The pandemic lockdowns have solidified the notion of tech companies as a necessity as people’s reliance on the internet, smart phones, apps and social media has significantly increased.
The coronavirus’ deadly impact on human life has changed so many things, from eating habits to schooling, aggressively changing work culture across the world.
Social distancing measures, which have been implemented universally to limit death tolls and the spread of the disease, have made people turn to tech-based solutions offered by firms like Amazon, Google, Uber and several smartphone companies.
Jeff Bezos, the richest man of the world, and his company Amazon, appear to have made windwall profits as the company posted huge gains across the board reaching $74.5 billion in the first quarter of 2020, in the wake of the pandemic. The company gains are 26 percent higher than the same period in 2019.
The virus has also strongly tipped both online shopping and food-delivery services. According to Edison Trends, a digital commerce research company, online grocery sales increased nearly 90 percent while food-delivery sales surged more than 50 percent in a short period from early March to mid-April.
Big profits at the expense of workers
But high-tech’s gains have appeared to be coming at the expense of its mostly low-wage and less-appreciated employees whether they work in Amazon warehouses or as delivery drivers to keep feeding people across the globe.
“Tech companies have lived off the back of other people’s cheap labour for a long time — whether it’s an Uber driver, a delivery person or Amazon warehouse workers. It’s just coming into sharp relief,” said Kara Swisher, a veteran technology journalist and analyst, in an interview with the New York Times.
“These workers deserve much stronger pay and more benefits. That’s costly to the people who want to stay enormously wealthy, and to consumers who like a low price,” Swisher recounted.
A recent Amazon employee’s death, which has increased the company's Covid-19 death toll to seven, has confirmed Swisher’s argument as hundreds of the company workers, labouring in exasperating conditions, have reportedly contracted the virus.
“When the pandemic is over, we most certainly should fear the industry more than ever,” warned Swisher in one of her articles, referring to the increasing power of Big Tech as the pandemic rages across the world.
She is not the only one critical of tech companies.
“Far more hi-tech than anything we have seen during previous disasters, the future that is being rushed into being as the bodies still pile up treats our past weeks of physical isolation not as a painful necessity to save lives, but as a living laboratory for a permanent – and highly profitable – no-touch future,” wrote Naomi Klein, a political analyst and social activist, who is also the author of The Shock Doctrine, No Logo, and No is Not Enough.
Silicon Valley-Washington axis
Klein thinks that big high tech companies like Google, Microsoft, Facebook and others, which have long been accused of violating their customers’ privacy and safety protections, leading to the calls for more oversight and accountability for their activities, want to use the pandemic to increase their leverage against both their respective customers and the US government.
She says the intensive lobbying efforts of people like Eric Schmidt, an influential American businessman and the former CEO of Google, who is also the chair of the US Department of Defense's Defense Innovation Advisory Board, prove her point, claiming that tech giants want to develop a direct working relationship with Washington to have a hold on people’s privacy and personal data.
“Companies like Amazon know how to supply and distribute efficiently. They will need to provide services and advice to government officials who lack the computing systems and expertise,” Schmidt wrote in an article for the Wall Street Journal.
But Schmidt is merely one of the Big Tech voices, while the essential power of those companies is down in the world’s famed Silicon Valley.
“At the heart of this vision is seamless integration of government with a handful of Silicon Valley giants – with public schools, hospitals, doctor’s offices, police and military all outsourcing (at a high cost) many of their core functions to private tech companies,” Klein wrote.
Klein particularly refers to Silicon Valley, the global centre of high tech companies, asserting that they want to use the pandemic as an opportunity to show Washington that they are needed more than anything else, consequently deserving financial help for projects like Artificial Intelligence (AI).
“It’s a future that claims to be run on ‘artificial intelligence’, but is actually 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, where they are left unprotected from disease and hyper-exploitation,” Klein argued.
“It’s a future in which our every move, our every word, our every relationship is trackable, traceable and data-mineable by unprecedented collaborations between government and tech giants.”
Despite Klein’s harsh criticism, which accuses high tech for committing a sin of “permanently integrating technology into every aspect of civic life”, others still think that innovative entrepreneurship of Silicon Valley has continued to be useful for millions of people for many years including the current pandemic period.
In a joint entrepreneurship, Apple and Google have recently announced that they are developing an app which could arm users to track potential coronavirus carriers.
“Call it Orwellian, but broad adoption of such a technology could allow for lockdowns to ease in a safer fashion, restarting the sinking economy and potentially saving both businesses and lives,” said a WSJ report, referring to the contract-tracing app.