Emergencies tend to fast-forward historic processes. Decisions that usually get deliberated upon for months or years, are decided in minutes. Fresh and potentially dangerous technologies are forced into practice, because the downside of doing nothing is greater.
We are fast approaching a time where it will be possible for governments to monitor every individual. China has taken the front line in advancing technological use against this coronavirus fight, requiring every individual to report symptoms (or lack of) on a daily basis, with their location and other details tracked through their phone. The UK isn’t as far behind as we think either. With the Covid-19 Symptom Tracker app, developed by Kings College London in conjunction with other medical organisations, already being used by over 2.5m people voluntarily across the country.
Such reporting gives us a much better chance of releasing lockdown measures in the coming months. Current estimates suggest 440,000 people across the UK have symptomatic Covid-19; a figure that seems high but has come down some 80% from April 1st when over 2 million were estimated. It is only a matter of time before this app, or another similar, is promoted by the government with comprehensive tracing providing a plethora of invaluable information. Early mini-outbreaks will be able to be spotted, people will be told if they’ve been to a place of high risk (or even near a person who later becomes infected), and that’s not to mention the medical lessons learned from the experience of millions.
This is then, vital for the current cause. Though the question “What does it mean afterwards?” also needs to be asked. The step from “over the skin” surveillance (knowing what your finger on your smart phone clicked on) to “under the skin” surveillance (recording your heart rate and blood pressure below that finger) isn’t as huge as people think.
Imagine a world where every individual has to wear a bracelet that tracks health conditions (which a number in the DB Wood team already do) – in time they will probably know when you are sick before you know it, stopping future epidemics in their tracks! Sounds great right? In one sense yes, but there are also terrifying consequences. The same technology that can track coughs, can track laughs, anger, boredom. Knowing what makes you happy or sad is dangerous in the wrong hands, as content can be filtered to manipulate your emotions, selling you anything from a product to a politician.
Another long term consequence of the current social upheaval is the likely acceleration of the trend of working from home. On the face of it, it is economically very efficient – cheaper both for individuals and businesses. The mileage on my car is going to look loads better, and DB Wood can save on miles of expenses and lost time through video technology. However, does this come at the cost of interaction and a reduced sense of unity? Do the monetary savings outweigh the wider benefits of an office atmosphere, not just to an individuals’ mental health, but to productivity?
Such trade-offs are present in any societal shift, which is usually why they are slow to move and deliberated over so frequently. Like all others, the current one needs to be managed carefully. The line between utilising health tracking technology to save lives in an epidemic and using it as central surveillance is thin, but the difference to our societal values are huge. Similarly, a personal decision to infrequently work from home can be both empowering and cost-effective, though if mandated by businesses may have other negative long term consequences. Hopefully by striking the right balance we extract the best bits from the current period of change.