Artillery Row

How the rise of digital technology facilitated lockdown

Philosopher Mark Sinclair warns against the slippery slope of technological thinking

With the new set of lockdown restrictions, children in England will once again be deprived of face-to-face education, of exercise (only one session per day will be allowed), of contact with friends and full social expression, and even, for the millions of them without access to a garden, of daylight. Many children from less well-off families will again be forced to spend weeks on end in cramped accommodation. Such measures are part of the official response to a pathogen that has claimed the lives of fewer than 500 people in Britain under 60 without significant co-morbidities (road traffic accidents claim several times more lives yearly), and that, on average, kills people at the age of 82.4 (slightly higher than the average life expectancy in the UK).

A crisis, strictly speaking, is a moment of judgment, a decision between alternative courses of action

How did we come to find ourselves in this restricted “Covidworld”? How has this historically unprecedented pandemic response arisen? There are, of course, many possible answers to the question: in addition to the basic biological fact of the virus and its mutations, the liberal Left might point to a lack of capacity in the NHS due to neoliberal underfunding and to pre-existing ill-health produced by poverty. The liberal and libertarian Right, in contrast, might signal a creeping authoritarianism, an inability to countenance risk and a new assumption that lives should be saved at all cost. Others worry about the influence of companies who directly profit from the crisis, while a minority lose themselves in wilder forms of conspiracy theory.

But a more fundamental reason lies in the fact that without modern technology, and more precisely, without modern digital communications, strategies to suppress the virus would be impossible. It would be impossible to confine the majority of the population for extended periods while avoiding societal breakdown. Without an ability to maintain some degree of economic activity and sociability, there would be no real alternative to adopting a less drastic (and more or less Swedish-style) response to the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic. As much as a third of the workforce is now able to work from home, food and other supplies can be ordered online, education of a sort can continue, people can be entertained by television but also feel less isolated by seeing friends and family on a screen.

Without the digital technology that facilitates lockdowns, it seems that we would talk as little about the Covid-19 or SARS-CoV-2 “crisis” as we talk of the H3N2-68 crisis when referring to the comparable and until recently largely forgotten “Hong-Kong flu” pandemic of 1968.

The word crisis derives from the ancient Greek verb krinein, to judge. A crisis, strictly speaking, is a moment of judgment, a decision between alternative courses of action. If there are no alternative courses of action, there is nothing to judge or decide, and therefore no crisis. In the present situation, there may well be, of course, to a degree that depends on the capacities of the health services concerned and the general health of the population, a public health emergency. Decisions concerning the allocation of medical resources and protective measures (hand-washing, mask-wearing, social distancing) would have to be made. But there would be no real crisis.

It was the example of China early in 2020, as Neil Ferguson has admitted, that changed minds in Britain as to what was politically and practically possible in the pandemic response. But the more it seems possible and then easy to confine people to their homes for most of the time, the more it seems to politicians and their advisors to be the right thing to do, and the more it seems that it is what we must do in confronting a pandemic. Anything else might appear callous and anti-social since, according to cautious official scenarios, it would amount to allowing more people to die than might otherwise die.

No elected politician wants to be held responsible for allowing members of the public to die

Even though lockdowns involve collateral damage – a senior psychiatrist, for example, has recently estimated that one million children in Britain will soon require mental health support – at home and in the developing world (in the form of hundreds of millions of people pushed into desperate poverty), these effects are more accidental and unintended, whereas not enforcing a lockdown would involve more direct and more immediately reprehensible omission. No elected politician, of course, wants to be held responsible for allowing members of the public to die, and certainly not by the coming public inquiry. And given that the population can be convinced of the appropriateness of lockdown policies only if they are viewed to be necessary, politicians have to increase the levels of fear, fear which, in turn, demands that government enforce even stricter measures.

A while ago, the French government detailed its renewed policy of confinement by underlining that le télétravail, working from home, for those that can do so, is not an option but an obligation. What was, without digital technology, largely impossible has become possible, and thus a choice, and then, soon after, morally and legally necessary. The possible has become, in a sense, necessary.

As an extension of the spirit of the 1960s, the promise of digital technology was one of new possibilities, of liberation and control: liberation from mundane work, from the disciplinary techniques of nineteenth- and twentieth-century industrial society, from boredom, from nature while we increase our control over it. But now, rather like Goethe’s sorcerer’s apprentice, we find ourselves subjected and controlled, tracked and traced, imprisoned in our homes by it. We find ourselves within the system that we thought we controlled. Of course, we might not immediately see this (and a significant proportion of the Zoomocracy is not entirely displeased with living under lockdowns), for our jailer can adopt a benign, even benevolent guise: big tech can step in to solve many of our problems (Zoom with professional communications, Amazon with our consumer needs, Netflix with our boredom…), but these problems are due to the possibilities of digital technology in the first place.

