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Will Big Tech save the NHS – or eat it alive?

by Caroline Molloy | Source: openDemocracy

Technophile politicians and tech companies are making big promises. But the broader impact of the digital transformation of our health and public services has been too little examined.

In her 2015 book Reclaiming Conversation, Sherry Turkle describes “one of the most gut-wrenching moments in my then fifteen years of research on sociable robotics”, one which “changed her mind” after years as an enthusiastic advocate of the emancipatory potential of connected technologies:"One day I saw an older woman who had lost a child talking to a robot in the shape of a baby seal. It seemed to be looking in her eyes. It seemed to be following the conversation. Many people on my research team and who worked at the nursing home thought this was amazing. This woman was trying to make sense of her loss with a machine that put on a good show… I didn’t find it amazing. I felt we had abandoned this woman … It seemed that we all had a stake in outsourcing the thing we do best – understanding each other, taking care of each other…It is not just older people that are supposed to be talking. Younger people are supposed to be listening. This is the compact between the generations… [instead], We build machines that guarantee human stories will fall upon deaf ears."

It’s a striking example of just one of the ways in which the demands and glittering offerings of Big Tech are eating into the social contract of modern welfare states. Of how they’re taking over, and altering, the functions of the state – from benefits and legal services, to education and health and social care. Activists, unions and academics have begun to ring separate alarm bells about privacy, and to a lesser extent, about automation and exclusion – but unless you look at the whole picture, something vital is missed, as we move dizzyingly fast into an era of ‘ubiquitous computing’. From robotics, to algorithmic decision-making, to state- and self-monitoring, something huge – and largely corporate-driven – is happening to our relationships with public services. And up til now, we’ve had very little debate about it.

Technosalvationism Big promises are made by technophile politicians and tech corporations for the ways in which connected technology will help the state solve a wide range of social challenges. And nowhere more so than in health and care, where we’re told that digitisation will do everything from ‘empowering’ patients and getting us off the couch, to curing cancer and saving the National Health Service (NHS).

Read full article on: openDemocracy

This article is co-published with Eurozine.

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