The ones left behind

Last week, I cycled past a bus reading ‘5G – don’t get left behind’ on its back. This very bus drives through Cape Town’s city centre and its more affluent suburbs, but also transports many workers who come in from low-income areas. The message bothered me. It was there for to sell a product and thus not necessarily meant to convey a meaningful message. Still, it did echo assumptions that I find to be prominent in discussions on digital media and technological developments more broadly.

For one thing, there is the premise that there will be an improved humanity with an increasing access to information. Information flows tend to be almost religiously celebrated as having supreme value in and of themselves (also referred to as dataism), as being inherently progressive, and as levelling social playing fields.

Presenting technisation as a lofty ideal or a superior mode of being to achieve rather than something created from a particular vantage point effectively veils the authoritative regimes of the technological revolution we currently witness. This includes the cultures and values embedded in tech products. Very few women and people of colour are hired in tech industries, leading to the development of problematic algorithms.[1] Even more problematically, designs and codes are presented as neutral and gender- and colour-blind, much like the employment politics in bis tech.[2]

Adding to their opacity is the fact that tech products are often portrayed as independent actors. Power relations precipitating unequal access to resources that tie in with social, economic and educational developments are, consequently, neatly brushed under the discursive carpet. Framing access as a matter of capability and choice (reach it, grab it – or else get left behind) rather than something that forms part of a historical development supports the prioritisation of the needs of some while the experiences of others (those who cannot reach) are rendered even less visible and relevant for imagined futures.

In Cape Town, where the geographic, economic and social divisions of Apartheid are notoriously persistent, the ‘don’t get left behind’ paradigm seems particularly cynical. It foreshadows an even more unequal future and places the responsibility for ‘being left behind’ onto individuals unable, for example, to invest in 5G products. This form of exclusion severs itself from problematic histories of divisions and portrays the ones to come as both evitable (ones can make the “right” choices and catch up with tech) and as an inescapable future of insiders and outsiders – much like the narratives of numerous sci-fi plots.

Why sci-fi could be the secret weapon in China's soft-power arsenal |  Financial Times

It was throughout my studying Tinder that I grew increasingly intrigued by what lies behind the shiny, promising exteriors of technologies and artificial intelligence (AI). This is why I want to continue studying their impact on our well-being, social identities, politics, economies and demographic developments. Something I am very curious about is the role of algorithms in how we as their users come to understand ourselves, the world around us, and how we relate to others. I’m especially interested in the impacts of technologies on relationships of trust.

The more I read about AI more broadly, the more I find myself getting irritated with its overly positivistic representations. Especially when people like Amazon CO Jeff Bezos shamelessly flaunt their extraordinary wealth by taking a quick trip to space in a phallic-shaped rocket – and making some extra cash by selling spare seats to similarly wealthy people.

When products like the new Tesla humanoid robot named Optimus are developed and when Amazon’s AI assistant Alexa seems to have learned a little too much about your habits, it is useful to think back to Bezos’s phallus-shaped rocket – just as a memento of how the products we are sold as progressive are anything but neutral, nor are they necessarily designed for our needs. While there are well-intentioned inventions (especially in the medical field), AI and big tech should not be treated as inherently superior approaches to human sense-making but rather as complementing it if well-developed. This is because tech solutions are not “semi-sentient” as ultrarich AI-enthusiast Elon Musk promises his new human-replacement robot to be and they only have the “sense” of morality that has been encoded in them.

If left unchecked, the trajectory of dataism may very well be to the detriment of humanism. Thankfully, this is not a sci-fi movie or a zero-sum game. We are in a position in which we can still decide just how to handle these seemingly inevitable developments that are sprung on us from silicon-valley and co. We can contextualise and look at them as the political and socially momentous projects that they are. “Don’t get left behind” messages in this context should serve as a wake-up call. But instead of letting them induce panic and self-questioning as the advertisers appear to intend, we should treat it as a reminder to consider people at the margins and designing appropriate interventions instead of placing blame in the most inappropriate ways.

[1] For more on this, read D’ignazio, C. and Klein, L.F., 2020. Data feminism. MIT Press.

[2] See Noble, S.U., 2018. Algorithms of oppression. New York University Press.

Hopped up on emotions: the Euro 2020

I’m not generally into watching sports. In fact, most of the time, I cannot get myself follow what’s happening on the screen, even if I try. Somehow, this drastically changes when the football world cup (or, alternatively, the Euros) reaches its zenith. When playing ball turns into a zero-sum game, I am suddenly really invested! But only if I have people around me how are supporting their team of choice vehemently – not once have I managed to motivate myself to watch a game on my own.

