Naomi Klein On Entering the Tech Governance Debate

Season 3 Episode 11
Naomi Klein on Entering the Tech Governance Debate

A year into the COVID-19 pandemic, we’re starting to see the results of our rapid incorporation of technology into our no-touch pandemic-proofed work, home and education lives.

S3E11 / April 15, 2021

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Episode Description

Global technology companies that power websites and services, like Amazon and Microsoft, and platforms, like Facebook and Google, have created spaces and tools that allow corporations, states and themselves to exert power in many sectors of our lives.

In this episode of Big Tech, Taylor Owen speaks with Naomi Klein, author, social activist and filmmaker. Over her two decades of work, books such as No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies and The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism have, in many respects, foreshadowed the rise of big tech. For example, No Logo, published in 1999, long before the rise of Instagram and the influencer economy, examined the marketing trend of making citizens an extension of the corporations’ brand.

Recently, Klein has been raising concerns about how tech companies are positioning themselves as essential services and capitalizing on this moment to enter new sectors, with little pushback. For example, Klein explains how the education sector rushed to platforms to enable virtual learning at the start of the pandemic: “I wish public universities had been better prepared with our own technologies.” The education space is one example of how the public space is being eroded. “If we are going to be using these platforms, we have to be serious about developing public sector, common-space alternatives to these private platforms. I don’t think we did do that. And so, they moved very quickly. Shock Doctrine–style.”

While this situation may seem bleak, Klein does see a silver lining: “We probably would have ended up in this place in 10 years, and instead, we got there in a matter of months,” Klein says, in reference to the pandemic’s shelter-at-home and work-from-home orders around the world. “And we probably would have boiled slowly. And now I feel like we’re jumping around in this pot going, ‘This is terrible.’” This rapid shift has enabled us, as a society, to see more clearly how technology is impacting our lives, presenting an opportunity to course-correct.


This transcript was completed with the aid of computer voice recognition software. If you notice an error in this transcript, please let us know by contacting us here.

Naomi Klein: We need to make the argument for making good on the original promise of these technologies which was a virtual town square, a virtual library of human knowledge. Those were good ideas but they didn't have a business model, and when things don't have a business model but are good ideas, we say they're public goods.

Taylor Owen: Hi, I'm Taylor Owen and this is Big Tech.

Taylor Owen: There aren't many Canadians whore are more intellectually and politically influential than Naomi Klein. After writing her book, No Logo, in 1999, Naomi became and has remained one of the most prominent, and smartest progressive voices in the world. Her books, No Logo, The Shock Doctrine and How To Change Everything have been global bestsellers, and she's currently the Gloria Steinem Chair in Media, Culture and Feminist Studies at Rutgers University. Over the past 20 years, Naomi has sounded the alarm on a wide range of important issues; the unchecked power of corporations, the increasing precariousness of work, and the damage that capitalism is causing to the planet and to the people who occupy it. And in recent years she has begun to focus on big tech and the new set of corporations that have only made these issues more clear and the need for solutions that much more pressing. Our interview had everything you would expect from a conversation with Naomi Klein, she provided sharp and thoughtful criticism of corporate power and didn't pull any punches. But what I wasn't expecting is that we would also connect as parents and talk about our struggles with raising kids in a hyper connected world. We're both intimately familiar with the perils of technology, but we've also ended up with boys about the same age who are obsessed with YouTube. It can be easy to see this issues as black and white, but they're not. They're complicated and messy and nuanced, and I'm glad I had the chance to explore that messiness with Naomi Klein.

Taylor Owen: So you absolutely won't remember this, but our paths have crossed once in Quebec City.

Naomi Klein: I kind of knew you were going to say that for some reason, so maybe I did know that.

Taylor Owen: I'll tell you the story because for me it was crazy. It was I was there, I was an undergrad, and there was this moment of tear gas and I ran around a corner into the lobby of a building to get away from tear gas and you were standing there with a documentary crew.

Naomi Klein: I remember this really well.

Taylor Owen: And French activist of some sort, an older man, and Avi and I stood there with you and watched this documentary and I super awkwardly introduced myself because I was infatuated with you.

