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.

On Gender Dimensions of Education, Communication and Ethical Leadership

By Dr. Leyla Tavernaro-Haidarian, PhD

Over the last few years as a member of SAYAS and a research fellow at the University of Johannesburg I’ve had the opportunity to branch out and contribute as an Education for Justice Champion for the United Nations, where I am also a consultant faculty member of their Leadership, Women and the UN Program. Among my various responsibilities, I’ve been involved in creating partnerships between the United Nations and education/academia to explore how various communication paradigms can impact and enrich ethical leadership and in particular its gender dimensions. In the course of this, I have been helping develop, roll out and conduct the impact assessment study of a tertiary level curriculum called Education for Justice. What has stood out from my findings and what intrigues me particularly as a woman with a complex ethico-cultural background is that relational or what I like to call mutualistic paradigms of communication are best suited to help promote ethical leadership and governance, empower women and raise integrity in the sciences and in many other fields and institutions.

My point of departure for this is the United Nations’ sustainable development agenda, in light of which equality, ethics and integrity are thought to require a foundational outlook that is world-embracing. The assumption is that we cannot foster these values nor the institutions that support them, if, as individuals, communities and societies we are focused only on our own interests or the interests of our closest group of peers. Sustainable, ethical governance that is inclusive and diverse requires looking towards the good of other individuals, communities and societies. It requires a broader outlook and other-regard. Through programs such as Education for Justice, we are able to widen the sense of responsibility and identification participants have towards others. Our pre- and post-survey data evidences an expanded sense of relationality that goes from smaller, more insular understandings to ever-expanding notions of solidarity with the human family at large. In providing content that exposes participants to meaningful explorations around values and lawfulness, we can see foundation-building for peace, justice and strong institutions and a nuanced and richly-textured global identity that empowers women and fosters equality.

But it is not just through the content of curricula that we can achieve the above. My research shows that deliberative, collaborative approaches to communication are key. Through the participatory methodology, we find in programs such as Education for Justice, participants can actively engage in co-studying and co-shaping curricula together with lecturers and scientists who act as facilitators. This paradigm draws from feminism, from theories of the global South – particularly Ubuntu – and from the Baha’i notion of consultation. It empowers individuals and in particularly women/girls as well as those, whose voices are routinely marginalized, and it does so by democratising communication and leadership. By democratization, I do not mean established Western liberal notions of competition that pit ideas and interests against each other in mutually exclusive ways. Contrarily, those approaches demean, exclude and amplify those who are already privileged by the established discourse. It is another, gentler and more inclusive form of democracy that is created through relational communication strategies. This transcends partisan approaches and allows lesser-heard perspectives to enter the discourse, to complement and enrich others in a process that is mutually reinforcing and empowering.

Beyond the content and methodology we pursue in delivering curricula, what is also important is our intention and emphasis. From my personal observations as both a facilitator of the Education for Justice program and someone who regularly accompanies others in facilitating these modules, it has become clear that we can only create spaces for equality and ethical leadership when we cultivate possibility and optimism. In other words, while it is important to outline, understand and unpack issues such as inequality or corruption, it is even more important to spend time on providing possible solutions for promoting equality, ethics, integrity and good governance. The emphasis must be on equality and good governance, with anti-discrimination or anti-corruption as sub-goals. In particular, it is also helpful and empowering to offer or explore tangible actions and steps that can be taken for both women and men to tackle the various challenges that exist in achieving equality and ethical governance. This helps activate hope and mobilize action among all.

Going forward there are many opportunities for partnerships that could enhance the above endeavours. I’m thinking particularly of grassroots community projects that are gaining momentum all over the world, both in rural and urban contexts. In these settings, youth and junior youth engage in community-building and development that is self-driven. There are examples of groups all over South Africa, for example, but also in Europe, where I currently consult. In Vienna, for instance, there is a group that has formed around a district with a great number of refugees. Youth from various ethnic and religious backgrounds get together to create bonds of friendship, engage in sports, arts and the study of meaningful, empowering texts. They also introduce a spiritual dimension, which is powerful and empowering as it transcends sectarian and gender divides and focuses on what people have in common, namely the desire to lead good lives and to serve their fellow humans. I think these sites of experimentation are rife with opportunity and should be exploited together with the more formal work that is done in academia and through the United Nations.



LeylaDr. Leyla Tavernaro-Haidarian is a senior research fellow at the University of Johannesburg and a consultant for UNSSC, where she is a faculty member of the Leadership, Women and the UN program. Her areas of expertise include media, communication, leadership, ethics, education, development and governance. Leyla regularly lectures and keynotes at international fora such as TEDx, The US State Department, NATO Building Integrity and the UNSSC/University of Stellenbosch Business School MBA program in Managing International Organizations and continues to produce television content for Persian Baha’i media services. She serves on the editorial board of an international communication journal and is a member of the South African Communication Association as well as the Young Academy of Science. Leyla is also a South African Women in Science Awards nominee.  Social Media handles: @/lavidaleyla