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Africa remains a captive market – are we truly au fait with technology?


Oscar van Heerden is a scholar of International Relations (IR), where he focuses on International Political Economy, with an emphasis on Africa, and SADC in particular. He completed his PhD and Masters studies at the University of Cambridge (UK). His undergraduate studies were at Turfloop and Wits. He is currently a Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Fort Hare University and writes in his personal capacity.

AI, Biometrics, Big Data, all under the guise of development, the Global North is literally harvesting data from the Global South.

I recently attended a very good event organised by the Nelson Mandela Foundation, on racism and prejudices in the digital age. And what came to light for me was a startling revelation about how we as global citizens are being duped and how our personal data is abused by the highest bidder either in Silicon Valley in the US or elsewhere in the world. This is usually done without us, as the user client, having any say in the matter.

This is one aspect of the debate, the other is the racism and prejudice creeping into social media, exacerbating the fight against femicide, gender-based violence and so much more.

In a country such as ours, where we are having to deal with the triple challenges of poverty, inequality and unemployment, how do we balance, if at all possible, these very competing objectives in the digital age? It is an acceptable fact that jobs are under threat from machines. In other words, the automation of industry will have far reaching implications for the labour market in the near future.

The question we have to ask is whether we are prepared for such a radical transformation. We can hardly take a decision to migrate to digital, it has taken many years because we are simply not ready, but that is another matter for a future piece perhaps.

In an era when institutions of higher learning are already criticised for not producing graduates fit for the world of work or fit for purpose as they say, are they ready for the 4th Industrial Revolution and its implications?

Others have held a subjective view that says that for the revolution to work on the African continent, it requires a stable and steady supply of electricity and, with the grid being what it is in Africa, are we being realistic? And if that’s not a serious challenge then what about some others?

I mean, we will have to compete with self-service petrol stations. I remember once as I was travelling through England and my hired car needed petrol, I stopped at the next petrol station or filling station as they call it and there was no one in sight to assist me. I frantically looked around but alas, I had to eventually get out of the car and meander my way through the instructions on the petrol tank. I must confess, for a South African it was a rather trying experience, not having a petrol attendant on hand.

Another time my car was overheating and as I know so much about cars, I had not a clue where to begin. I remember walking into the small shop of the petrol station and inquiring from the woman behind the counter what she thought I should do about my overheating car. To which she simply replied, “How should I know? I only work in the shop.”

I was at a loss and made my way over to the counter where there was oil and, it being the UK, they had ten million choices. I stuck out my hand and just grabbed one. Fortunately, there were some people in front of me in the queue so I eventually looked down and remembered that I could actually read and so read the inscription on the bottle, which clearly said “for motor cycles only”. I promptly returned it and spent the next 30 minutes reading each bottle carefully until I eventually found what I was looking for, I think.

I got home and told my wife about my ordeal and she promptly said, did you check the water? Silly me, I felt like an idiot. The moral of the story: are we ready for the artificial intelligence age, where we are prepared to engage with machines? Self-service pay points in supermarkets/parking lots, self-driving cars and so much more?

How will we ensure SMMEs’ advancement with such technology? We are having to ensure people remain in their jobs given the unemployment figures but at the same time we want to move with the technological times where machines can do the same job for half the price and salary expenditure.

After all, the powers that be have convinced us all that not to be technologically advanced and proficient means you are underdeveloped. So technological advancement is directly associated with development. The constant call by mining houses for the mechanisation of the mining sector also has far reaching, devastating results in the medium to long run on employment figures.

We remain a captive market for the innovation of the Global North’s technology through mobile devices, laptops, talking computers and smart technologies.

One of the participants said about the US that “black men get locked up while black women get locked out (evicted)”. And what she meant by this is that single-headed households in which women are the only breadwinners, due to their respective husbands being in prison, cannot cope with the demands of paying rent and invariably default on the rental agreement.

This leads to evictions of the families and as soon as this happens their respective names are submitted to a database that records all defaulters and, as such, they get excluded from getting a rental and/or a lease agreement again because all property owners have access to this data base. So, regardless of the specific circumstances surrounding the eviction, these mothers cannot provide shelter for their children because the system discriminates negatively against them.

Another such an example are black men who have a criminal record, a small infraction many years ago, perhaps shoplifting, but because it remains on the system, they cannot find jobs of any kind, not even menial work.

Again, because the system discriminates against such individuals. I know some of you may say but what’s wrong with that, after all he did commit a crime, but in some instances, it was 25 years ago and since then the individual has been doing nothing but be a good citizen. When is penance enough?

Other participants spoke of the “techno capitalism” which they were adamant was an evil system and, like most Marxists, believe that such a system must be fought on all fronts.

The fact that one’s personal data can be sold to the highest bidder in order for someone to gauge your financial viability or to check your spending patterns is akin to capitalists always trying to find ways and means to get more money from you, they say.

The participants indicated that we must be aware that our data is not our own. AI, Biometrics, Big Data, all under the guise of development, the Global North is literally harvesting data from the Global South.

Others still called it “surveillance capitalism” – here they refer to the Big Brother mentality and the fact that many of the technologies discriminate against, in particular, people of African origin because apparently our irises and facial features are not easily discernible by the machines more “accustomed” to Caucasian features.

Further proof of the racism inherent in the manufacturing of these machines. Have you tried to pronounce your Afrikaans or African surname to Siri, Alexi or Hey Google? You will soon be told, “I’m sorry, I did not get that”.

The other most interesting point that came out of the discussion was the fact that because of social media platforms, we users have become more indiscriminate in our language use. We are more able to have our say and don’t care who is on the other side since it is not face to face.

Our prejudices can more easily come to the fore since we cannot always be held to account. Females can simply be told that they will be raped if found, gay persons told that if found alone one night, they will see how they are sorted out. Men can be their usual misogynistic selves and not fear reproach.

And yet, even though mobile telephone subscription stands at 110% in South Africa, it does not assist our women to fight gender-based violence. So, not only do the machines discriminate against poor people but black people and women in particular. Sound familiar?

I say again, are we au fait with the technologies that we are being swamped with? Do we know who is doing what with our personal information and can we trust our regulatory bodies to get a handle on this frightening development?

So, when we are reminded that to be technologically advanced means to be a developed country, we must also ask the question at what cost and whose definition of development is being used.

No algorithm exists for the solutions of the challenges with Artificial Intelligence and the digital era, but one thing is sure, the digital age is indeed upon us and if we want to take charge of our own destiny in this 4th Industrial Revolution, then we’d better become better at this game.

For now, good people, we are on the losing side and will therefore remain a captive market. DM


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