Naomi Klein: That's so funny. I really remember that moment, I think partly because it is documented and it was really weird and I had goggles and things. I had ski goggles on for the tear gas. That's so funny, that was you. Okay, that's really funny.

Taylor Owen: I realized that I couldn't believe that you were only 29 or 30 then, I was 10 years younger, but man that's amazing you were in the middle of all that at that stage. Anyways.

Naomi Klein: You know, the kids these days they're doing it in high school now, middles school.

Taylor Owen: I guess that's right. You're middle ages by comparison.

Naomi Klein: Exactly, that's not impressive, you're over the hill.

Taylor Owen: All right, so let's dive in. So what I wanted to do, just to give you a sense of how I wanted to structure this, is I've just seen more and more of you writing about technology and it's kind of caught my eye and I was hoping to go through some of your previous work and see to what degree some of those ideas apply to the current moment we're in with tech, if that's okay.

Naomi Klein: Okay sure, sounds interesting.

Taylor Owen: Okay. So, I wanted to start with seeing if we can connect some of the ideas from No Logo to this current moment we are in the middle of where our worlds are shaped in many cases by a new set of corporations. And it strikes me that many of the concerns that you talked about, the precarity of work, the pervasiveness of brands, the risks of market concentration, are all things that have been supercharged at the moment and are embodied in the structure of big tech companies. So I'm just wondering, if you look at things like Facebook and Google as modern versions of Coke and McDonald's, or how do you view them as corporate entities in comparison to the ones you were concerned about 20 years ago?

Naomi Klein: One of the things that I think is striking is when I wrote No Logo I was tracking the rise of this idea of the lifestyle brand, of the brand that didn't see itself as selling primarily a commodity based product, but rather a transcendent idea that could be grafted on to any number of products. So that was sort of a new '90s idea, so distinguished from, we have a product and we're going to advertise it with aspirational lifestyle ideas, like here's a car and look at where you could drive and look at how happy you could be, that's a more traditional slap a brand on a product and then market it model. And then what happened in the 90s is all these companies like Nike and Starbucks or Disney where it was like, okay, well we are over products, anybody can make a product, and this is intimately linked with free trade and globalization, supplies chains and all of that. And it's like, well you are, as Tom Peters the management guru of the time said, "You're a fool if you own it." And anybody can make a product but not anybody can come up with an idea that is so powerful that people want to live inside it. So Nike pioneers this, they never actually owned their factories, this is an idea we take for granted now but in the '90s it was like, "What? You don't own your own factories?" Like Adidas owned all of its factories, Reebok owned all of its factories, so Nike comes along and it's like, "No, we're not a sneaker company, we are about the idea of transcendence through sports and we can graft that idea onto basically every product in the world and you're going to want to crawl inside and live inside this product." And so what I was tracking in No Logo was, what does that business model, this relatively new business model, mean to the kind of work that is available? Because if you devalue the commodity so much, then you also devalue the workers who make that commodity and you hyper value the acts of marketing and you're also always looking for cultural space to co-opt and co-brand with. So as I was writing No Logo, and in this period in the '90s, we start to see the emergence of the first people who saw themselves as super brands, this phrase was coined by Michael Jordan who who his agent called him the first super brand. But Oprah was also a super brand and she was starting her magazine where she was on the cover every single month. It's like that's an interesting idea for a magazine.

Taylor Owen: The sense of self is significant, at the very least.

