Roar writer Rory Orwell speculates that contact tracking could bring about a new social contract for a post-COVID-19 world.
As I write, highly dutiful human beings are working in hospitals, saving people’s lives. They are ‘only doing their duty’, as the saying goes. At present, a fifth of the world’s population are at home, with a similar but growing proportion leaving it.
It is unrealistic and illiberal to keep a population domiciled by decree indefinitely. Until the hopeful panacea of a vaccine arrives, the precautionary path forward involves, as some might inaccurately complain, surrendering some ‘privacy’.
The undoubtedly stressed health secretary was asked recently if leaving lockdown using a novel tracking app entailed a ‘catch-22’ situation, as the virus lingers. He stressed the importance of social distancing, as the app only has a marginal effect on the infection rate. The phrase originates from Joseph Heller’s 1961 novel ‘Catch-22’, which follows a motley, clueless US Air Force crew stationed on the Italian island of Pianosa, towards the end of the Second World War. It is a quasi-pacifist satire, yet the only parallel I can see with today is that the government’s heuristics have been likened to complacent Colonel Cathcart or negligent Doctor Daneeka.
In this 21st century crisis, the invisible virus impels the use of invisible technology. This will alter social psychology, simultaenously decreasing people’s face-to-face interaction and increasing the connection of their phones. Youtube comments on the press conference showed a dystopian and neo-Luddite cynicism, imagining a Beijing-style ‘Big Brother’ where the state’s eyes are inescapable.
This is understandable but unsubstantiated. In the ostensible democracies of the West, the real threat to our freedom is presented by international ‘Big Tech’. The Cambridge Analytica scandal showed that the great and terrible potential to distort discourse and influence citizens’ decisions is more pernicious and mysterious than even the automatic, addictive algorithms or ubiquitous cookies which we feed and are fed daily.
Yet the proposed proximity app is optional and anonymous contact-tracing, not Google-style satellite location-tracking. It differs slightly from a self-reporting app which researchers from the sciencey bit of KCL developed recently. Surely, we can trust public health officials of a sovereign nation whose data protection laws (created by no other than our beloved EU Commission) signify that privacy is seen as a right.
It is ironic, therefore, that when the UK was piloting its proximity app, concerns were voiced that it is not compatible with those very same privacy laws. So it is likely the government will follow other European countries in using more secure, ‘decentralised’ software created by the conglomerate ‘Big Tech’ empires of Google, Apple, and Samsung.
If Rousseau were alive in today’s nervous new post-COVID world, he might argue contact tracking is part of the social contract. George Orwell, perhaps assuaged by Google’s apparently superior software, would bite the bullet and install it before writing the book ‘Dominatus ex Machina’, saying that any surveillance is a slippery slope, a ‘road to serfdom’, even. He would certainly be right to observe that our data is not exclusively ours. Hobbes, on the other hand, would argue for perpetual lockdown. Locke would be working in Whitehall, perhaps on this proximity app itself. If it is to be effective, alongside crucial social distancing, at least 60% of the population would have to cooperate.
And so we should. Last month, the Queen uttered an important phrase: “fellow feeling”. Pericles of Athens spoke of love for a city – the government will likely appeal to this sentiment when nudging people to use it. Last month, during the prime minister’s intensive care scare, it seemed he might follow the fate of Pericles, who, in 429 BC, died from a terrible plague within a year of a populist re-election. Johnson fortunately survived. Too many others have not.
Last week, Johnson said that “at this stage, I don’t think that international comparisons and the data is yet there to draw the conclusions that we want”. The statistician he cited was quick to caveat him on Twitter.
Polite request to PM and others: please stop using my Guardian article to claim we cannot make any international comparisons yet. I refer only to detailed league tables-of course we should now use other countries to try and learn why our numbers are high https://t.co/VQCwoYROK2
— David Spiegelhalter (@d_spiegel) May 6, 2020
What conclusions, then, are wanted? Perhaps that the UK is ‘defeating’ the virus, a metaphor repeated ad nauseam. Whilst it is human nature to fight threats, amidst the increasing toll, any such rhetorical bellicosity rings hollow.