavior” in ways that “favor its business.”

Since the coronavirus outbreak, the project has been shelved; it is no longer financially viable without sacrificing core parts of the plan. There are bigger fish for tech companies to fry: rising needs for telehealth, distance learning, contactless deliveries and the like. This global crisis has provided an unprecedented golden opportunity for “surveillance capitalism”— tech companies manipulating everything we do and commodifying our data with the sole purpose of making a profit.

Life will probably never again look like December 2019. Anuja Sonalker, CEO of Steer Tech, a self-driving car tech company, said in an article for Mashable that because of the pandemic, “There has been a distinct warming up to human-less, contactless technology. Humans are biohazards, machines are not.”

[pullquote-1] This poses two major problems: While the privileged among us are “safer at home,” searching for ways to go through life virtually, our data floats through cyberspace and connects us to places and people beyond our immediate reach. Meanwhile, “essential workers” are being sacrificed on the altar of the economy until their jobs are fully replaced by automation, or they’re forced into warehouses, hidden from public view.

Increasing our reliance on automation, what author Naomi Klein refers to as the “Screen New Deal,” will only deepen the race, wealth and class divides that are already a problem in the United States. Klein says in a now-viral video that a, “brutal and recurring tactic by right-wing governments — after a shocking event, a war, coup d’etat, terrorist attack, market crash, a natural disaster — [is to] exploit the public’s disorientation, suspend democracy, [and] push through radical free market policies that enrich the 1 percent at the expense of the poor and middle class.”

There were no BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) on The Jetsons.

While tech conglomerates wrestle over who is going to make the biggest bucks off our data and the automation of our lives — as they partner with government officials to “reimagine” different ways of working, schooling and more — unemployment numbers spike. People will soon be so desperate for work that their labor will come cheap. Where is all the planning and organizing for this as entire industries automate or become defunct?

There are certain human-centered industries that can’t be automated, like home health care (often women of color fill these positions with little personal protective equipment, few days off and limited sick time) which provides critical human contact to homebound clients. Yes, technology has proved critical during this time, but the point is for technology to serve us, not the other way around. We can and should focus our reimagining on people.