Naomi Klein: And I ended the book quoting this piece that ran in Fast Company in 1997, the brand called you, where the cover of Fast Company was a box of Tide and Peters was saying, "Hey, it's not just Oprah and Michael Jordan who can be super brands, everybody can be a brand." In fact, everybody has to be a brand because I've given all this advice to corporations telling them that they should lay off their entire staff. So, none of you have jobs, you better be brands. So it was interesting because the last line of the piece was, "Or else." Like be a brand or else, it was a threat, it wasn't a promise. So, when I wrote No Logo more than 20 years ago now, this idea was just kind of a joke, because of course a non celebrity person couldn't be a brand because a non celebrity person doesn't have an advertising budget. So Tom Peters in this landmark piece he says here's how to build your own brand and then he comes up with a bunch of absolutely ridiculous ideas like volunteer to take the notes at a corporate meeting or write for your business newsletter or something like that, but things that are obviously not going to build your own brand, it's just basically how to be a self promoter within your own company and make all of your colleagues hate you. It obviously has relational approaches when you think about worker solidarity, like if everybody is in this competition to build their own brands in the workplace then you're not going to be a very nice colleague, which was some of the critiques of the Peters piece. But the bigger problem was just, look if you're a celebrity you have a capacity to promote yourself, you have a multinational media company behind you, you have an agent, you have all these things. But if you're just an individual, no, that's silly, you're not going to be your own brand. So 2005 actually, Fast Company runs a mea culpa and says, "We were wrong. This was a bad idea that we championed and it's failed." So what's quite interesting is thinking about what happens after 2005?

Taylor Owen: Yeah, have they done a mea culpa to their mea culpa?

Naomi Klein: They should, because in fact they were just ahead of their time because right after this they're on the cusp of the social media revolution, the iPhone is about to be introduced, so we're all going to have our ad agencies in our pockets. And suddenly the general public, anybody with a Facebook account has the capacity to advertise themselves for free full time. And so I think companies like Facebook and Google are very different, I think it's less that they're selling al lifestyle and more that they are creating the capacity for everybody really to be their own mini corporation, which has kind of shattering social solidarity implications. So that's what I'm thinking a lot about.

Taylor Owen: And that whole influencer economy started out fairly decentralized but it's not becoming corporatized in some really ways. You're seeing amalgamations of influencers and agencies purchasing influencers. So in some ways it's emerging in its own corporate structure.

Naomi Klein: Yeah, I'm just pausing because I'm not sure it ever wasn't in the sense that thinking of yourself as an influencer was, I don't think that that's how people originally thought of themselves on Instagram, I think it was brands that came along and saw an opportunity. So branding is always a response to a crisis of alienation within marketing where the original brands, some of the first brands like Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben and all of these racist brands were responses to the alienation that came with mass production. So people were suddenly buying products that they used to buy from people who they had relationships with, maybe a local farmer or a shop keeper who would scoop flower or rice out of a bag and you knew where it was coming from. And suddenly these same products were being packaged in factories and being put on trains and you didn't know where it was coming from and there was a lot of fear about whether you could trust these products. And so the response was to slap a face on it that had this comforting down home aura around it. And so that's always been what branding has tried to resolve, was this sense of alienation. And then the rise of celebrity brands, celebrity spokespeople, was its not just going to be a logo of a face, it's going to be an actual person who you have a relationship with. It's going to be Beyonce, it's going to be Michael Jordan, it's going to be somebody who you aspire to be, who you think is amazing. But then that starts losing its intimacy in the same way that those corporate branded faces lose their intimacy. And then influencers are like, I think brands started realizing people have much more intimate relationships with these people who they follow on Instagram. They feel like they know them, they've been allowed into their homes. And so an influencer is a way better surrogate, way better at creating this false sense of intimacy which is always been what branding has tried to do, but it always stalls out after a while.

Taylor Owen: It seems like another aspect of that moment and of your work at that moment was about resistance to these trends, not just identifying them, but how we as a society and as individuals might create different realities and push back against it. And I'm wondering if there's something about the nature of our current set of corporate entities that make that even more difficult. It's one thing to not go to buy Nike shoes, it's pretty different not to use an Amazon product or go to a website that's hosted on Amazon servers or to use a search engine. These things are much more embedded in almost all areas of our society and economy. Is that a challenge for the resistance component of this?