My mom discovered her passion for watching soccer games later in life and can tell you everything about her favourite team, Borussia Dortmund. When there are any bigger soccer games shown on German public TV, you can be sure she’s watching. Unlike my dad, who could not care less – so much for gender stereotypes! I think it’s because of emotions running high that I also end up getting excited to the extent that I scream at the TV when it comes to all-or-nothing international matches, I even though I’m not actually an enthusiast of ANY sports.

Variations of this image capturing emotional moments of two Swiss team supporters made their rounds online during the Euro 2020

It may sound weird, but there is something really transfixing about a team trying so visibly hard to claim relevance (and a substantial price), watching them jump on each other overcome with pure joy and grown men in the audience not ashamed to have their tears being documented – something they might not feel free to do in other public contexts. I bet my grandfather shed one or the other tear as well when he religiously attended the semi-monthly games of the relatively small football team of my hometown in Germany, Offenbach (the team’s name is Offenbacher Kickers, in case you were wondering).

Even though it was sometimes bothersome living in Germany during the big football competitions, the car-hooting and late-night shouts of jubilation in the streets were somewhat infectious. It is worth mentioning that this typically only happens when male teams are playing, which tend to serve as the implied default-gender when speaking about the sport (a quick Google and image-search of the term ‘German national team’ will demonstrate this default-thinking). This is despite the German women’s national team, for instance, being highly successful and ‘women football’ having achieved record viewership in 2020 because of new broadcasting and streaming deals. But let’s bracket that for now.

I do quite fondly remember the (men’s) world cup in Germany in 2016, when, for a moment, it felt as though coming together to watch football was the only thing that mattered. I was working at a Burger King outlet at the main train station in Frankfurt at the time. Watching dressed up and cheerful fans throughout the workday made me smile and was a much welcome sight breaking with the mind dulling routine of selling burgers. It was also the first time that it was widely acceptable to ‘show flag’ again in Germany after the second world war. While I’m critical of expressions of national pride (as they tend to imply the exclusion of others) and was worried that the situation will somehow turn hostile, I recall this period to have been mostly light and cheerful.

And then, of course, there was the (men’s) World Cup 2010 in South Africa. I had been to Cape Town a couple of months prior for an internship and was planning a semester abroad at the University of Cape Town at the time, which turned into a permanent move. Given that, I was following the coverage around this World Cup especially closely on TV. The sensation of a momentary feeling of togetherness communicated through celebratory images made it all the way to my couch and got me exhilarated. The feeling was overpowering, even though it was fleeting and interspersed with news coverage about the financial spending South Africa had to undertake to be able to host the tournament, and how this compared the country’s other urgent investment needs.

The Cape Town (Green Point) stadium built at the cost of R4.4 billion for the world cup 2010

I have long been somewhat intrigued by how watching sports brings people together on the one hand and, on the other, serves as a platform for violence (again, as far as I know this is not typical for any ‘women’s sports events’). In the shape of sheer hooliganism, the latter seems incomprehensible if thinking of football as a mere ball game, especially when caught up in a beautiful moment. But it is indeed much more than that – it’s an intrinsically social affair. It is a microcosm with its own dynamics, a space with its own rituals in which everyday social rules become amended. And one that I cannot help myself getting sucked into when surrounded by football enthusiasts.

I imagine that, in one situation or another, we all might be susceptible to let ourselves float as a part of a group dynamic that emphasise commonality, nurtured with each burst of emotion. Given how dependable we as humans are on one another, having amplified responses to a tangible shared sense of vulnerability is not all that surprising from the perspective of an anthropologist such as myself. But it’s still remarkable and quite obviously something I’m not immune to. As already mentioned, the unfortunate part of the story is that where there is demarcated inclusion, there are usually also markers of not-belonging. When excitement peaks, these run the risk of being escalated. Such was evident in the aftermath of the Euro final. Footballers of the English team who were cheered on by the masses on the field found themselves racially abused online following their team’s defeat (a ubiquitous rather than an exceptional phenomenon for Black players).

Where there are moments of sheer thrill, these are not bound to last. A mere day after the Euro final, all its intensity had completely worn off for me. And whomever stranger one had ended up hugging and crying with in the audience of a stadium, one may keep their distance from the next day when meeting at the supermarket. But there is always a next time to get that intriguing rush of raw, unfiltered human expression. Hopefully minus any potential elements of aggression.