Opinionista Alison Tilley 7 April 2015

Information, technology, power: The growing conundrum

We have seen so many changes driven by tech, it seems quite probable if not inevitable that we will see changes in the power relationships in society. So why can’t we use the same technology to feed social justice?

The technology we have access to now is less and less distinguishable from magic, to paraphrase the last of Clarke’s three laws.

As bandwidth increases, and smart phones get smarter, we do more and more. I can crowd source the nearest driver, check my location, find the nearest coffee shop and communicate with the world on a device which fits into my hand. The possibilities offered by the connectedness of my devices, and the data I spin off into cyberspace every nanosecond are such that its no wonder that people look into the heart of this light, and become what are known as data evangelists. Like the evangelists of old, they promise a new heaven and a new earth – the lion will lie down with the lamb, and our cups will overflow, and goodness and mercy will follow us all the days of our lives.

Well, perhaps not the goodness and mercy bit, but we will change the nature of things. We will disrupt old ways, and find new paths. It’s a compelling idea. We have seen so many changes driven by tech, it seems quite probable if not inevitable that we will see changes in the power relationships in society. Globalisation has been fed by tech – the decline of the power of the nation state and the rise of the multinational. The ability to smoothly move information across national borders is and has been key to capital finding new markets, new customers, and new needs to fill, and moving money.

So why can’t we use the same technology to feed social justice? Why can’t these systems, generated by the military industrial complex, be used to drive an end to poverty and inequality? It seems such a no brainer, right? A specialist in the capital city reads the scan in real time of a baby in utero, agronomists pour over real time data on how crop yields are doing, we aggregate a million searches for swine flu, and predict where the next outbreak is.

As Audre Lorde said, you cannot use the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house. It means, among other things, beware of what you learn – it will teach you only to replicate what has come before.

So what assumptions are we making in the tech space, that may mean that we replicate power rather than shift it? (For a discussion about the increasing levels of inequality please read Mr Piketty.) The single most important assumption that I meet in the tech space is that we have agency. That people have free will, that they make choices, that making more choices and having more choices is in essence the end that all the means should lead to. People can and will act – and the more information they have, the better their decisions. A failure to make a good decision is an information failure. The second most important assumption is that governments have an interest in responding to the needs of their citizens, and that a capable state exists.

Well, yes and no. How much agency do people have? In one of the communities we are currently working in, most people are unemployed. They are the subject of stigma – simply coming from the area they do makes them the object of scorn. They are the subject of relentless crime. There is no local police station, and their houses are literally made of tin. You don’t need to break the door down – you can cut through the wall. The streets, which are not tarred, are deserted in winter, as people stay in bed to avoid the cold. This is not officially a settlement – it’s a temporary relocation area. Its where you go when there is no where else.

In this area, survival is the key decision. Let me give you a trivial example of how I forgot this, on my last trip out. I went to the nearest spaza shop, which is an informal shop, usually run out of someone’s front room. They are heavily barred – there is only enough space to pass goods out one at a time. I confess I asked for a Coke zero. It took me a while to work out that no low calorie drinks were available. Who pays good money for less calories?

So how does tech play a role here? Well, people have cell phones, many of them. Not much airtime, which people buy in increments of $0,20 or $0,40. No free wi-fi. The city centre is miles away, 45 minutes by car. People don’t share information freely. They hoard the little bits they have, each hoping that it will give them a leg up in the endless search for work, and decent housing. The city builds houses for the poor, but the number of those waiting is such that some in the area have been waiting for 20 years. Getting information is hard, assuming its there to start with. Practically hard, without wi-fi and a laptop, and technically hard – who do you ask? How? And does the information exist?

That’s the capable state issue. It’s the most important objective in South Africa’s National Development Plan. And it’s a genuine question mark in many places – is there information? Is there hard data? We struggled to find data on this settlement. The data from the census is not disaggregated to the level that allows us to tell you how many people live here.

And maybe if people had more information maybe they would make better choices. But they because of the nature of their social context they have little information, and they share it carefully. So, you may say, connect them! Connect them to systems and information, and their positions will become more powerful! But as individuals they simply line up in the endless queue of those who need shelter and safety. They inhabit a half world – some shelter, but not enough. They have little power. Even if they could tell you everything you might want to know about the unconstitutionality of their ‘temporary’ permanent status, the plan for relocating them (not public), the lists for the various housing projects in the area (not public), the crime statistics for their area, (not public) and even if they all SMSed the city all at once, nothing would happen.

Because the city knows this is happening. But they have fires to put out – literally, with shack settlements going up in flames in a regular basis, often in winter, which combined with flooding makes for huge pressure to urgently relocate people. The people of this area are not powerful enough to make their voices heard, and they are afraid that as individuals too much noise may make them ‘troublemakers.’

Is this a problem data can solve? Not in the sense I described in the introduction to the piece. Yes, knowing where land is, and projects coming available, and who has waited for how long on what list is part of a solution. But if this community is not organised it cannot act. Poor people don’t find power in acting individually. They find power in acting collectively. Acting collectively and smart is the best of all combinations, using organising, information, the law, politics and civic engagement. Information is not power, but it is part of power. If the analysis of power and hierarchy is not part of planning for change, change cannot follow. DM

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