Stefania Milan on Techno-solutionism and “the Standard Human” in the Pandemic

November 16, 2021

“The over-reliance of biomedical research on “whiteness” for lab testing and the techno-solutionism of the consumer infrastructure devised to curb the social costs of the pandemic are rooted in a distorted idea of a “standard human,” CMDS Fellow Stefania Milan argues in an essay for Big Data & Society.

Quantification, particularly seductive in times of global uncertainty, is central to governmental and popular response to the COVID-19 pandemic, she notes. Her essay investigates the role and social consequences of counting as a way of knowing about the virus.

The essay sheds light on two problems. The first one emerges in the medical domain where experimental subjects are still disproportionally white and male. The second problem becomes visible in the consumer technology designed to curb the outbreak. Both instances are indicative of an exclusive exercise of classification and counting that tends to overlook alterity and inequality, she writes.

Examining how we “get to know” COVID-19 through these cases, she argues that the calculation exercises we have grown accustomed to with the pandemic often come with unwanted social costs. Her examples include undocumented migrants who might not feature in the national COVID-19 counting, or contact tracing apps that require recent cell phone models.

To design our way out of the COVID-19 emergency, we ought to think in terms of diversity and social relations, of flows and interdependence—rather than border closures, oppressive social control, exclusionary datasets, or apps catering solely to the majority, she argues.