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.

Why Astronomers are so excited about the EHT Black Hole image

You must have seen the slightly blurry image of a black hole event horizon making the rounds on the internet in April. A bright, orange, cosmic doughnut. As an astronomer, this image was absolutely mind-blowing. In this post, I’ll share why this image is so important for science and its other benefits.

eht_picture
Credit: Event Horizon Telescope

 

We are not actually “seeing” the black hole

I just wanted to clarify this important point because it is what is so mind-blowing about this picture. We are not seeing the actual black hole. We are seeing the boundary where light can’t escape from any more because of the black hole – called the ‘Event Horizon’. The ‘dougnnut hole’ at the centre is where light has been scooped out by the black hole’s extreme gravity. Because the gravity around a black hole is so strong, the light can’t escape that region and is trapped –  causing the darkness at the centre. Black holes – as well as their event horizons – have a very small size relative to other astronomical objects, which adds to the challenge in observing them.

It shows us that the impossible isn’t always impossible

If you asked me, two years ago, whether we will ever manage to get an image of a black hole’s event horizon, my answer would have been a strong no. For most astronomers, the idea of ever getting this close to imaging a black hole would have seemed impossible. Since black holes don’t emit light and are so small – observing them was – for a long time – thought to be something we would never be able to do.  We are in an era of science where the discoveries are completely blowing away our ideas of what is and isn’t impossible – and this is largely due to the work of many people.

It will help us understand different types of galaxies

My own studies focus on galaxies, so I find this particularly interesting. Some galaxies, like M87, have what is known as an ‘active galactic nucleus’. In other words, the black hole at the centre of the galaxy being ‘fed’ gas, stars, and other material through the disk surrounding it. This results in extremely large jets, being shot out from the central region surrounding the black hole. Since not all galaxies are active, having a measurement of an active black hole and – eventually when the Event Horizon Telescopes releases the image of our own, Milky Way galaxy’s black hole – a non-active black hole will help us understand the processes that create these Active Galactic Nuclei in a lot more detail.

800px-M87_jet
The galaxy M87, which contains the black hole shown in the image. M87 hosts an Active Galactic Nucleus. Credit: Hubble Space Telescope

We can use black holes to test gravity

Black holes were once only theoretical objects. They test our theories of gravity to the extreme.  Although observations within our own galaxy showed stars orbiting something that could only be a black hole, having a picture of a black hole event horizon, which matches up with simulations and theoretical predictions so well, is a good sign that these extreme objects exist. This image is a strong indicator that Einstein’s theory of general relativity – which is what we use to explain gravity – is correct.

International collaboration is the path forward for science

The idea of the ‘lone genius’ – people like Einstein, Newton and Da Vinci who were thought to have worked on their own on amazing theories, making amazing discoveries – is dying out. The type of questions that we are asking nowadays in science is far beyond the scope of a single, brilliant mind. Taking pictures of black holes, detecting faint gravitational waves, building the world’s largest radio interferometer (a type of telescope that works by linking up multiple receivers), and detecting subatomic particles require many people all working together. Our world is increasingly divided over racial, political, economic and national lines. These big projects show us that when we put our differences aside and work together – we can do impossible things.