Naomi Klein: I think it is a huge challenge because it is infrastructure now, it is infrastructure. I actually see that as an opportunity more than a challenge in the sense that the monopolistic power that these companies have amassed and the fact that they have been so aggressive in inserting themselves in core infrastructure. Google set out to be the world's library and a library and access to information is something that we have collectively as a society thought that everybody had a right to. That's why go to most small towns and they'll be a post office and a library and a general store, that's infrastructure, that's what we've said people need. And so if now the library is Google and the general store is Amazon, oh and by the way the school is also Google. Increasingly during the pandemic we've seen tech companies use the pandemic as a back door to privatize untouchable public goods like education. I sort of feel like we have two options, we either throw up our hands and say there is no commons. We've allowed it all to be enclosed, we've allowed it all to be privatized, or we start talking about some pretty radical ideas about nationalizing some of this infrastructure or treating it as a commons. And what I do in my course is my students write a final essay called Six Degrees Of Extraction where they look at a tech platform of some kind or a tech product, could be a video game, could be an app. And they look at six separate ways in which this company has extracted a form of labor or collective resource and has not paid for it or dramatically underpaid for it, just expropriated it in lots of cases, including their own labour. Like all of the hope labour and unpaid labour that goes into, I mean look we're all working for Twitter. And it's quite radicalizing when you look at all these different sites of extraction. First, we spend some time looking at the government research, the publicly funded research that forms the backbone of GPS based apps, for instance. Or your entire iPhone and Marianna Mazzucato's research on that is incredibly helpful. And all the extraction of the natural world, both in terms of the inputs but also the outputs in terms of the energy of bitcoin and all these data centres. And so we go through it one by one and it's like, "Wait a minute, maybe we already own them." Essentially, it's a case for expropriation, that's the way I see this research. So yeah, I think we either throw up our hands and say, "Yeah, we've lost it all and the most we can do is maybe break them up and have more competition." Or we say, "No. We need a public square." And actually all of these companies are built on radical misrepresentation of their business models. They all talked about information wanting to be free and being the town square, and this is where I think Shoshana Zuboff's work is really interesting is that they were not transparent about what their business model was, in some cases that they didn't know what their business model was for the first maybe seven years of their existence.

Taylor Owen: They didn't need to, they didn't have one.

Naomi Klein: Their business model was establish dominance in the field.

Taylor Owen: Right, absolutely, scale.

Naomi Klein: And they had deep pocketed venture capitalists who let them do that, let them lose money for a very long time just so that they could squat over a sector and then they developed a business model. So yeah, I think these are pretty interesting times to think about this and I think we should be as radical as possible because the implications of this are pretty outrageous.

Taylor Owen: Yeah, and the labour component of it that you mentioned there seems to be something we're becoming increasingly aware of too, whether it be ghost work and the ghost labour that goes into it. And you've written about this, you said that we have claims to be run on our artificial intelligence, but it's actually held together by tens of millions of anonymous workers tucked away in data centres, content moderation mills, electronic sweatshops, on and on and on. We are building incredibly valuable services and products on top of labour, which in some ways has parallels to previous industrial moments as well. And I'm wondering how you look at the rise of labour movements in side these companies right now. That seems to be one of the real, if we're talking about systemic change, that's one of the real drivers here is tech worker labour movements. Do you see that as a real opportunity?

Naomi Klein: I do, but I think it remains to be seen whether these companies are just so powerful that they'll succeed in ruthlessly crushing these nascent movements. If you look at the way Google has purged the AI troublemakers and many of the people who organized the Google walkout are gone. If you look at the ruthlessness with which Amazon has crushed the union drive in Alabama. I think as we speak it's not yet entirely clear what happened, but I think it's not looking great. And that's just raw power. It's really, really hard to be a group of lower income workers taking on the most powerful and richest man in the world when they're throwing absolutely everything at you. So yeah, I am heartened by the tech worker movement and I think that where it's been most promising from what I've seen is where the fights are very place based, so something like the fight in New York against the Amazon headquarters.

Taylor Owen: Or sidewalk in Toronto.

Naomi Klein: Or sidewalk in Toronto, exactly, where it's like you have this very powerful company that comes to a city and coalitions form that throw everything at them like no tech for ICE, you had migrant rights organizers saying this is what this company is doing and collaborating with this machine of deportation. You had anti-gentrification and housing rights activists. You had racial justice activists talking about bias in AI. And you had workers inside saying, "These are the conditions that we're working under." And so that is similar I guess to some of the brand based activism that I documented in No Logo where it was just like people use these brands as coalition builders, whereas this thing has gotten so big that it's created our coalition for us.

