One of my favorite artworks I studied this semester in my Art History class was “Newton” by William Blake. Blake’s style was often known as the godfather of comic book literature, and the main villain of his art was Isaac Newton.
He views Newton as a rigid instrumentalist, he is science with a capital S, math with a capital M. Blake wasn’t an anti-intellectual in the modern sense, but he certainly mocks Newton by drawing him as young and muscular, in contrast to his popular portrayal as an old man. Shown hunched over a piece of paper while wielding a compass, Newton trades the appreciation of the colorful rocks behind him in exchange for the diagram he is drawing with his compass.
Three days ago, the minister in charge of Singapore’s “Smart Nation” initiatives announced that the government is now in the process of developing a wearable contact-tracing device that will be distributed to everyone in the nation for free. The Bluetooth capable device will be developed with the intention of being independent of the smartphone, which the government aims to eventually distribute to everyone.
Citing the limitations of Apple and Google’s privacy-preserving framework in allowing the government to collect Personally Identifiable Information (PII), the city-state is currently in talks with external private vendors to build and manufacture a line of wearables that will integrate with a centralized contract-tracing server, designed to work independently of smartphones for greater inclusivity for people of all ages.
Reading the Singapore government’s planning of a contract tracing device for all, I am immediately reminded of a line told by William Blake himself, “A truth that’s told with bad intent. Beats all the lies you can invent.” While Apple and Google release an open privacy-preserving contact tracing standard for governments to use, Singapore decides to roll out its own solution without providing any guarantee or transparency around privacy? Granted, I do not sit in their back-offices to know what information they were fed before coming to this decision, and this may be an unfair assessment of their intentions, but let’s all take a step back and see what’s going on here.
“A truth that’s told with bad intent. Beats all the lies you can invent.” — William Blake, Auguries of Innocence
A dedicated contact tracing device underlines a kernel of truth: contact-tracing is effective in helping slow the spread of COVID-19. The device is now using “efficiency” to bring itself to existence; calling manual contact tracing efforts to be sunset in exchange for this new and automated means. Because why the heck not? A smart nation needs smart solutions, right?
No, I’m not saying this out of nostalgia for the lovely phone operator to tell me that someone at my workplace had COVID-19 and I should self-quarantine. I’m imploring people to consider the means before the ends. Sure, many will point out that our nation was brought up on technocracy and pragmatism, and a movement to “automate” contact tracing is a natural step. However, just because you have a hammer in hand, it doesn’t make every thing you see a nail. Pragmatism is also the understanding of trade-offs, but we have somehow transitioned to a state where “Smart Nation” is now a weird perverted battle cry to invert what sound policymaking should look like: driven by means before the ends.
Like Newton hunched over his graph paper, and with the words “Smart Nation” in hand, our technocracy disproportionally values ends-based problem solving, without the same regard for the means. If we continue to cultivate and normalize these ends-based approaches, we risk building a generation of people void of the ability to reason critically, make human relationships increasingly transactional, and reduce our relationships to their means. The effects are profound, tough to quantify, and our recent revelation of how we have turned a blind eye to our migrant workers are just part of the cracks that are starting to show.
I am extremely proud of what the Singaporean government has done thus far in response to the global pandemic. We are world-class paranoid tail-risk planners with system-level buffers ready to go, and the country’s remarkable numbers speak for themselves. I urge fellow Singaporeans to think more critically about the means of this approach. While strong technocratic decision-making has served us well on paper in most cases, there is value in discussing and considering issues that may undermine our subjectivities. Sometimes its worth even asking: does this problem even need an engineered solution?
If we do not start considering more solutions with laterals beyond “Smart Nation”, our “new normal” may include us walking around with extremely comfortable ankle monitors.