Get off the big data partnership bandwagon
The Internet is a leveller, or so we imagined. Back in 2003, the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), in its Declaration of Principles, expressed a shared commitment to build a “people-centred, inclusive and development-oriented Information Society”. Partnerships, technology transfer and capacity building were seen as crucial for promoting global participation in the information society.
Little did we anticipate then that the Internet, a civilisational innovation with the potential to bring the world closer, would become a handmaiden of transnational capitalism. The lingua franca of the Internet today is about ‘free flow of data’, a flow on which the analytics for advertising that drive digital capitalism are predicated.
In a matter of a decade, the Internet paradigm has traversed a huge distance. From trade of physical goods (ecommerce) to that in cultural goods and cutting edge services such as cloud computing and software, the digital economy has come a long way. We have seen the power of platforms — Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon, the GAFA foursome — unleash market control that is unprecedented. While these companies have grown their own product ecosystems through Artificial Intelligence, monopsonies (single buyers) like Amazon are now drawing upon machine learning to offer digital intelligence services to less tech-savvy enterprises to implement AI technology. Through a combination of mobile phone networks, Internet of Things and cloud technologies, a handful of digital corporations are attempting to build intelligence infrastructure that is tipped to transform society in a profoundly systemic way.
With the exception of China, developing countries in the global south have been rather tardy in preparing for, or lacking in, the infrastructural, financial, knowledge and institutional wherewithal to enter into the new era of digital intelligence. This gap — often referred to glibly as the digital divide — has direct consequences for development in the digital age, with a new dependence on foreign corporations.
The ideas of technology transfer and capacity building in international development have proven to be a decoy for dominant economic actors in development to push market liberalisation. Corporation has always been the centrepiece in the political economy of ‘technology transfer’. For instance, in climate change agreements, technology transfers have implied liberalisation of foreign investment flows, compromising traditional knowledge systems and livelihoods in developing countries.
As the tour de force of the information age, the digital corporation finds new legitimacy in the soft diplomacy of the sustainable development goals. Partnerships (read foreign capital) are seen as key to the means of implementation, and ‘data for development’ pegged as the frontier issue.
An a priori conception of the digital as a market good lends ‘partnerships for data’ a neo-liberal validity for blatant marketisation. Smart cities are being crafted through corporate takeover of city data; a brutal regime of extraction from the poor is evident in unregulated fin-tech; bodies of migrants, women and refugees are becoming datafied points of surveillance; private billionaire philanthropy is proposing remote controlled micro-chip implants as innovations in female contraception; public education systems are being sold cloud software as management suites to monitor school level performance; and agriculture input markets are being manipulated by corporate behemoths controlling micro-local data on seeds and soil.
With every new technology, narratives of human progress have held out a new optimism. In the digital context, there is perhaps no more reason to be pessimistic than in previous technological paradigms. However, ‘data for development’ frameworks obscure the foundational question about social value: Is the data partnership contributing to sustainable development in the sense of wellbeing of life and livelihoods? Is it delivering value for individual and collective needs and rights rather than for public or private finance alone?
Current trajectories of the network-data world foreclose the possibility of seeing data and intelligence as non-market, social goods. The misplaced nomenclature of the ‘black box’, used in the case of algorithms, perpetuates the myth of ungovernability, making digital participation for the majority inherently restrictive and exploitative.
It is noteworthy that countries like China, Singapore and Canada are busying themselves with the necessary governance frameworks and investments for creating a new public architecture for digital intelligence, while countries like India are yet to apply themselves in this regard. The promised revolution will need the future proofing of digital technology for equity and social justice. A new global compact rooted in principles for an egalitarian Internet, data justice and algorithmic accountability is in order.
Anita Gurumurthy is executive director, IT for Change
The views expressed are personal