America on the Brink   /   Fall 2020   /    America on the Brink

Technosolutionism Isn’t the Fix

Whether a crisis of public health or public safety, is the best response increased surveillance?

Christine Rosen

Illustration by Batteries Not Included/Alamy Stock Photo.

When the coronavirus began its long, deadly march through the United States last spring, and states mandated that businesses and schools close and people stay home to limit the spread of the virus, the ability to communicate and work via videoconferencing platforms such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and Skype was hailed as a technological blessing. In stark contrast with the purgatorial mood many people were experiencing during indefinite lockdown, newspaper articles set a celebratory tone, hailing the arrival of the Zoom cocktail hour and encouraging Americans who were now spending countless hours online to add preselected digital backgrounds depicting exotic beaches and other happy scenes to their calls.

“It humbles us a little bit to see how people are using Zoom and how they are being creative,” Colleen Rodriguez, a Zoom spokeswoman, told the Washington Post. The growth in the use of Zoom was dramatic: According to the Post, “Usage grew from 10 million daily meeting participants in December to 300 million in April, including both business and personal gatherings.”11xJura Koncius, “The Six Do’s and Don’ts of Zoom Happy Hours,” Washington Post, May 15, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/home/the-six-dos-and-donts-of-zoom-happy-hours/2020/05/14/e173af4e-93a0-11ea-82b4-c8db161ff6e5_story.html.

In the midst of a crisis, Zoom (and similar videoconferencing programs) provided an immediate, seamless way for people to continue to work and socialize while maintaining a safe physical distance from one another. Here was a simple technological response to the many complicated social problems that arose during the pandemic, a solution that seemed to address a practical challenge while also proving the legitimacy of Zoom’s slogan—“We deliver happiness.”22x“About Us,” Zoom, accessed August 4, 2020, https://zoom.us/about.

But as the weeks of lockdown wore on, and virtual gatherings shifted from novelty to obligation, many Americans began to confess to feelings of dread each time a new Zoom meeting appeared on their calendars. Human nature, that irrepressible beast, emerged in stories of “Zoombombers” who used the platform to interrupt classroom lectures and business meetings, harassing others with hateful remarks. Then there were the lackadaisical workers who neglected to turn off their cameras, treating their colleagues to embarrassing displays of private behavior made inadvertently public.

By the end of April, New York Times reporter Kate Murphy was explaining to readers “why Zoom is terrible.” The disappointments she outlined were not technical—the platform had resolved its privacy and software glitches—but experiential. Murphy noted the unease she felt about her connections to others, even after hours spent talking to people through a screen, because she could not always interpret the subtleties of facial expressions and body language. “These disruptions, some below our conscious awareness, confound perception and scramble subtle social cues. Our brains strain to fill in the gaps and make sense of the disorder, which makes us feel vaguely disturbed, uneasy and tired without quite knowing why,” she wrote.33xKate Murphy, “Why Zoom Is Terrible,” New York Times, April 29, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/29/sunday-review/zoom-video-conference.html.

In addition, as family birthdays, weddings, bar mitzvahs, and other life celebrations all played out across the same platform, the details of each began to blur for many people. Psychologists Gabriel Radvansky and Jeffrey Zacks have described the crucial role of “event boundaries” in memory formation and cognition: “Events are at the center of human experience, and event cognition is the study of how people perceive, conceive, talk about, and remember them,” Radvansky and Zacks write. But those events require clear demarcations to help us distinguish one from the other and form permanent memories of our experiences. During lockdown, our endless stream of Zoom business meetings and social meet-ups has had the effect of effacing those boundaries, flattening experience, and in the process altering the memories we will carry with us about this time of crisis—a small but not insignificant change.44xGabriel A. Radvansky and Jeffrey M. Zacks, “Event Boundaries in Memory and Cognition,” Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences 17 (October 2017): 133–40, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cobeha.2017.08.006.

Of course, there are alternatives to Zoom for communicating. During the long weeks of lockdown, some people used e-mail or text messaging; some opted for old-fashioned telephone calls; others rediscovered the humble pleasures of letter writing.55xAndy Smarick, “Letters in the Time of Covid,” Commentary, June 2020; Rosie Blunt, “Letter-Writing: Connection in Disconnected Times,” BBC News, May 20, 2020;  https://www.bbc.com/news/world-52709729. Nonetheless, many people appear to feel that Zoom and similar online meeting spaces proved more of a blessing than a curse during this crisis.

