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.

My reactions to the 6th IPCC Assessment Report

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is the United Nations body for assessing the science related to climate change. The IPCC was created in 1988 by the World Meteorological Organization(WMO) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), with the objective of providing governments with scientific information that they can use to develop climate policies. They do this by providing assessment reports of the scientific basis of climate change every 6-7 years.

Thousands of leading climate scientists from all over the world contribute to these assessment reports. These scientists volunteer their time to contribute to the IPCC reports by assessing the thousands of scientific papers published each year. As a result, they provide a comprehensive summary of what is known about the drivers of climate change, its impacts, and future risks, and how adaptation and mitigation can reduce those risks. 

These assessment reports provide a culmination of years of peer reviewed research, making them particularly valuable to myself: a young scientist and an individual who is interested in the topic of climate change. The report of Working Group I of the IPCC Climate Change 2021: the Physical Science Basis, was virtually approved by 195 member governments of the IPCC, and was published on the 9th of August 2021, consisting of 13 chapters and 3949 pages. This report was compiled by the Working Group I, which addresses the most up-to-date physical understanding of the climate system and climate change. The report is the first part of the IPCC’s 6th Assessment Report which will be completed in 2022, bringing together the latest advances in climate science, and combining multiple lines of evidence from palaeoclimate (past climates), observations, process understanding, and global and regional climate simulations projecting future climates.

Within this comprehensive report are several headline statements from the Summary for Policy Makers. After reading the summary, I had some strong reactions as a climate PhD student and decided to record and share them. The headline statements are found here. I provide my reaction to some of the statements I found particularly important.


Statement:

Reaction: The use of the word unequivocal is important to me. A Google search of the word unequivocal, “leaving no doubt; unambiguous” demonstrates that there is “no doubt” that human influence has done the warming. Apart from Google, the word unequivocal has a special meaning in the IPCC language: it points directly to how the IPCC quantifies and engages with uncertainty, agreement, confidence, and evidence. One of the most progressive aspects of the IPCC is the use of language and how they quantify and engage with uncertainty. According to the glossary of terms within the report, uncertainty “is a state of incomplete knowledge that can result from a lack of information or from disagreement about what is known or even knowable”. Therefore, the use of unequivocal demonstrates clearly that there is no doubt of our responsibility to warming of global systems. My reaction to the statement is not one of surprise, more of satisfaction that the climate change denialists have no ground on which to stand. Secondary to this, the changes that humans have caused have occurred in all global spheres essential to life on earth, having a complete global influence.

Statement:

Reaction: The word unprecedented has been used far too often in the recent past. This statement creates a lot of anxiety and uncertainty, leading me to ask many questions of the future. How will humanity cope with unprecedented changes in the climate system when we are currently facing an unprecedented global pandemic? Is the world prepared to face and be able to adapt to the scale of changes across the climate system? Which communities will be most or least affected, and in what areas? 

Statement

Reaction: This statement makes me fearful towards those who may be affected by these extreme weather events. My fear extends not only for myself and my family, but to millions of people and communities as I imagine that these extreme events will be far reaching. It also points out that extreme events are not that extreme after all, but events that will likely occur more regularly in future. With respect to agriculture, I am worried that the food industry is too reliant weather systems that may become unreliable and unpredictable in future.

With respect to the natural world, the overall (direct) negative human influence on the natural world has been well documented. Issues of climate change caused by humans in the first place will again affect the natural world, just indirectly – through ecological droughts, heat extremes, floods and marine heatwaves as mentioned in the statement.  As a solution, both direct and indirect human impacts on the natural world should be addressed.

Statement:

Reaction: The cycle/system is self-perpetuating, i.e., increases in changes to the climate system will hinder the natural barriers against those changes, leading to further changes. The changes have the power to continue indefinitely. This statement is particularly important for my PhD. I am studying an extensive peatland deposit within the Angolan Highlands. Peatlands are an essential global carbon and methane sink. Within what is currently a self-perpetuating system, the ability of sinks to continue to function naturally becomes greatly diminished. In the case of peatlands, disturbance in the peatland functioning causes the ecosystem to become a greenhouse gas source, releasing both carbon and methane that has been locked away for millennia back into the atmosphere. Release of carbon and methane adds to the greenhouse effect, self-perpetuating the system.

Statement:

Reaction: This statement highlights again the progression and use of language by the IPCC, including their practices when dealing with levels of uncertainty. In the case of “low-likelihood outcomes”, such phenomena are highly unlikely to occur. This statement also leaves me with a word of caution, it may be the case that some literature should be challenged and that extreme examples such as ice sheet collapses, or abrupt ocean circulation changes are very unlikely to occur, but not impossible. This extends to possible headline statements of imminent catastrophes, and the responsibility of scientists and media to include within their reports and research a level  of certainty/ likelihood that this is that event will occur.

Statement:

Reaction: This statement provides me with hope, the question remains if we can reach such targets quickly enough. The work of the IPCC and climate scientists (and the IPCC) is invaluable, and their work and is becoming more and more a part of the human psyche and behaviour. The changes that have already occurred with such rapid pace during the global pandemic show how quickly humans can adapt and develop new behaviour. The use of the words strong and rapid will hopefully drive decision makers to act in a decisive way. The further we are educated to the benefits of solving this problem, the greater our collective impact will be.

Closing reaction: Reading the summary for policy makers has created a sense of pragmatism within me, I am hopeful that solutions and progress can be made practically without the need for too many more theoretical considerations. The IPCC and the peer-reviewed scientific literature with which they base these statements, are trustworthy. Continued report writing and research needs to be met with effective and practical solutions to this global crisis. If indeed we do not adjust our behaviour, or at least the policies with which we are governed do not change/ develop, the good work of the IPCC and climate change science may be in vain.