In 2019 it’s more apparent than ever that technology is both the present and the future. Over the past two decades we’ve seen the aggressive rise of cyberspace companies. Cyberspace is defined as “the virtual computer world, and more specifically, is an electronic medium used to form a global computer network to facilitate online communication”.
Dominant cyberspace companies that have risen over the past two decades include Google, Amazon, Facebook, Twitter, Alibaba, Uber and AirBnb. These rose seemingly from nothing to replace their physical counterparts.
The physical counterparts would be Encyclopaedias/libraries in the case of Google, Bricks and Mortar stores in the case of Amazon, the mail in the case of instant chat/messaging platforms. Some of these companies found markets in the cyberspace that could not possibly have existed in the physical world due to physical constraints like laws of nature or geography. Others replaced more that one physical system, especially social ones.
The picture I am attempting to paint here is one that depicts that increasingly the question “Who owns cyberspace/the technology we use?” is becoming more and more relevant than “Who owns the land?”. While the land question is a pressing one, and one we should place lots of weight on, I believe a question of equal, if not more pressing, importance is the technology question.
I believe the technology question can be juxtaposed with the land question. The land question is concerned with, and seeks to correct, wrongdoings of the past that left masses dispossessed and systematically excluded from vital parts of the economy. The technology question seeks to address the risk of the same fate befalling the masses yet again.
In 21 Lessons for the 21st century Yuval Noah Harari points out the obvious fact that increasingly people are spending more and more time online. While people pay rent to their physical landlords they spend the same amount of time — if not more time — on Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat as they do in their rooms.
With cyberspace becoming as dominant and viable a social and business space as the physical world, and with “threats” to surpass the physical world on both, I think it’s time for African countries to strengthen our efforts on the technology question. This is particularly important given the scalability, low barriers to entry, and freedom from the constraints of geography in cyberspace. The fast-approaching rise of artificial intelligence only strengthens the urgency of the technology question.
If anything, the trade war between North America and China has proved, once again, that relying on other countries for your future is a terrible idea. Especially if there is a chance they are morally bankrupt. Automated systems will be our means of production, the foundation of our businesses, the primary medium through which we trade and much more in no time. In addition to losing jobs if we do not own the automation companies, we risk losing control of our economies as we know them.
A misconception that I fell prey to for a long time is that automation will come in the form of robots at Pick n Pay and Shoprite, but no, it will also come in the form of software.
The biggest threat with automation coming in the form of software is that our tax structure is not ready for this — there are huge disagreements among experts and business leaders over how governments should go about “imposing” tax on cyber companies that “only exist virtually in their countries” but much extract money from the countries. From this it’s clear that the law and governments are still playing catch up.
I am not clear on what the first step should be towards publicly addressing the technology question, but I definitely think it’s about time we figure it out and equip ourselves for the next revolution.