Taylor Owen: Right, death by a thousand cuts, to a certain degree. Any one of those grievances wouldn't have had the movement behind it, but together there's some power.

Naomi Klein: Together there's some power, and especially when you combine that with the possibility to get information out of these companies that a government, when you are trying to get into the city then the city has certain transparency laws, and these companies don't want transparency, they want to be black boxes, we know that about them. But city councils aren't allowed to be black boxes so they sign these agreements with these companies and then people are like, "Wait a minute, show us the books, what is this company doing?" And that seems to be when they're like, "We're out of here." If the cost of being in Toronto is actually having to be transparent, that's not worth it to us. But I don't think we've seen the end of it, I've been following the sidewalk lab, it's reconfiguring itself like science fiction style, and definitely sees the fact that a lot of cities are dealing with massive financial crisis post pandemic, post in quotes because of course we're not post. But eventually we'll be post and our public transit systems are in profound crisis because people haven't been using them and there's all kinds of fears around public transit. And small businesses have closed in huge numbers. And so cities have lost a lot of their revenue streams, and so I predict sidewalk labs is going to be coming into the "rescue" saying, "We'll privatize your city for you."

Taylor Owen: Yeah, and combine that with their need for more data, for one, and their positioning of China as a competitor because it has an unhindered access to things like smart city data. You've written about Eric Schmidt's role in this, which I find continually shocking that here's someone with five billion dollars of Google shares actively fighting against regulation of that company and for unhindered access to data sets of Americans.

Naomi Klein: Yeah, and I think it's just another example of why we should be wary of this positioning of China as the great new threat, enemy, almost Cold War style, because this discourse really lends itself to, we're being left behind. That's Eric Schmidt's whole pitch, is like first Google doesn't go into China because they don't want to be evil or they left China back in the day, and Google pulled out of China because it was having to collaborate with the censorship regime but also because different tech companies were being used to locate dissidence. I think Yahoo there was a famous case where they handed over the IP address of where somebody had posted something and they were immediately arrested and imprisoned. And so there was a wave of tech companies leaving China and just saying, "We won't collaborate with the censorship, we won't collaborate with the hunting down of dissidence." And then they just watched China's tech market grow and grow and grow and they've watched their Chinese competitors grow and grow and grow because they weren't there. And now it's a very different tune that we're getting from Google. It's diametrically opposed, we are falling behind in this new tech cold war because our Chinese competitors are operating in a market that isn't burdened by civil liberties and any privacy concerns and they're able to build their smart cities.

Taylor Owen: And look at these remarkable data sets they can build and yeah, leverage.

Naomi Klein: Yeah. And so this is a security concern for the United States that we're falling behind, in Eric Schmidt's view. So yeah, I think that's something that progressives should be very, very wary of because we're seeing more and more of this discourse.

Taylor Owen: In 2007, Naomi published The Shock Doctrine, about how Western powers have exploited crises in developing nations as an opportunity introduce their own self serving neoliberal agendas. Last year, Naomi wrote an article for the Intercept called A Screen New Deal, where she talked about how big tech is leveraging the pandemic for their own version of The Shock Doctrine. The other recent narrative coming from the tech companies is around the pandemic itself and the role they've played in our economy and our society over the past year, and do you see that as a manifestation of The Shock Doctrine? Is this just disaster capitalism again? Or is something different going on here, given that we've all moved and forced to be digital? It's kind of two things going on it seems to me, that them opportunistically engaging in this space but also us jumping into it by necessity to a certain degree.

