OE Editorials: Building Back Better, But For Whom?


May you live,” the expression goes, “In interesting times”.


Claimed to be a translation of an ancient Chinese curse, it is an interesting statement for its seeming innocuousness at first glance, only to transform into something rather more concerning when one mulls it over. Given the extraordinary almost year and a half we have all been through, it seems fair to say that we have all been placed under this spell in some sense, an odd state of being that seems to escape definition and is not clearly any one thing.


One thing this time has brought for certain is change, and for many that change has come with great loss: of relationships, of living situations and even some of the very fabrics of every day life we took for granted. A cheerful weekend coffee with a friend, a pint after a bad day at work, a chance encounter with an old acquaintance on a stroll through the city. All diminished in some sense and, in some cases, completely gone.


It is worth reflecting on what we have lost, but also what is going to change going into the future, and how. For though we are entering summer and the narrative is, for the moment at least, getting “back to normal” after a long period of uncertainty and turmoil, it is clear when you scratch just beneath the surface that the winds of change are continuing to blow apace.


One of the clearest signs of this has come this week, with the EU's announcement that it is set to unveil a bloc-wide digital wallet “fit for post-Covid life”. With the stated purpose of “safely” accessing public and private services, it seems that this application will not immediately be used for financial transactions, although given the rapid rise of the cryptocurrency market and development of digital wallets for the purpose of storing such assets it seems reasonable to assume this will be worked into the scheme at some point in the future.

While in the last 16 months we have seen “safety” as a justification for many different adaptions and changes to our society, largely justified by public health concerns and assumed to be temporary, this latest EU initiative seems to be the most spurious use of the word yet. It seems extremely hard to claim that centralising our personal information, vital documents and even financial information on an app run by unaccountable EU bureaucrats is in any way “safe”, quite the opposite in fact in light of the current narrative of dangerous and disruptive cyber attacks to important public and private records (which I have written about previously here).


The obvious question has to be asked: why does a worldwide public health crisis necessitate a move of all our personal documents and finances onto a digitised wallet, where is the connection? Perhaps one could use the claim that circulated widely in the media last year of cash posing a serious public health risk, but such claims lose relevance in the face of research finding that such risks insofar as the exist at all, are low. Certainly, any concerns about public health that one could possibly have seem incredibly out of proportion with the radical changes to our daily lives that are now being proposed by the Troika organisations for Europe and the world.


Taoiseach Michael Martin tweeted earlier this week that we must “build back better”, a phrase taken straight from the marketing of the Work Economic Forum, a non-governmental think tank focussing on economic matters and attended yearly by various powerful figures from the worlds of politics and celebrity. He accompanied it with a quote from former Fianna Fáil leader and Taoiseach Sean Lemass, that “social and economic progress must go hand in hand”.


The rollout of the EU digital wallet certainly seems to be a part of this vision of progress, but one needs to wonder who is asking for these changes, and why? Do the Irish public really deem it necessary to do away with any and all physical documentation and move entirely online, because we have just been through an extremely difficult period of public health emergency? Is it not the case that the people may view “building back better” as simply getting on with the lives that they were previously living, with all their ups and downs, happiness and heartbreak, triumph and adversity.

The necessity to come back “better” via yet more sacrifice, yet more tearing apart of the fabric of the society we all knew and took for granted, smacks of an excuse for unaccountable institutions to rearrange our lives in a way that suits them, and not us. The aftermath of the worldwide unforeseen tragedy and major disruption that Covid-19 ostensibly was should be a time of reflection, a time when every sovereign citizen of every nation should be discussing and building a way forward for their society that they desire, and their elected representatives should be facilitating them in this.


The fact that we seem to be facing yet more radical changes to our daily life that involve much greater risk, not safety, under an increasingly nonsensical justification of post-pandemic necessity and progress, raises very serious questions about the true loyalties of our government and institutions. It's absolutely true that we must turn our thoughts to getting back on our feet in a post-pandemic world and “build back better”, but we must consider why none of us are being asked what we consider that to be, rather we are being fed a vision of the future by groups such as ID2020, which was founded all the way back in 2016, before there was any hint of a pandemic.


It may be the case that this route forward will be “better”, the big question is for whom that improvement will really be for. Do we really want a world where almost everything we do and everything we possess is contained within a screen, where human connection and the physical world around is is put out to pasture and abandoned in the name of progress? The time is now for us as individuals and as a society to decide.