Alternate realities

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    Mark Zuckerberg has recently looked more like an outraged Roman emperor with cities burning around him than the familiar, boyish wunderkind who founded Facebook, leads its board and owns most of its shares.  Even as Washington itself burned, the tech giant’s delay in taking down or labelling misleading or incendiary posts by Donald Trump had shocked and dismayed his own staff and top world scientists.

    Many of us would like to see radical change in a world which has suddenly discovered how beautiful it could be if we only quietened down. Clear skies, returning wildlife, kinder and more attentive neighbours. But it would be foolish to behave as if such hopes won’t create a virulent backlash.

    And big tech – which has already wreaked carnage in the media, retail and transportation industries – is eyeing up vast financial opportunities which could starve any such Green New Deal out of existence.

    Lockdown with Zoom and video links has given us a measure of the extent to which those with power can blind themselves to the vicious inequalities brought about by globalised capital and the celebrity veneer of its privileged.

    We had stellar performances from our own political and scientific leaders, but global media was vastly more sapient than ours through the crisis.

    “Public trust is not merely a political commodity: in a pandemic it is an essential resource,” Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland pointed out during the smorgasbord of informed international commentary that dug deep into our tenuous hold on democracy and  brotherly love in a globalised world.

    Solidarity and possibilities for a more inclusive green new deal were on everyone’s lips; the evolutionary  opportunity of crisis in action. But, inevitably, well-heeled and less rosy alternate futures were also being rushed into position.

    Not least from the big tech that was proving so convenient.

    In a Guardian long read at the end of May, The Shock Doctrine author Naomi Klein joined the dots, tracing the recent activities of former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, who now heads New York’s Covid response committee and chairs two powerful US Department of Defence advisory boards on the use of artificial intelligence in the military. Both are crowded with Silicon Valley executives of Oracle, Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook and Google.

    Schmidt’s aggressive lobbying for a highly profitable, no-touch, Black Mirror vision of society is chilling. Think Ben Elton’s novel Blind Faith where all but the most privileged are crammed into shoebox apartments, surveilled and assessed for orthodoxy in their most intimate moments. Klein adds more already-available tech horrors.

    “It’s a future in which our homes are never again exclusively personal spaces, but are also, via high-speed digital connectivity, our schools, our doctor’s offices, our gyms, and, if determined by the state, our jails,” she says. “Of course, for many of us, those same homes were already turning into our never-off workplaces and our primary entertainment venues before the pandemic. But in the future that is hastily being constructed, all of these trends are poised for a warp-speed acceleration.”

    This would be a future with fewer teachers, doctors and drivers, accepting no cash or credit cards, with skeletal mass transit and far less live art, all  held together by tens of millions of anonymous workers tucked away in warehouses, data centres, content-moderation mills, electronic sweatshops, lithium mines, industrial farms, meat-processing plants and prisons, unprotected from disease and hyper-exploitation, she says.

    It sounds like an improbable dystopia, yet there were a lot of unanticipated consequences to globalisation in my lifetime that only the pandemic has brought into widespread public scrutiny.

    Those who hanker for Paul Henry’s short-lived vision of ‘‘rebuilding paradise’’ could be reminded that “normal” came with children sleeping in cars, state housing gutted – and global tech giants hollowing out our conveniently low-wage economy while eschewing any pretence at tax-paying.

    In the meantime, a 2020 election here at home seems polarising and ugly. While the world media continues to look enviously to New Zealand for hope and leadership from our prime minister, our own kinder sensibilities are again under daily assault with frumious point-scoring, personal attacks and specious hindsight from our daily media.

    We know from our recent level four experiences that something better is possible. • Liz Waters

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