Naomi Klein: By necessity to a certain degree, but I do want to say that I do believe that there were other options that we didn't explore because it was treated as such a given that schools should immediately go to Google Classroom and Zoom and that it should all be a technological solution. We could have spent that money investing in outdoor education. I struggled with my, I really am not very good with technology and I really struggled uploading my eight year old son's homework assignments and definitely experienced that faux automation, or fauxtomation as my friend Astra Taylor talks about, where it's like, "Wait a minute, this isn't remote learning it's just parents doing all this work on one end and teachers doing all the work on the other end and Google taking all the credit. There's a lot of labour going into this. But I did find myself wondering, would it be so impossible to just send textbooks to all the homes and then we could use pencils and fill out these worksheets instead of struggling with these terrible PDFs produced by teachers who didn't know how to size it properly and assuming that everybody had printers at home and we could have had a text book, it's a little bit low tech. But we just assumed the highest tech solutions, even in scenarios where it made absolutely no sense. But yeah, I think what we saw was an acceleration where a lot of this was in the works, these companies already saw, if we're just talking about schools, we already saw education as a major new market, they already had divisions, they were already creeping into the public school system.

Taylor Owen: Well, and kids, not just education but education to get at data on children.

Naomi Klein: Yeah, absolutely. And they saw the post secondary market as well and I wish public universities had been better prepared with our own technologies. So if we are going to be using these platforms, then we have to be serious about developing public sector commons-based alternatives to these private platforms. I don't think we did do that, and do they moved very quickly. Yeah, shock doctrine-style was like "this is an opening, let's pounce." And it was also an opening to deal with that tech lash that was really strong before the pandemic hit, and this is something else Eric Schmidt said out loud that he probably shouldn't have, which was, "You all hated us, but now we're keeping us alive" and "I bet you like Amazon now that they're the ones bringing you your groceries." And so yeah, they saw it as a branding opportunity, a PR opportunity, and definitely an opportunity to rebrand the frictionless lifestyle as now pandemic safe, no touch. And my hope, once again, and this is where I find my silver linings, but take it with a grain of salt because I wrote a book called No Logo 20 years ago and that hasn't turned out very well.

Taylor Owen: There's still some logos kicking around.

Naomi Klein: So, my silver lining is we probably would have ended up in this place in 10 years, and instead we got there in a matter of months in terms of the amount of isolation, how much we're getting our entertainment from streaming as opposed to public concerts and gathering together and theatre and all these embodied experiences that I think are really important for our souls. And so crashing into it, it's like the frog in boiling water massively overused analogy, I think we would have boiled slowly into this just, we were already headed there, we were already headed towards living our entire lives mediated by screens. And we would have gotten entirely there by the end of the decade and we probably would have boiled slowly. And I feel like we're jumping around, we're jumping around in this pot going, "This is terrible."

Taylor Owen: Right, and counterintuitively, that might have also turbo charged the governance movement in this space. I think if we had spoiled slowly, it would have been easier for governments to ignore these sets of problems, but you're seeing movement in governments around the world now that would have been unimaginable two years ago in this space. But now there's an urgency to it almost that maybe is a result of a boiling as opposed to simmering.

Naomi Klein: Yeah, and my son hates Zoom, he now will not do a video call with anyone, which is hard because his grandparents really want to see him, but he's just like, "Uh-uh, that's school." He'll talk on the phone, but he will just not do video calls. And I'm not fighting it because it just think this is a survival instinct, he somehow knows. One thing I was going to say when we first, I've been teaching undergraduates at Rutgers now for three semesters on Zoom as I think probably we all have, so the first semester they went home for March break and they never came back. So I had a group that we had been learning in person and then we went online coming back. And then I've had two semesters that have been wholly online since then. And I'll never forget what one of my students said to me, we did a check in after March break, suddenly we're in these little boxes, and they were so sad, they missed each other so much, they just felt like their whole university experience had just been yanked from underneath them. And one of my students said, "The thing that I found scariest was that when they announced the lockdown I didn't need to change all that much about my life. And that's really scary."

Taylor Owen: Because it was already so virtual and digital, it was seamless. Yeah, it's telling.

Naomi Klein: Yeah, and that was a wake up call for her. And I hope that more people are having those wake up calls, I hope people go just wild this summer. And not in a bad way, not in a pandemic, but just in a kind of we can gather outside and we can be in nature.

Taylor Owen: And we see the value of human connection in a way that way.

Naomi Klein: Let's leave our phones home.

