The Dangers of Digital Dependency

For July’s edition of YIAGA AFRICA’s Knowledge Management Series, team members express profound thoughts through their written reflections on Yuval Harari’s somewhat controversial, but philosophical book, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century (2018), which sets out to give the world a guide towards settling in the 21st century world.

Seeing how technology is rapidly changing every aspect of our lives, moulding our patterns of work, wellbeing and how we communicate, it is important that we pause and reflect on how technology has affected our decision-making processes, ethics and the dangers it has posed in the hands of a digital dictator/an authoritative government.

Many will argue that technology has made the world a better place, improved the health sector, educational sector, made communication easier with less travel, and given us access to information at our fingertips. But, it has indeed made billions of people especially in the 21st century, entrust platforms such as Google search with one of the most important tasks of all: searching for relevant and trustworthy information. The top result on Google search often determines what the truth is.

What we fail to see is how we are gradually handing over our lives to technology by allowing algorithms to collect real-time data on us. For instance, a detailed list of all of your financial transactions, travel history, websites you have visited and the details of each search you have initiated online, including your medical history and any other kind of data that can be measured can be easily tracked online. This complex trail of data that each person generates every day has a major impact on our moral values.

To completely understand this, I would recommend chapter 3 of Prof. Yuval Noah Harari’s book 21 Lessons for the 21stCentury, and a documentary on Netflix called “The Great Hack”. After going through these, we’d all understand why it is pertinent for Nigerians to ask some serious questions: Who is in control of collecting data? What is it used for? Which data is made public and which is held private? As a country, have we even taken out time to reflect on the impact of the Cambridge-Analytica-Facebook saga on the U.S. Presidential Election in 2015? How it was used to increase apathy, create fake news and instigate violence amongst people?

Perhaps, another illustration would illuminate a clearer understanding of the dangers of digital dependency.

Today, China is considered one of Nigeria’s closest allies and partners because of the bilateral relations between both countries. This relationship continues to grow through partnerships in both technology and infrastructural development. We may not see this yet, but China is not just exporting ICT goods to Nigeria. It is exporting digital authoritarianism. The Chinese are using digital technologies to cement its grip on power through surveillance cameras, autonomous drones, and citizens’ data, knowing that nearly every device we use is produced in a factory in their own country.

In China, their “social credit” system uses constant surveillance cameras equipped with facial recognition, body scanning, and geo-tracking to cast a constant gaze over every citizen in their country. Smartphone apps are also used to collect data and monitor online behaviour on a day-to-day basis. The data from educational, medical, and financial records are all collected from each individual into this “social credit” system.

Now, in a democratic society such as Nigeria, those who control all of such data that have been gathered can use it to control society by teleguiding elections, hence undermining democracy.

Against this backdrop, the question is: if the Nigerian government decides to take the approach of the “social credit” system, will Nigeria still have a democracy? Will anybody be able to protest and demand accountability or justice without the fear of been marginalized by the system? Can we even make such decisions on the basis of free will, without thinking twice about avid consequences? Would we even still have free will?

Soon, we might face a struggle between liberal democracy and authoritarianism in the digital realm because Artificial Intelligence (AI) is making it even easier to monitor and control billions of people.

Samuel Folorunsho is an IT Expert in YIAGA AFRICA. Find him on twitter @folomic

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