Felistus Mbole a member of our Emerging Fellows program inspects the dual role of technology in her seventh blog post. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.
We are living in a technological era like no other. The latest forms of internet and communication technology has made the world a global village. People can connect in real time across the globe. It is only three decades since the worldwide web came into being and roughly half of the global population has internet access according to UN’s International Telecommunication Union (ITU). Technology today is synonymous with internet and digital connectivity. Our lives have become so centred around internet connectivity and the opportunities that this creates. It is hard to image life without digital communication. Will this new wave of technology quench or fuel capitalism?
The connectedness through digital technology has had clear benefits for society. Digital technology has possibly brought greater development than any other technology before it. It has enabled unprecedented levels of communication and the accompanying economic, political and social benefits. For instance, more people in Africa today have access to mobile phones than electricity. Mobile money is becoming a way of life for many, with about half of Kenya’s GDP estimated to be driven by it. This said, a significant digital divide, that is the gap between people who are digitally connected and those who are not, exists. The main reason for this digital divide is the cost of access in terms of data or airtime and the digital devices. Other reasons are poor connectivity and lack of digital skills.
Technology has long been established as a key driver of income inequality. In the emerging digital global economy, the economic gap between those digitally left behind and the owners of the technology is growing. The benefits of digital technology seem to be consolidated in the hands of a few. Digital technology has the power to change the market structure in a manner unlike any other technology. Disruptive digital innovations have changed the functioning of markets, resulting in the emergence of new dominant players with substantial long-term rents. Copyrights and intellectual properties out of these innovations give innovators an edge that their competitors cannot easily bridge. It is a case of the winner taking it all, at least in the short-term. The impact of digital technology on society has been profound. Six of those on the Forbes list of top ten billionaires globally have made their wealth out of digital technology. They have mined their wealth out of data, the new oil.
Data is the lifeline of global capitalism today. It is the oil that lubricates the current economy. A lot more data traverses the globe each day than goods and services combined. Big data companies such as Google and Facebook collect huge amounts of data from the population at minimal cost and sell it to others at a fortune. The data collected from the public can be used to improve services and products, making them more targeted and relevant. It can be used by security agents to fight crime and terrorism. Data has also been used to monitor and manage health related challenges. Data has however, been used to predict behaviour and worse still, to nudge human behaviour into the most profitable outcomes for business. Shoshana Zuboff terms this kind of data usage ‘surveillance capitalism’. It is not about the clients but centred on the business, promoting capitalism. Initially, it was individuals under surveillance. Now it is communities and soon it will be the whole of society.
Based on the current trajectory, technology will fuel capitalism even further in future. The progression towards a more connected world and artificial intelligence will generate massive amounts of data. This will present greater opportunities for capitalism and promote higher levels of inequality if unchecked. We are likely to see emergence of more stringent data protection regulations in future in an effort to guard against abuse of data. Innovation is good for the economy. Appropriate tax and innovation policies can help make the benefits of technology more inclusive. These could act to quench the fire of capitalism.
© Felistus Mbole, 2019