There’s an App for That

It was the very swiftness and uncritical enthusiasm with which Americans embraced an “easy” technological solution to a complicated problem that suggests that we are becoming increasingly comfortable with technosolutionism, and not just during times of crisis. Such acquiescence seems understandable at such times, when uncertainty prevails, but as we continue to struggle to find our bearings, it is worth considering the significant choices we have already made with regard to technological problem-solving, and begin to contend with the consequences.

Technosolutionism is a way of understanding the world that assigns priority to engineered solutions to human problems. Its first principle is the notion that an app, a machine, a software program, or an algorithm offers the best solution to any complicated problem. Notably, the technosolutionist’s appeal to technical authority, even for the creation of public policy or public health measures, is often presented as apolitical, even if its consequences are often not. Technosolutionism speaks in the language of the future but acts in the short-term present. In the rush to embrace immediate technological fixes, its advocates often ignore likely long-term effects and unintended consequences.

Technosolutionism is also often unabashedly radical in its vision of what it might accomplish, particularly in times of crisis. One of the more enthusiastic purveyors of such reasoning, Aaron Bastani, argued recently that “the pandemic makes it clear: We need Fully Automated Luxury Communism,” his shorthand for a technosolutionist system he describes as “this technological revolution—oriented around automation, renewable energy, AI, and ever more objects resembling ‘information goods.’”66xAaron Bastani, “The Pandemic Makes It Clear: We Need a Fully Automated Luxury Communism,” OneZero blog, Medium.com, July 10, 2020, https://onezero.medium.com/the-pandemic-makes-it-clear-we-need-fully-automated-luxury-communism-737a756ea1d9. Bastani’s book on this topic is called Fully Automated Luxury Community (Verso).

Even if few people are buying into the appeal of Fully Automated Luxury Communism, we are all witnessing and, under the pressure of the pandemic, more or less resigning ourselves to a growing dependence on technosolutionism in two areas that shape our everyday lives: public health and education.

Public Health or Public Safety?

Even before COVID-19 reached our shores, Americans were engaged in a robust debate about the benefits and drawbacks of our technology-enabled surveillance culture. Scholars such as Shoshana Zuboff have pointed out how everyday surveillance of the sort we have become accustomed to through our use of smartphones and the Internet can present dangers to individuals and to a free society in the long term. “The digital realm is overtaking and redefining everything familiar even before we have had a chance to ponder and decide,” Zuboff has written. “We celebrate the networked world for the many ways in which it enriches our capabilities and prospects, but it has birthed whole new territories of anxiety, danger, and violence as the sense of a predictable future slips away.”77xShoshana Zuboff, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power (New York, NY: PublicAffairs, 2019), 4.

But once a crisis emerged, many of those concerns were swiftly set aside or ignored in the name of promoting technosolutionist public health measures that promised greater safety and reduced risk with little evidence of their practical effectiveness and almost no debate about their dangers. Simple measures that had proven effective during previous public health crises—wearing a mask, washing your hands, keeping your distance—although repeatedly advocated by officials, were seen as merely perfunctory, and certainly not the most effective preventive measures.

Technosolutionists were blithely dismissive of such proven measures not only because their advocates were often inconsistent in their advice (don’t wear a mask, wear a mask) but because the recommendations relied on the public (that mass of humanity whom technosolutionists, in the main, view as irrational and misguided) to adhere to them voluntarily. Other traditional methods for controlling the spread of a pandemic—including contact tracing—were criticized for their slow response time and, of course, their reliance on fallible humans rather than efficient technology.

Instead, Apple and Google together created a smartphone app that uses Bluetooth and proximity location to automate contact tracing, thereby removing the role of the individual public health workers who trace such information manually. Lawmakers across the country quickly embraced such approaches, tapping into the vast trove of data created by the digital exhaust our cellphones emit to track outbreak risks. As the Wall Street Journal reported, “The federal government, through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and state and local governments have started to receive analyses about the presence and movement of people in certain areas of geographic interest drawn from cellphone data.”88xByron Tau, “Government Tracking How People Move Around during Coronavirus Pandemic,” Wall Street Journal, March 28, 2020, https://www.wsj.com/articles/government-tracking-how-people-move-around-in-coronavirus-pandemic-11585393202. In one instance in New York City, data researchers noticed that groups of people were gathering in Prospect Park, and alerted local authorities to the fact that citizens were flouting lockdown rules.

