by Cheryl Holzmeyer
As contending visions of social transformation — or stasis — emerge from the current juncture of the Covid-19 pandemic, one indicator of the present world’s vast injustices is its ever increasing, racialized economic inequality, borne partly out of the pandemic itself. Indeed, as detailed in a recent report by the Institute for Policy Studies, “Billionaire Bonanza 2020: Wealth Windfalls, Tumbling Taxes, and Pandemic Profiteers,” U.S. billionaires have profited enormously during the pandemic, even as millions of people have lost their jobs, or their lives, due to unsafe working conditions: “Between March 18 and April 10, 2020, over 22 million people lost their jobs as the unemployment rate surged toward 15 percent. Over the same three weeks, U.S. billionaire wealth increased by $282 billion, an almost 10 percent gain.” Many of these are Big Tech billionaires and companies, from Amazon to Instacart and Doordash, whose wealth hurtled upward during the pandemic, while lost lives and livelihoods have been concentrated in poor and working class communities of color.
At the same time, new waves of tech sector activism and calls for a militant progressive vision for tech are pushing back on these trends, offering hope and alternative social visions oriented toward social justice, public health and health equity. This up swell of progressive tech activism is manifest in labor organizing like Tech Works for Tech Workers (TW4TW), mobilizing well-paid tech company employees alongside precariously employed gig workers, such as rideshare and delivery drivers. As the campaign puts it:
“While some of us are building platforms, programs, and a millionaire class with far-reaching influence, some of us doing the frontline work in our new digital economy are unable to cover basic living expenses.”
It also manifests in scholarship and activism to challenge biased, harmful algorithms that increasingly pervade public life, such as the Algorithmic Justice League’s work to reveal racial and gender biases in facial and voice recognition technologies, while advocating for regulations and oversight to rein them in and prevent their harms. Progressive tech activism is manifest, ultimately, in the wide array of critiques that examine technologies’ tendencies to exacerbate social inequalities — particularly across lines of race, class, and gender — though often ensconced in new layers of proprietary code and technical jargon, institutionalizing a “New Jim Code,” as Princeton scholar Ruha Benjamin puts it. In sum, progressive tech activism, while often not explicitly articulated in terms of public health, spotlights emerging and existing social justice issues intertwined with the tech sector that impinge on public health. It converges with the social justice work of many in the public health field, including work by Human Impact Partners and the Warehouse Worker Resource Center to reveal the physical and mental health impacts of Amazon’s quota and tracking systems on warehouse and delivery workers, as well as diverse initiatives to advance multi-sectoral, upstream visions of healthy public policy, emphasizing health equity in policies from land use to transportation to economic development, sometimes described under the umbrella of Health in All Policies (HiAP).
In this context, a new report by Demos and Data for Black Lives, “Data Capitalism + Algorithmic Racism,” is highly relevant to public health and health equity work. It analyzes upstream R&D, technology and data policies with an eye to social justice concerns that go far beyond the frames of many tech ethics debates, centered on personal privacy and individual data rights, to broader questions of racialized economic power and control. What are “data capitalism” and “algorithmic racism”? The report describes data capitalism as:
“an economic model built on the extraction and commodification of data and the use of big data and algorithms as tools to concentrate and consolidate power in ways that dramatically increase inequality along lines of race, class, gender, and disability,” and in which, “Algorithmic racism occurs when contemporary big data practices generate results that reproduce and spread racial disparities, shifting power and control from Black and brown people and communities” (pg. 4).
The report highlights ways that algorithmic profiling, in fields from health care and social services to employment, embeds intersecting racial, gender, class, and other social biases in algorithmic decision-making in ways that enable new forms of discrimination and vulnerability, especially for already marginalized people. It also underscores the fundamentally unequal power relations between those generating data — e.g. through social media use, online purchases, and gig work — and those aggregating and using those “big data” to make money, whether from advertising or to exert greater control over labor or by selling data or data analytics.
Crucially, the report emphasizes that current forms of algorithmic racism and data capitalism, often dominated and shaped by Big Tech companies, are not inevitable, but the result of policy decisions. Here the report’s own policy analysis — emphasizing four broad pillars of 1) transparency, 2) regulation, 3) structural change, and 4) governance — is relevant to public health advocates and policymakers seeking to include technology and data policies in HiAP work. Its policy proposals include, for example, new regulations to help prevent discrimination by private and public actors by requiring algorithmic audits and algorithmic impact assessments to gauge algorithms’ differential impacts across social groups. In addition, the report advocates new restrictions on data collection and data use (e.g. moratoria or limitations on the use of facial recognition technologies, and on employers’ collection and use of data to surveil employees). It proposes broader structural and governance changes as well, such as the break-up of tech monopolies, and the creation of public data trusts and platform worker cooperatives, reforms designed to curtail and redistribute tech companies’ power in ways more consonant with public health and health equity.
These policy and structural shifts are especially needed as pandemics and climate change present new environmental justice and health equity challenges, imperiling the lives and livelihoods of already vulnerable communities without adequate public safety nets, even as Big Tech companies reap record profits and win lucrative no-bid public contracts in the context of the pandemic. As Kiran Savage-Sangwan, executive director of the California Pan-Ethnic Health Network, described in a recent California Healthline article,
“We’ve put so many resources into law enforcement and private tech companies instead of public health…This is having a devastating impact.”
Ultimately, the “Data Capitalism + Algorithmic Racism” report and related research — by organizations like the Algorithmic Justice League, Data & Society, and the Our Data Bodies Project — is valuable public health reading, to contest dominant neoliberal public narratives in which “innovation” is being wedded to business-as-usual.
Cheryl Holzmeyer is a sociologist who examines the implications of science, technology, and innovation ecosystems on health equity.