Taylor Owen: So the last thing I wanted to talk to you about, and it's obviously a big one, but is your work transitioned to making climate the central defining issue through which we see a whole host of other challenges. And it seems to me like many aspects of the, both literal climate crisis in terms of emissions but also the governance challenge of how we as a society come to some sort of collective understanding and decision making path around climate change, are deeply intertwined with our communication technologies. One of the ways that it feels most visceral to me is just the way in which we understand the world and the problem being increasingly fragmented, and our inability to come to real collective understandings of things, juxtaposed with the real organizing potential and collective action potential of those very same technologies. And I'm wondering how you think about, maybe just social media to start and these real tensions here between fragmentation of our understandings of the world and the need to mobilize in a common direction.

Naomi Klein: Yeah, and this is why I think we need to make the argument for making good on the original promise of these technologies, which was a virtual town square, which was a virtual library of human knowledge. Those were good ideas, but they didn't have a business model, and when things don't have a business model but are good ideas, we say they're public goods. And so I think it's amazing that the youth climate movement has been able to build itself online in just a remarkable way, here just thinking about the Friday's For Future movement, the fact that you have teenagers around the world who are building a common movement, walking out of school together every Friday if they have in person, or even if they're not in person they're finding ways to strike. But also, it's not just the strikes, they have regular video conferencing and have gotten to know each other and have real friendships and relationships. This is one of the things I found really moving, I covered the case of Disha Ravi in India, who's a 22 year old climate activist who brought Fridays For Future to India and supported the farmers movement in India, the huge farmers movement opposing Modi's neoliberal agricultural reforms. And when they activated this incredible network of global climate activists, and Greta Thunberg who now has I don't know how many million followers on Twitter, tweeted support for the farmers and a toolkit of how to support, basically a bunch of hashtags. This was so threatening to the Modi government that they arrested Disha Ravi and are investigating two other young climate activists for the took kit conspiracy, the toolkit case. There is no conspiracy, it's the most benign clicktivist hashtag campaign, but it's powerful. It's powerful because this is a powerful movement and it's millions of people and it's threatening enough for the Modi government to see it as a genuine challenge to these farming laws that he wants to get passed. So I think that that shows all of the threats and possibilities. Amazing global networking, building a real embodied movement as well as using these tools as a substitute for air travel. These young people, they call each other sisters, like when Disha was arrested there was just this incredible outpouring of love and you realize actually these young people have never met and they have real relationships.

Taylor Owen: And that's meaningful and powerful.

Naomi Klein: It's really meaningful, it's really meaningful. And these young people are also facing just unbelievable amounts of both surveillance and state repression where you see, well first of all the Modi government was demanding access to the Google document that produced this toolkit, demanding that Zoom hand over the names of everybody that participated in private meetings about the toolkit. The police were leaking all these private communications to the media. Then they tried to pass a new digital media law that would require companies to hand over all of this information including back doors to apps like WhatsApp. And also, so you've got the state surveillance and you have just unbelievable levels of harassment and threats and misogyny that Greta was facing, that Disha Ravi was facing, tipping into real world violence. There were protests in India where people were burning pictures of Greta, pictures of Rihanna who also tweeted. So you see it all, you see the possibility and you see this in India but it's not only in India, where you have a state that is simultaneously allowing, now allowing, I mean Modi has a troll army. He is empowering, planning, using the full power of these tech companies to harass people and to suppress certain kinds of speech. Yeah, so you see the possibility and you also see just the incredible cost of the current structure.

Taylor Owen: So speaking of kids, I have a son the same age as yours I think, just about to turn eight, and we've actually been reading your book, How To Change Everything, together.

Naomi Klein: I hope you skipped over some of the scarier parts.

Taylor Owen: Well, that's what I was going to ask you about actually, because its scarier than I expected it to be. Or not scarier, but it's franker than I expected it to be. And I don't know if that's targeted to a slightly older age, it probably is to a certain degree, but I was struck by the frankness. And I was wondering how you feel about how these things should be explained to kids and how you talk to your son about technology, because that's something that I really struggle with too. I'm deeply embedded in these conversations and yet he loves YouTube for some very specific things and I don't know how to talk about this in an appropriate way. And I think parents all over the world are faced with that right now, how do you talk about these tools that seem innocuous to kids?

