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Everything They Know

Mar 31, 2020

This week’s episode of Everything They Know was supposed to be about a hypothetical dark future, where we’ve done nothing to rein in Big Tech and Surveillance Capitalism, where algorithmic prediction has gotten to 100% and has created perfect echo-bubbles for each of us, where authoritarian techno-governments and their cronies control every aspect of our physical lives, and where the time has past to take any meaningful action.

But as the Coronavirus has upended every aspect of life as we know it, and the world already seems a little darker, it felt untimely to release that episode. Instead, I decided to have a special conversation with one of our previous guests, and friend of the podcast, Judy Estrin, about how Covid-19 is deepening our reliance on technology even more. 

Now, this is a nuanced topic right now, because,in the positive, these technologies are actually enabling humanity to undergo this craziness collectively and remain connected in ways that would otherwise be impossible. I just finished taking a dance class on Instagram live, for goodness sake. 

But at the same time, we have authoritarian governments taking advantage of this time of expanded digital reliance and surveillance that is in danger of becoming normalized if not highlighted. There’s stories coming out of Singapore and China about people letting their phones run out of battery and police officers showing up at their apartments within 30 minutes. 

At the beginning of this series, I referenced one of my favorite authors, Yuval Harari. He came out with a piece in the Financial Times a few days ago that did a fantastic job of encapsulating my worries. 

He writes, “Even when infections from coronavirus are down to zero, some data-hungry governments could argue they needed to keep the biometric surveillance systems in place because they fear a second wave of coronavirus, or because there is a new Ebola strain evolving in central Africa, or because . . . you get the idea. A big battle has been raging in recent years over our privacy. The coronavirus crisis could be the battle’s tipping point. For when people are given a choice between privacy and health, they will usually choose health.”

So yes, right now, we must choose health. But in these uncertain times, we also must find balance. We must not give up too much. We must stay vigilant. 

Now, here’s my conversation from this week with Judy Estrin.