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.

Working and swiping my way towards a guiding thread

At the age of 32, it feels like a very long time ago that I worked as a journalist in my early 20s. It is the profession I saw myself growing into when I was younger and the one that I approached with vigour after school through various internships. My ongoing freelance work next to my first-year university studies at a local newspaper in Germany offered me a glimpse into the politics embedded in conveying stories through this medium. Realising its limitations made me pursue my anthropological studies even harder, which, unlike the form of journalism I had encountered, permitted a long-term, in-depth approach to analysing everyday phenomena. At the same time, it allowed me to cultivate my passion for writing. My university studies also led me to permanently re-locate to South Africa 10 years ago.

Fast forward: currently, I am a PhD candidate at the Department of Anthropology at the University of Cape Town. Here, I have spent the past three years doing research and writing my thesis on the behavioural use of the dating application Tinder. This involved using Tinder to recruit study participants and grappling with how – and with whom – intimacy is cultivated in Cape Town, starting with right and left swipes on online profiles. The focus of the ethnography resulting from this lies on how individuals perceive themselves and others in a partially cybernated process of relating and the ways in which these perceptions are reflected in interactions. Identity formation as well as the interplay of structural influences and individual behaviour also played a crucial part in my ethnographic studies on male refugees in Cape Town and on suburban neighbourhood surveillance. Both were awarded with a distinction and published as monographs with Langaa RPCIG. I am also currently contributing to a research project on professional identity formation among first-in-family students at the faculty of engineering at UCT.

My journey thus far writes itself rather easily. However, it is only now that I feel I can draw out a consistent, guiding tread across it. For the most part, things seemed topsy-turvy and very much characterised by unknown factors, including visa issues and concerns about securing financial support. What I discovered relatively early as a theme and as fuel to keep me pursuing my studies is a passion to engage with the lived experiences of people. Looking back, I can now claim this to be evident in my endeavours to date, just like my profound interest in facilitating dialogue across and beyond disciplines. Yet, these things only filtered through more clearly with time. I consider myself lucky in having developed a genuine desire to immerse myself in study contexts in an engaged, enthusiastic manner. It is even luckier that I had the opportunity to nourish this desire throughout my scholarly career so far. This includes my studies at UCT and my work as a Junior Research Fellow at the Health Economics and HIV/AIDS Research Division (HEARD) at the University of KwaZulu Natal. The most interesting moments have been the ones in which heads were conceptually bumped. Working on and with digital technologies for my PhD got me involved in the Digital Humanities (DH) community and I am among the founding members of the Digital Humanities African Network (DHAfricaN), which is a needed extension of DH scholarship towards perspectives of the global South. I also started regularly contributing to workshops and conferences across the globe, which the ongoing global pandemic has rendered more accessible in an online format. These engagements have been particularly exciting, as they opened up a lot of ground for discussion and, thus, for me to spin the proverbial ‘guiding tread’ of my voyage further.

I am still eager to extend discussions even further and make them accessible to a wider audience – not specific to disciplines and not even necessarily limited to the academic ivory tower. This is why I started writing my own blog (The Junck report), which is my way of marrying my love for social anthropology on the one hand and my persistent devotion to journalism on the other. As I am typing away on my thesis and thinking about how my many years at university (mostly at UCT) have shaped me, I want to share more of my experiences and, through them, connect with people on a similar or perhaps rather different journey. The SAYAS blog is a great opportunity to do so.