Naomi Klein: Yeah, well first of all on the climate stuff, yeah the book is sorta 10 and up, but even a 10 year old I would say it's better to read it with them. I do feel that for eight, nine year olds, they do know that climate change is happening and maybe they watch a David Attenborough documentary and it all seems really good at the beginning and then at the end it's like, "Oh, and this incredible ecosystem we've been showing you is imperiled and these amazing animals are on the verge of extinction because of this thing called climate change. So they do need to know what's happening, but I tried to put it off for as long as I could because I do feel that there's a risk where some of the first things that young people are learning about nature are all about threat and danger. And I think that you protect what you love, and the more that we can ground our kids in a healthy relationship with the natural world, and it's not hard, kids love nature, it's not like this really tough thing you need to instill in them. But the more opportunities that kids can have to be in nature and to have positive experiences, the better environmentalists they'll be. And so yeah, I put off the scary stuff for as long as possible and precisely because my son is so connected to nature. And when I have failed to protect him and he's been exposed to something really frightening, it's just devastating for him.

Taylor Owen: Yeah, I've had the same experience, it's so close to them personally and the language is visceral.

Naomi Klein: Yeah. But I do feel that as they get older, and this is something that, I think part of the reason I did the book was inspired by Greta where hearing her story of how she went into this state of terrible despair at age 11 in part because she learned about climate change through documentaries and books and she didn't see anybody doing anything about it. And it wasn't until really she became part of a movement that she felt better or started to feel better. She obviously is still very angry and has a right to be, everyone does, but I think collective action is an antidote to that despair. And so I wish we had protected all kids from having to know this because I wish it wasn't happening, but we didn't protect them and because we didn't protect them I think it's our duty to empower them as historical actors. And what I do in the book, as you know, is just share as many stories as possible as early as possible in the book of young people being empowered and having huge impacts and doing amazing things and really thread that throughout and not have just one chapter at the end that's like, "And here's a few things you can do." Because I think by then you're just so far in the pit of despair, you can't get out. So yeah, but with technology, I don't know if you know any parents who have gotten through the pandemic without breaking every single tech rule.

Taylor Owen: But this is what makes it so visceral, everybody's doing all the things they swore they were not going to do.

Naomi Klein: Yeah, and I mean my son has very specific YouTube obsessions.

Taylor Owen: Yeah, mine too, origami is my kid's, origami and magic tricks, card tricks. He's deep in the rabbit hole of both subcultures of YouTube.

Naomi Klein: So my kid is obsessed with electric guitar tutorials. Not playing it, but upgrading electric guitar pick ups and things like that. He has this one guy who he's just completely obsessed with, and he starts vibrating when he knows that he's going to be dropping a new video. It has given me a lot of sympathy for these influencers, where they talk about how they feel like machines, they have to feed the algorithm and they have to post at a certain time.

Taylor Owen: They're feeding your son is what they're doing.

Naomi Klein: Yeah, it's so intense. It's like if Darrell takes a week off, it's just a huge incident in our house.

Taylor Owen: Oh my god. I have the same thing with this random guy who does origami tutorials in the Midwest. And this guy does now know the influence he has in our household.

Naomi Klein: But I must say, I think it's kind of amazing. We just watched crappy superhero cartoons and this has made him want to actually do incredible things. My eight year old now knows how to solder thanks to Darrell. So I'm not sure, I might think it's great, I think it's actually kind of great. And you know, manage to get the ads off, even though that means giving money to Google. So, there I am. Nobody's perfect, sorry.

Taylor Owen: On that mode of despair and optimist, thanks so much for this conversation, I've really enjoyed it.

Naomi Klein: Me too, thank you. Take care.

Taylor Owen: You too.

Naomi Klein: Great to reconnect.

Taylor Owen: Yeah, you too.

Naomi Klein: Bye.

Taylor Owen: That was my conversation with Naomi Klein. As always, I'd love to hear from you. How do you talk to your kids about technology and what do you think about Naomi Klein's view of big tech and its role in our lives?

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