Most of us remain thankful for modern technology and how it has speeded up processes and transactions, mostly by letting us carry out such procedures online and at home. Nevertheless, we are more than aware that something human got lost along the way to such efficiencies.
So it is with those struggling through poverty in all its many forms. Recent studies are showing that many in low-income situations are seeing less and less of human caseworkers and more and more of online forms, lengthy wait times to reach someone on the phone, and a lengthy array of paperwork just to get through the process of getting assistance.
It’s even the subject of a compelling book. In her Automating Inequality: How High-Tech Tools Profile, Police and Punish the Poor, author Virginia Eubanks talks about the unfeeling impacts of automated decision-making in those public services designed to help those on social assistance, the homeless and those struggling with mental health issues. Through lengthy studies of three different real-life situations, Eubanks cogently reminds her readers of how poverty – one of the most demeaning and detached situations in life – is made even worse by the new technologies than it was through the non-digital human contact of the previous era. As one reviewer says on the book’s cover:
“Eubanks illustrates incisively how these views are being embedded in an increasing number and variety of new tech tools, drawing them together to conceptualise a ‘digital poorhouse’ of the twenty-first century.”
What is telling about the book is the author’s conclusion that such technical arrangements in dealing with the overwhelming challenges of those in poverty actually reverses our traditional idea of social movements to draw attention to the marginalized in ways that are increasingly human. Instead, they become numbers or statistics, reachable mostly by electronic means. In other words, like most of us relegated to seeking service through pressing a number and enduring lengthy minutes of boring music or repeated advertisements saying how important we are to those we are calling, those who are struggling through a less personal world feel even less human.
As politicians, corporate leaders and policymakers refuse to tackle the roots of an emerging poverty class, high tech tools only serve to exacerbate the inequalities slowly infesting our modern societies. The problems then become all too common – lack of access to doctors, decision makers, caseworkers, program leaders and, ultimately, hope. Life now is about lengthy wait times, privatized call centres, online forms, endless of use of transportation services and the increasing sense that one doesn’t matter in such an alienating system.
We all know what this is like, whether waiting in an emergency room or spending hours on the phone attempting to process an insurance claim. For those with low-income, their meaningful world slowly starts moving further off as their lives in scarcity become managed not bettered.
And for those attempting to manage the poverty of others because of the slow withdrawals of government funding, they are all too often forced to rank those in need in terms of deservedness. Triaging of human need becomes essential because of a lack of resources. It’s demeaning. But the greatest problem is that all this technology does nothing to alleviate the conditions that create poverty in the first place. National, even global, economic decisions are geared toward those capable of purchasing their way out of their problems. But work is becoming either highly selective or automated. Politics ends up being more about trying to do less while promising more.
This is the life of the economically oppressed and no cell phone, case number or algorithm is going to fix it. In no way can it enhance dignity, expand humanity, develop deeper understandings or provide answers to poverty itself. It is the modern life of the poor, and in a world with so much wealth, it is a travesty. It turns out that we have less human resolve to alleviate suffering than we believed. As writer Jay Ash put it in one of his novels: “A lot of us cared, just not enough.”