Temper excitement with some reality

While there are benefits to using technologies such as social media, the inability to recognise it could also pose problems, is foolish, writes Na’eem Jeenah.

There is a tendency among many Muslims (and many people in general) to glorify information and communication technologies as if they are a panacea for the world’s problems – or, at least, for individuals’ problems. Perhaps I should clarify!

There is a tendency among mainly middle and upper-class Muslims (and people); working class people have more concrete issues to deal with. A love of technology and technological change is not, in itself, a problem. But the desire to board every new bandwagon and not to be “left behind,” is. When this is done without questioning what the bandwagon is about, what band is on it, what road it travels on, what its effects will be on other human beings and creatures, and what its destination is, then it is a serious problem.

The most recent such bandwagon is the “Fourth Industrial Revolution” (or 4IR, Industry 4.0, etc). There is enough available accessible information to explain it. (Unless you live in a township, squatter camp or rural area and your main source of information is the radio and school library.) My main concern is how people prefer to be oblivious to the profound impact of such things and clamber for a share of the pie because… well because “everyone else” is getting a share and they want it too.

While the first three “industrial revolutions” were primarily about technological advancements which enhanced productivity (and caused severe social repercussions), 4IR supposedly represents a convergence of physical, digital and biological spheres of our lives, affecting our very bodies and sense of being. That notion itself should raise many red flags.

Those who regard these new technologies as wonderfully romantic should consider their most obvious (and perhaps most concerning) likely consequence: the deepening of inequality. As they replace not only manual work but also thinking processes (through artificial intelligence – AI), it is likely that they will be dominated and exploited largely by a tiny minority of humanity, thus increasing the disparities between them and the rest. (Consider that, already, in South Africa, if your post-tax monthly income for a household of 4 people is just R12, 000, almost 80% of the population earns less than you do.) An increase in inequality, globally, will have massive negative social and political repercussions.

4IR is very much about connectivity, and another consequence of it that we are already experiencing is the (voluntary) surrendering of our privacy. Think social media, of how big tech companies mine personal data of people and marshal that data for commercial and political purposes. We all supposedly know the dangers, but most of us willingly allow our lives to be probed and exploited. This is just the tip of the iceberg. As biological technologies become more “connected”, we will move closer towards what historian Yuval Noah Harari calls the “hackable human”. A nanochip implanted in one’s body, for example, might be wonderful to detect early onset of illness. Not so great when you realise that anything that connects to the outside world can be hacked and can allow control over one’s body that compromises one’s autonomy.

Such a notion is not a distant possibility. Already, digital health monitors connect one’s physical activities to technological devices, making them more susceptible to hacking and controlling. Further, the monitoring of one’s activities on the internet that results in “targeted advertising” is actually another form of intervention into one’s thought processes by companies such as google, Facebook, etc. These tools are increasingly being used by states and corporations for surveillance, monitoring and repression in ways that were not previously possible. It’s not science fiction; it’s current reality.

Constant Connection

We are also already seeing a form of disintegration in social communication through current technologies. Klaus Schwab, the founder of the World Economic Forum, who popularised the term Fourth Industrial Revolution (and wrote a book about it), muses: “…sometimes I wonder whether the inexorable integration of technology in our lives could diminish some of our quintessential human capacities, such as compassion and cooperation… Constant connection may deprive us of one of life’s most important assets: the time to pause, reflect, and engage in meaningful conversation.”

The concern around these technologies extends also to their uses in conflicts and wars. While Barack Obama vastly expanded the use of drones in war situations – facilitating the killing of people without placing one’s own people (not soldiers but tech contractors) in harm’s way, AI could make human control obsolete, thus making massacring people vastly more efficient. Modern warfare now combines traditional warfare with modern technological forms of waging war, such as cyberwar and propaganda war. These include, for example, AI designed to search out the “enemy” on the internet and other computer networks and respond to it, often resulting in the dissemination of fake news and defamation.

All this makes it easy to blur the line between truth and falsehood, combatant and non-combatant, violence and non-violence in war, and war and peace. It also means that the capacity to wage war and cause mass harm has been “democratised”, now available to a larger number of people, with fewer controls. AI can be deployed, for example, in family feuds, with potentially disastrous consequences.

Some people foolishly believe that some of these technologies – such as social media – are democratising and create an online egalitarianism. They, in fact, facilitate racism, sexism and other forms of hatred on a mass scale, with little effort and few consequences for the perpetrators. In 2016, Microsoft launched “Tay”– an AI application for “entertainment”. Tay was shut down after 24 hours because humans taught it to be racist and misogynist and it “tweeted wildly inappropriate and reprehensible words and images”.

Obviously, there are numerous useful benefits to technologies of the “Fourth Industrial Revolution”. But focusing only on perceived benefits and hankering to consume technology in order to “keep up” (a reflection of an inferiority complex?), without considering the very real problems posed by these technologies is foolish. They are not called “disruptive technologies” for nothing. Understanding what “disruptive” means is necessary before we encourage everyone to jump on board. The technological revolution(s) we are living through (and with) are redefining what it means to be human, and what is moral and ethical. These are not developments that we should uncritically celebrate and embrace.


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