Critics of the technosolutionist approach point out that contact tracing apps, which were quickly embraced in countries like China and South Korea, were effective only if public health services were also able to successfully test the majority of people at risk, something that has yet to occur in the United States. Furthermore, contract tracing apps require the use of a technology—the smartphone—that only half of US residents over sixty-five (i.e., the segment most vulnerable to COVID-19) even own.

Beyond the practical challenges such apps pose are privacy and surveillance concerns. As researcher Sean McDonald argued in a study of the digital response to COVID-19, “Undeniably, we need to use technology as part of disaster response, but the regulatory immaturity of the industry has made technology companies risky allies, even in the best of circumstances.” McDonald continued that “normalizing government-enforced, digitally delivered controls on our individual and collective rights creates the machinery for redeployment in future contexts, which may or may not be at this scale of emergency.”99xSean McDonald, “The Digital Response to the Outbreak of COVID-19,” Centre for International Governance Innovation, March 30, 2020, https://www.cigionline.org/articles/digital-response-outbreak-covid-19.

In a time of intense political polarization, technosolutionist approaches can appear to bear a veneer of nonpartisan authority. But the same sort of surveillance used to track the spread of a virus can just as easily track one’s movements during a political protest, for example. That is both the appeal and the danger of technosolutionism, depending on the amount of power one holds. Whether the crisis is one of public health or public safety—riot control or virus control, for example—the response is the same: increased surveillance, especially by the state. As privacy activist Wolfie Christl noted, “The location-data industry was ‘covidwashing’ what are generally privacy-invading products.”1010xTau, “Government Tracking How People Move Around.”

Powerful technosolutionist fixes during a pandemic can look like South Korea’s contact tracing system, which has been praised by public health experts for its early adoption and its effectiveness in slowing the spread of the pandemic. Yet few mention that South Korea’s success relied on a smaller, more homogenous population than America’s—and for that matter, one that is far more trusting of its government and institutions than we currently are.

Technosolutionism can also look like the much more intrusive Chinese contact tracing system, which requires citizens who want to move about in public to download an app that issues a color-coded QR (quick response) code that, when scanned, reveals their COVID status. Only those with a green code are allowed to move freely in public, though their whereabouts are continually tracked. Also, their QR codes must be scanned before they are allowed entrance to office buildings, grocery stores, and other public accommodations. According to the global business news website Quartz, one Chinese province has already announced plans to “normalize” use of the health codes after the pandemic ends. Health officials said they could use the codes “to assign a health status based on people’s digital medical records, including the results of health check-ups and lifestyle habits, such as how many cigarettes they smoke, steps they walk, or hours they sleep daily.”1111xJane Li, “China’s Health Scores for Citizens Won’t Go Away when Coronavirus Does,” Quartz, May 25, 2020, https://qz.com/1860453/chinese-city-will-use-health-scores-for-citizens-even-after-covid-19/.

Anyone who believes such permanent health tracking would not pass muster in the United States need only note the fact that companies offering wearable technology devices such as the Fitbit and the Apple Watch quickly developed coronavirus-related applications that many Americans enthusiastically embraced. Two recent academic studies found that “a wearable device can reveal coronavirus symptoms days before you even realize you’re sick,” the Washington Post reported, adding, “If Fitbits, Apple Watches and Oura smart rings prove to be an effective early-warning system, they could help reopen communities and workplaces—and evolve from consumer tech novelties into health essentials.”1212xGeoffrey A. Fowler, “Wearable Tech Can Spot Coronavirus Symptoms before You Even Realize You’re Sick,” Washington Post, May 28, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2020/05/28/wearable-coronavirus-detect/.

Gaming Isn’t Necessarily Learning

If the relentless rise of technosolutionism in the world of public health is not alarming enough, its resurgence in education—where at least a modicum of skepticism had begun to assert itself—should make us leery of allowing crisis conditions to normalize dubious nostrums. As the pandemic spread, and schools across the country were closed, Americans found themselves caught up in a large-scale experiment in distance learning for nearly fifty million K–12 students. Some school districts moved swiftly to online learning models, replacing classroom instruction with Zoom lessons; others struggled to meet the needs of student populations that often lacked access to the technology that would allow them to learn from home.

