Martha Storey discusses the societal importance of technology in a post Covid-19 word.
2020 has seen an exponential increase in our reliance on technology, a trend that does not appear to be slowing anytime soon. However, between the government’s failed contact tracing app, frequent WiFi network crashes, and the scores of school children unable to access online lessons, Covid-19 has revealed the inadequacy of the UK’s technological infrastructure. Shaping a progressive digital policy that improves our digital provision and regulates the ballooning digital markets is vital as we move into a post-pandemic world.
Moving out of lockdown, the consensus is largely that we will not return to “normal,” and many of the anticipated shifts in society lean heavily on digitisation. Policies like the free broadband policy Labour promised at the last election have gone from laughing stocks to issues of national importance, lockdown exposing the patchy hardware that makes up an essential part of our lives. A forward-thinking government must ensure that the UK has sufficient digital capacity, but also must ensure that a digital revolution does not propagate or worsen existing social inequality - a very real danger without proper regulation in place.
It is no secret that there is a lot of money to be made in technology, and the Coronavirus crisis has increased the value of the top 6 tech firms by a staggering $1.9 trillion while the rest of the economy has suffered huge blows. The advantages of a bigger public sector presence within technology are not hard to imagine - technology has large implications for industry and AI capacity, as well as improving healthcare, education, and communications.The ability to access just some of the data and resources available to these firms would lead to leaps forward in public services.
Better relations between the public and private sector have led to some of the world’s most innovative responses to Covid-19, and, with no foreseeable end to the threat, the UK must learn from this if it wants to avoid future catastrophe. In the wake of SARS, South Korea altered its emergency response powers, allowing state access to data from the credit cards and phones of its citizens. In an exceptional trade-off between privacy and national interest, this allowed third parties to map exactly where Koreans who tested positive had been, and publish this information to others in that area. Compared to the UK’s weak test and trace effort, South Korea’s 260 deaths (in a population of 52 million) is embarrassing - despite concerns about data security, this policy undeniably works.
Another important step the UK must take is improving digital regulation. Currently, the US and China monopolise digital infrastructure around the globe .Given that the UK have barred Chinese giant Huawei from providing its 5g network, this is worrying for the future of UK tech. The UK Government’s negotiations with Apple and Google regarding their tracing app saw the companies refuse to meet the UK’s desired data policy. When the bargaining power lies outside of the UK, this has worrying implications for future trade negotiations - especially any involving the NHS, which has huge and valuable databanks.
Central to improving the UK’s digital markets is a better relationship between the public and private sectors. In Bangladesh, where an app invites trained doctors to volunteer when necessary, and in South Korea’s tracing app, we see a centralised model delivered by third-party software, but overseen by the government. Barcelona’s Open Data Service is another example of successfully integrating the public sphere into digital markets. Data collected by companies is brought into the public domain, and used by citizens, the City Hall, and other companies. This ensures that data complies with the necessary privacy and accuracy standards, and allows companies to reuse pre-collected data, encouraging better data analysis and innovation. This egalitarian use of data is a world away from the UK’s fears about data security and manipulation - here, databanks function not as a security concern, but as a powerful tool and public resource.
Lockdown provides an opportunity to reflect upon our current digital policy and infrastructure, but it also alerts us to the importance of investing in the digital sector. Increasingly, technology is vital to most of our lives, and without improved public policy to harness this power, we will be playing catch-up with firms more powerful than our own government.
Martha is about to enter her second year studying maths and philosophy at Oxford University. Hailing from West Yorkshire, she is fiercely passionate about regional inequality, transport, and education.
She tweets at @marthatstorey