A more personal model

The governor wants New York to imagine a more high-tech future. He’s put former Google CEO Eric Schmidt in charge of a task force to come up with a plan to incorporate more technology into education and healthcare, and to increase broadband access across the state.

It makes sense, on its face. But an Intercept article this weekend pointed out the downside – integrating technology into everything we do, in an even deeper way than we already do, not only compromises our privacy, but it opens the door to a dystopian vision.

Just one Google search of Schmidt’s name turned up an abandoned project to create a smart city in a twelve-acre area in Toronto. Even before the pandemic, human-rights groups were slamming the project, saying its goal was to monetize personal information.

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The “neighborhood built from the Internet up” had to give up plans to keep user data when they were discovered, and also was found to have quiet plans to increase the size of the development from twelve to 350 acres. Now they’re walking away.

Governor Andrew Cuomo, looking for a more pandemic-resistant, personal distancing future, is inviting Alphabet to our state. The article in the Intercept brought up good questions, questions I hope get asked. There is an argument to be made that children, who learn through social interactions, aren’t going to thrive in an isolated, high-tech atmosphere.

Telemedicine is useful in some areas, particularly in mental-health services, but American healthcare and American education, before the virus, was on a hurried, mass-production model that was unsatisfying for everyone.

Why not try to imagine a more personal model?

In an economy knee-capped by a healthcare crisis no one was prepared for, why not train more healthcare professionals — so many that, in good times, they have the time to spend with each patient and allow for a real relationships? Maybe even home visits? We have a family medicine practitioner out here in the hills who still does that.

When I was a kid, doctors still did that. It’s particularly helpful for elderly patients. Why not do it again when it’s possible? With enough doctors and nurses, we could. And the side benefit would be how prepared we’d be. When the next pandemic comes, we’d have an army of medical personnel.

Imagine if teachers were paid so well that there were lots of them. Enough to decrease class sizes to a level that not only made sense for future pandemics, but also to levels where student learning could improve. Imagine classrooms where students with special needs could get the help they require, including enriched programs for gifted students.

There’s no room in school budgets to encourage the gifted kids. How about having lots of art teachers, and music teachers, and life-skills teachers, more outdoor activities, to offer instruction in the things we’ve had to discard from the curriculum because of budget cuts?

Why not stagger school schedules so students don’t have to sit like little office drones for eight hours a day? What about introducing variety into the school day, and maybe even spending more time outside? There’s a lot to learn from just going outside and looking around. A good teacher can do a lot with that. A good teacher can do much more than any screen ever will.

The Internet is a tool. Let’s use it that way. It should not, in my opinion, be our culture, our society. We can do better than that.

I agree this is an opportunity to reimagine our future. I’d like to see people, not technology, at the center of it.

Read more installments of Village Voices by Susan Barnett.