Digital Economy

The Next Billion Users and the Future of the Digital Economy

In an interview with Kai-fu Lee, the former executive at Apple and Microsoft, ex-president of Google China and prominent venture capitalist and AI expert is asked to give advice to startups in Europe hoping to forge a path alongside global tech giants from the US and China. He suggests that, “if you want to experiment, find some truly underdeveloped country where there is nothing [my emphasis] and try your idea there.”

The Global South have long been framed in colonial terms and clearly continues to be so. The empty or vacant land theory was propagated by the European colonizers to justify the seizure and systemic exploitation of sovereign countries and their people. Some tech evangelists and media outlets continue to evoke this rhetoric to emphasize the so called major disruption of technological innovation. Sugata Mitra, the Ed Tech guru and winner of the TED prize has for the last decade emphasized local communities in developing countries as a void so remote and so devastating that any intervention is a godsend. For instance, when Mitra’s team was criticized because their tech experiments did not produce deep learning, they responded defensively by stating that, “we are describing a part of our planet where children with nothing [my emphasis] other than a street-side computer, are able to answer tests on their own. They have no teachers or educational support from their parents or anyone else in the community…”

In May 2019, The Economist released their weekly issue featuring on their cover “The new scramble for Africa” with a byline that read, “…this time, the winners could be Africans themselves.” The language of “scrambling” for land in terms of winners and losers perpetuates a people-less territory ripe for carving, masking the actual bloodied history. The popular usage of the metaphor of data as the “new oil” or data “mining” is inadvertently shaping our discourses on the data economy in terms that are dangerously reminiscent of the colonial past – where the focus is on the data and not on the people who create and consume that data.

Another colonial theory is the infantilism of the natives that require paternalistic enabling for them to progress. In my 2016 UNESCO commissioned research on contemporary digital innovation for emerging economies, several tech start-ups designing applications for social good positioned their innovations as completely autonomous and all-inclusive, and moreover, as legitimate alternatives to “failed” institutions like schools and other vital social agencies. Apparently, the Global South awaits for these tech messiahs to rescue them while amidst their institutional corpses.

The media and the tech industry at large are waking up to the fact that the next billion users are emerging from the Global South and can significantly change the future landscape of the digital economy. The game of commodifying people and vacating of territory begins all over again. All the more reason why we need to move ahead with much caution before we become complicit in feeding certain myths: fictions such as how these users are overtly utility-driven and instrumental in their usage (a major expectation driving funding agencies), that they don’t care about their privacy, that they are far more self-driven and self-organized than “us” in the West and hence can do without conventional institutions, and that they are intrinsically communal, continue to circulate and shape the imagination of many tech corporations, aid agencies, and state actors.

I have argued in my new book The Next Billion Users that if innovation continues to be framed along these lines, then what the global poor need is less innovation. If innovation is a proxy for pilot projects that uses these communities as blank slates, they are better off without them. They should not be guinea pigs for new technology. The simple fact that a given technology is novel should not in itself be a reason to use it to experiment on these people. No new technology can be a stand-alone solution. Without motivated communities, no technology will succeed. The global poor have long been used as test subjects for socio-technical experiments. They are approached in the same way as patients for an experimental clinical trial who have run out of all conventional options—as people who have nothing to lose.

It is more likely that they had few genuine choices to start with. The failure to provide real options to the poor can occur in spite of major commitments by a nation to reduce the social inequalities. Fixing institutions is not an easy or a quick task. Scarce resources, political turmoil, and discriminatory cultural practices are just some of the many obstacles. Sometimes poor nations, driven by national pride, choose shortcuts out of an urgency to “catch up”— hoping that technological innovations will magically erase long- standing inequalities.

Why are failed institutional reforms so unforgivable, while failed technologies are viewed as acceptable trajectories for innovation? This mindset can be tremendously debilitating for communities who need to persist and leverage on new technologies in ways that are often more incremental than astronomical, more marginal than central to social reform. Far from nothingness, we have a complex and rich history of social resilience that should form the basis for envisioning the future of the digital economy with the rise of the next billion users

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