Governor Andrew Cuomo wants to turn New York over to the tech billionaires for “reimagining.” During his May 5 Coronavirus press conference, Cuomo called Microsoft founder Bill Gates a “visionary,” pointed to his philanthropic work on education, and promised to work with Gates to change New York City’s education system. The next day, Cuomo said former Google CEO Eric Schmidt would lead a 15-member committee tasked with revolutionizing New York’s economy and health care system. Cuomo is opening up the state to Silicon Valley experimentation.
“When does change come to a society?” Cuomo said when he announced Gates’ involvement. “Because we all talk about change and advancement, but really we like control and we like the status quo. It’s hard to change the status quo. You get moments in history where people say, ‘Okay, I’m ready. I’m ready for change.’ I get it. I think this is one of those moments.”
Perhaps ironically, Cuomo announced Schmidt’s involvement just before Google’s Sidewalk Labs announced it would abandon its much hyped, and very dystopian-sounding smart city project in Toronto.
The pandemic has revealed the vulnerabilities of America’s health, economic, and political systems. Covid-19 has inflamed every systemic issue, minor political grievance, and major capitalist flaw in the United States. With the issues so extreme and obvious, we have a unique opportunity to change the world for the better.
But while Silicon Valley has pitched solutionism and disruption for the last 20 years, we’ve seen over and over again that their “solutions” often make existing problems worse or introduce entirely new ones. We already live in the world that tech created and it is a nightmarish and oppressive place where universities research racist facial recognition technology aimed at identifying criminals based on their skull shape, Amazon warehouse workers toil without basic virus protections under the watchful eye of algorithms, and Uber refuses to acknowledge its drivers are employees. Meanwhile, Lyft and Uber have made traffic in cities measurably worse.
Schmidt and Gates’ plans are, so far, big on promises and short on specifics. “The first priorities of what we’re trying to do are focused on telehealth, remote learning, and broadband,” Schmidt said. “We can take this terrible disaster and accelerate all of those in ways that will make things much, much better. The solutions that we have to come up with have to help the people most in need. People are in different situations throughout the state. We need to consider all of them and not pick one or the other. The intent is to be very inclusive and make this thing better.”
Schmidt promised to look for tech- based solutions to New York’s woes. “We need to look for solutions that can be presented now and accelerated and use technology to make things better,” he said. “My own view is that these moments are a chance to revisit things that are not getting enough attention. We have systems that need to be updating and need to be reviewed.”
When you come from Silicon Valley, every problem requires a tech based solution. But we can’t fix New York, or America’s, issues with another app or a new bit of technology. Our problems require grassroots, bottom-up solutions. Silicon Valley can’t, and won’t, save us.