Do artefacts really have politics in this way? Do they lead us to a destination that we have not chosen? Karl Marx sometimes suggested that they do: “the handmill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam mill, society with the industrial capitalist” (The Poverty of Philosophy, 1847). Prior to social conflicts and the class-struggles that Marx otherwise privileges, technologies, from this perspective, are the main motive force of history. The idea, anathema to orthodox Marxists, is discussed in academic contexts under the heading of “technological determinism”. Discussion arises because serious reflection might find it hard to deny that devices and broader technological structures can have a momentum of their own that surpasses the intentions of their inventors and their users, but it also seems excessive to deny the ordinary intuition that we have, in principle, freedom to produce and use technologies for our own purposes. The acme of such denials is to be found in the work of Jacques Ellul, a non-Marxist reader of Marx whose Protestantism involved a protest against what he saw as the absolute power of modern technology in the post-war nascent information age. But even in Ellul’s work there is always an at least implicit exhortation to act differently, and thus an implicit appeal to our freedom.

To develop Marx in relation to our present circumstances: if the handmill gives society with the feudal lord, while the steam mill, society with the industrial capitalist, it may well be that digital technology gives us “platform capitalism” in which the natural tendency of government is to confine its entire population during pandemics. And if it is true that environmental degradation and disruption of ecosystems are bringing about more viral threats, in the coming decades we therefore risk spending more and more of our lives in lockdown waiting for big pharma to sound the bugle. It is not too hard to imagine, given Hollywood’s more prescient productions or TV shows like Black Mirror, how restrictions might continue to be justified in the future in the name of “public health”.

Politicians have arrived at lockdown strategies because of digital technology, which has its own logic

These dystopian pandemic politics of the “artefact” that is digital technology are clearly not absolutely inexorable. Sweden (with other nation states, and a number of US states) shows us that other responses to the present pandemic are possible. But for those worried that lockdown policies in response to SARS-CoV-2, however well-intentioned (the road to hell, as we know, is paved thus), are unfairly and unwisely overriding concern for other diseases, for social, intergenerational and international justice, for individual freedom and even for political life itself, it is crucial to recognize the new tendencies of government in a digital society, tendencies which precede and outrun any of the particular intentions of elected leaders. The politics of the present lockdown are clearly supported by a convergence of interests – big pharma, big tech and, in Britain, big outsourcing contractors are doing very well out of the crisis, thank you – but beginning to think about technology can bring the situation that we face into a deeper and longer focus.

Politicians have not arrived at lockdown and suppression strategies because they have a more finely tuned moral conscience than their peers during, say, the Hong-Kong flu pandemic. They have arrived at those strategies because of digital technology, which to a degree, has its own logic. Recognising that helps us to see clearly what we need to surmount if we are to summon up the courage to challenge our new pandemic orthodoxies.

All of the above, as a reflection on the role of modern technology in Covidworld, is just a beginning. For it may be that technology, as Martin Heidegger argued, is not just a matter of devices and artefacts, but of how we experience and think about ourselves and the world. It may be that the essence of modern technology, as a function of modern science, and as rooted in a particular, originally Western experience of the world, is at bottom philosophical.

We might call this philosophy “technological thinking”. Our culture is replete with it. According to technological thinking, all “problems”, and even death, it seems, must have a technological solution. Such was Descartes’ seventeenth-century humanist dream: it was primarily to delay death that we should, he argued, revolutionise science and become “masters and possessors of nature”. It is technological thinking that posits this capacity to delay death, and thus the prolongation of life even in its most basic biological sense (the irony is that bios in Greek originally meant political, human life), as our highest value. It is technological thinking that can see only quantity of life, rather than quality of life, and quantity rather than quality in general. It is technological thinking that believes in nothing more than living longer and a vague, pointless idea of technological “progress”. Several centuries after Descartes, when this technological mindset is challenged, as it has been given the lack of an immediate remedy to SARS-CoV-2, our frustrated response takes on strangely religious dimensions. Children, young people, and even the old – some of whom prefer to live and die well rather than live longer – can then be dutifully sacrificed. The ersatz religiosity continues in the raptures that greet the vaccinatory salvation offered by biotechnology.

We need to challenge the assumptions in the technological thinking shared by libertarians and left-leaning liberals alike

From this deeper perspective, and although particular technologies do not wholly necessitate any of our actions, if we are to understand fully and adequately where we are and what we can do, we have to be prepared to challenge the assumptions in the technological thinking shared by libertarians and left-leaning liberals alike. These assumptions include not only the idea that artefacts are the neutral vehicle of our intentions, but also that the physical world is simply and solely stuff open to ordering and control, and that the human being, in so far as it thinks, stands outside that physical world as a principle of autonomy, freedom and mastery. These assumptions risk leaving us blind to the movement of history, which is far more philosophical than a technological mindset can ever grasp, and thus blind to what is unfolding all around us.

Reflecting on these assumptions might help us to give concrete expression to the yearning that many of us feel for a simpler, humbler and more rooted form of life.

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