The early results were not heartening: “The grade from students, teachers, parents and administrators is already in,” the Wall Street Journal reported. “It was a failure.” Preliminary study had indicated that “students nationwide will return to school in the fall with roughly 70 percent of learning gains in reading relative to a typical school year, and less than 50 percent in math, according to projections by NWEA, an Oregon-based nonprofit that provides research to help educators tailor instruction.” Notably, the NWEA researchers projected “a greater learning loss for minority and low-income children who have less access to technology, and for families more affected by the economic downturn.”1313xTawnell D. Hobbs and Lee Hawkins, “The Results Are In for Remote Learning: It Didn’t Work,” Wall Street Journal, June 5, 2020, https://www.wsj.com/articles/schools-coronavirus-remote-learning-lockdown-tech-11591375078.

Beyond the practical challenges for those who lack access to technology for learning, distance education assumes a great deal about its recipients that has not proven true. Children who expertly sift through YouTube videos and Instagram posts, or master video games like Fortnite, have honed skills that have not proven transferrable to online learning.

Nevertheless, the country’s experiment in online learning—which is also an experiment in the desocialization of education—is one that some technosolutionist leaders hope to continue, despite early evidence of its failures. In May, New York governor Andrew Cuomo announced plans to partner with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and former Google executive Eric Schmidt to enlist technology to “reimagine education.” As the Washington Post reported, Cuomo used a coronavirus press conference to outline his thinking: “The old model of everybody goes and sits in the classroom, and the teacher is in front of that classroom and teaches that class, and you do that all across the city, all across the state, all these buildings, all these physical classrooms—why, with all the technology you have?”1414xValerie Strauss, “Cuomo Questions Why School Buildings Still Exist—and Says New York Will Work with Bill Gates to ‘Reimagine Education,’” Washington Post, May 6, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/education/2020/05/06/cuomo-questions-why-school-buildings-still-exist-says-new-york-will-work-with-bill-gates-reimagine-education/.

But it is precisely the reliance on technology that prompted critics to pounce on the initiative. As the New York City news website Gothamist reported, a coalition of organizations including Class Size Matters, New York State Allies for Public Education, and Parent Coalition for Student Privacy issued a statement noting that “Bill Gates and the Gates Foundation have promoted one failed educational initiative after another, causing huge disaffection in districts throughout the state.” (The groups cited “privacy-violating data-collection via the corporation known as inBloom, Inc.,” as one example.) “Since the schools were shut down in mid-March, our understanding of the profound deficiencies of screen-based instruction has only grown,” the coalition argued. “The use of education tech may have its place, but only as an ancillary to in-person learning, not as its replacement.”1515xSophia Chang, “Cuomo Wants to ‘Reimagine Education’ with Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation,” Gothamist, May 5, 2020, https://gothamist.com/news/cuomo-wants-reimagine-education-bill-and-melinda-gates-foundation.

Such reliance on technology experts rather than teachers or parents is typical of technosolutionist responses to complex problems. “Bill Gates is a visionary in many ways and his ideas and thoughts on technology and education, he’s spoken about for years, but I think we now have a moment in history where we can actually incorporate and advance those ideas,” Cuomo said, even though, as the Washington Post noted, “the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has spent billions of dollars on education reform projects it has conceded did not work as hoped.”1616xStrauss, “Cuomo Questions Why School Buildings Still Exist.”

Yet despite their paltry results, technosolutions continue to find support among political leaders for sadly obvious reasons: They can claim to have solved a problem in the near term (Zoom classes for all!), while punting on planning and paying for the problems that will emerge later (such as gaps in learning). Similarly, technology billionaires’ foundations and technology companies selling these solutions get power over policymaking without responsibility for any of the long-term consequences.

When students fall behind, it’s rarely the technology that’s blamed. It’s the lack of availability of the technology, or the lack of proper parental investment, that is said to be at fault. Such outcomes are particularly stark in the case of education, which technosolutionists rarely approach holistically—for example, ignoring the reality that many lower-income students rely on their brick-and-mortar schools not only for education but for crucial social support and nutrition.

