Algorithmic Colonization of Africa, part 1
Even if we may all have the same problems worldwide, we cannot just import, or export, “solutions”.
This post is the first part of my own summary, with some comments, of a paper by Mr. Abeba Birhane about the Algorithmic Colonization of Africa, about “how Western tech monopolies, with their desire to dominate, control and influence social, political, and cultural discourse, share common characteristics with traditional colonialism”.
Parts in italic or bold are my own comments or additions, and most section titles are mine too.
The new shape of colonization
In the Global South, technology that is developed with Western perspectives, values, and interests is imported with little regulation or critical scrutiny. Colonialism takes the form of “state-of-the-art algorithms” and “Artificial Intelligence (AI) driven solutions” to social problems.
Not only is Western-developed AI unfit for African problems, the West’s algorithmic invasion simultaneously impoverishes development of local products while also leaving the continent dependent on Western software and infrastructure.
In the age of algorithms, control and domination occurs not through brute physical force but rather through invisible and nuanced mechanisms such as control of digital ecosystems and infrastructure… driven by corporate tech monopolies - both of which are in search of wealth accumulation.
Algorithmic colonialism, driven by profit maximization at any cost, assumes that the human soul, behaviour, and action is raw material free for the taking.
Knowledge, authority, and power to sort, categorize, and order human activity rests with the technologist, for which we are merely data producing “human natural resources”.
These declarations are then legitimized and institutionalized, as they serve as tools for conquering by imposing new reality.
For technology monopolies, such processes allow them to take things that live outside the market sphere and declare them as new market commodities.
The beneficial potential of certain technologies is not in doubt. The problem is in blindly copying tools and attitudes born in other contexts.
[Across Africa] There already exist countless die-hard techno-enthusiasts, both within and outside the continent, some of whom are only too willing to blindly adopt anything “data-driven”, or AI-based without a second thought of the possible harmful consequences.
Mentions of “technology”, “innovation”, and “AI” continually and consistently bring with them evangelical advocacy, blind trust, and little, if any, critical engagement. They also bring with them invested parties that seek to monetize, quantify, and capitalize every aspect of human life, often at any cost.
[In 2019, during a] major technology conferences in Tangier, Morocco… Efforts to implement the latest, state-of-the-art machine learning tool or the next cutting-edge application were applauded and admired while the few voices that attempt to bring forth discussions of the harms that might emerge with such technology get buried under the excitement.
Exhibit One: maps and demography
In 2016, Facebook declared that it is creating a population density map of most of Africa using computer vision techniques, population data, and high-resolution satellite imagery.
Facebook, in the process, assigned itself the authority responsible for mapping, controlling, and creating population knowledge of the continent.
In doing so… Facebook also assumed authority over what is perceived as legitimate knowledge of the continent’s population.
[Meanwhile, as just one example..] Gender inequalities which plague every social, political, and economic sphere in Ethiopia… have yet to be exposed and mapped through data.
Exhibit Two: healthcare, or “Context Matters”
[A central question] is the relevance and appropriateness of AI software developed with values, norms, and interests of Western societies to that of users across the African continent.
Certain matters that are considered critical problems in some societies may not be considered so in other societies. Solutions devised in a one culture may not transfer well to another.
In fact, the very problems that the solution is set out to solve may not be considered problems for other cultures.
The harmful consequences of lack of awareness to context is most stark in the health sector. A comparative study, that examined early breast cancer detection practices between Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) and high income countries, found that applying what has been “successful” in the West, i.e. Mammograms, to SSA is not effective in reducing mortality from breast cancer.
A combination of contextual factors, such as a lower age profile, presentation with advanced disease, and limited available treatment options all suggest that self-examination and clinical breast examination for early detection methods serve women in SSA better than medical practice designed for their counterparts in high income countries.
[In spite of this] Throughout the continent, health care is one of the major areas where “AI solutions” are actively sought and Western-developed technological tools are imported. Without critical assessment of their relevance, the deployment of Western eHealth systems might pose more harm than benefit.
Exhibit Three: FinTech
[In Africa] Development of profitable AI systems comes before the welfare of individual people or communities. This is most evident in the FinTech sector, one of the prominent digital markets, in Africa.
[This] allows [local] social concerns to be dictated by corporate incentives [and] moral questions to be dictated by corporate interest.
“Digital nudges”, behaviour modifications developed to suit commercial interests, are a prime example. When these models are imported as state-of-the-art technology that will save money and “leapfrog” the continent into development, Western values and ideals are enforced, either deliberately or intentionally.
Exhibit Three B: FinTech microfinance
The typical narrative preaches the microfinance industry as a service that exists to accommodate the underserved and a system that creates opportunities for the “unbanked” who have no access to a formal banking system.
Through its microcredit system, the narrative goes, Africans living in poverty can borrow money to establish and expand their microenterprise ventures.
However, a closer critical look reveals that the very idea of FinTech microfinancing is a reincarnation of colonialist era rhetoric that works for Western multinational shareholders.
For instance, although Safaricom is 35% owned by the Kenyan government, 40% of the shares are controlled by Vodafone, a UK multinational corporation while the other 25%, are held mainly by wealthy foreign investors.
Despite the common discourse of paving a way out of poverty, FinTech actually profits from poverty [and], like traditional colonialism, those that benefit from FinTech… operate from a distance. For example, Branch and Tala, two of the most prominent FinTech apps in Kenya, operate from their California headquarters and export “Silicon Valley’s curious nexus of technology, finance, and developmentalism”.
This expansion of Western led digital financing systems, furthermore, brings with it a negative knock-on effect on existing local traditional banking and borrowing systems that have long existed and functioned in harmony with locally established norms and mutual compassion.