As many school districts announced plans to remain closed in the fall, officials were already promising that this time technical solutions would work more seamlessly than they had in the spring. But not everyone was optimistic. Parents expressed their skepticism about technosolutionists’ educational claims by withdrawing their kids from the school system and crafting alternatives that included not only traditional homeschooling but also pandemic “pods” of students of the same age learning in a small group, taught by a tutor paid by parents who pooled their resources.

Of course, such options are available only to parents who have both the financial resources and the time to manage them for their children, not to those who might need them most. But as with much technosolutionist policymaking, with its top-down, technocratic approach, it is those at the bottom, with the least power to challenge policies, who will end up suffering their negative consequences.

Misplaced Trust

As the pandemic experience has revealed, we have come to rely on our devices (and implicitly, to trust them and the companies that make them and track our use of them) far more than many of us might previously have realized. We have also become more trusting of immediate technosolutionist thinking to solve complex, evolving problems.

That trust is often misplaced. The early evidence from our experiments with automated contact tracing and online learning offer an object lesson—and perhaps a cautionary tale—about embracing technosolutionism. Critics of technosolutionism do not argue for a world without technology; on the contrary, they recognize that technical solutions to human problems have often alleviated suffering and encouraged human flourishing. But when such solutions are offered as wholesale replacements for human problem-solving, and dispatch with deliberative, democratic processes meant to ensure that they are implemented in a way that respects a nation’s values and protects citizens’ privacy, their efficacy becomes questionable.

Consider what might happen if surveillance techniques unacceptable to most people in normal times but embraced during the pandemic do not disappear when it ends. As Yuval Noah Harari argued in The Financial Times, “Temporary measures have a nasty habit of outlasting emergencies, especially as there is always a new emergency lurking on the horizon.”1717xYuval Noah Harari, “The World after Coronavirus,” Financial Times, March 20, 2020, https://www.ft.com/content/19d90308-6858-11ea-a3c9-1fe6fedcca75.

We shouldn’t assume that the measures we take to combat the coronavirus today are temporary. History suggests that such measures rarely are. The Patriot Act, passed as a temporary emergency response in the aftermath of 9/11, has been continuously renewed ever since. It is now almost twenty years old.

Yet there is reason for optimism about balancing the technological and the human. With our irrational impulses and self-delusions, we humans are the weak link in technosolutionist dreams of a more seamless society. But our weaknesses—including our unquantifiable unease about certain technologies and our persistent concerns about privacy—can also act as a firewall against the most aggressive forms of technosolutionism.

This is why we sometimes find ourselves questioning our marvelous tools without really knowing what is causing our unease. As Kate Murphy discovered when she dove deeper into her own discomfort with Zoom, there are answers to these questions: Researchers have found that video chats “inhibit trust because we can’t look one another in the eye. Depending on the camera angle, people may appear to be looking up or down or to the side. Viewers may then perceive them as uninterested, shifty, haughty, servile or guilty.”1818xMurphy, “Why Zoom is Terrible.”

Such disruptions in normal communication are tolerable if they are temporary, but Facebook and many other companies have already announced plans to keep their workforce remote until 2021, and others have plans to downsize physical office space in favor of distance work, lauding the public health benefits and flexibility for workers without fully exploring the downsides of eliminating in-person interactions with one’s colleagues.

Such large-scale social change should prompt us to ask larger questions: What kind of world do we want to live in when we emerge from these chaotic times? How much of that world will have been actively built with our input, and how much of it will have been constructed for us by engineers in ways that only in hindsight we will understand to have been foundational? What patterns of behavior and habits of mind do these solutions privilege over other ways of doing things? What are the likely unintended consequences?

The appeal of technosolutionism is understandable, particularly in a time of increased political polarization, social unrest, and, now, a public health crisis. Technosolutionism alleviates widespread anxiety by promising certainty when uncertainty prevails. It offers efficient responses to complex problems while eliding thorny questions of ethics, politics, or justice. It gives us the how without forcing us to ask the why.

A culture that embraces surveillance and technosolutionism is one that has abandoned trust. If we value a humanistic approach to solving problems, one that nurtures trust not only in our institutions and communities but also in each other, an approach that draws on the strength of that trust to rebuild, then asking those “whys” is the first and most important step.