Innovation is as old as human civilisation. What has changed fundamentally is the speed, scale, and penetration of technological progress. Once it was slow, piecemeal, vulnerable and often localised. Today it is fast, systematic, constant, and global.
Change is so fast that the way people live, work, and play, rather than taking several generations to change, can now change several times in a single generation. One human generation contains numerous technological generations.
For instance, there are plenty of older people who recall when ‘paperwork’ was not a metaphor for office drudgery, but a daily fact of life. If personal computers were humans, then the oldest amongst them would be barely middle-aged, yet their impact and reach have revolutionised the world.
Today, the smartphone in your pocket is less phone and more supercomputer. In fact, thanks to the more than trillion-fold increase in processing power since the mid-20th century, it is significantly more powerful than all of NASA’s computers at the time of the moon landings.
If the World Wide Web were a human, it would be a millennial, and the most established social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter would barely have hit puberty
And then there is the way we connect with the world and each other. If the World Wide Web were a human, it would be a millennial, and the most established social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter would barely have hit puberty. Despite their youth, these platforms host hundreds of millions of people. In fact, with its 2.2 billion users, Facebook has a ‘population’ greater than any country in the world.
This means that the only thing we can be sure about the future is that it will, in many ways, be radically different from the present - and that not only our children, but also we ourselves will occupy a very different world even a few years from now.
High tech North Africa: the human cost of failure
Despite the undoubted advantages innovation and entrepreneurship offer North Africa [described in Claire Spencer’s essay], we must curb our enthusiasm with doses of reality. First, it is essential to recognise that new technologies are not a panacea for the region’s myriad challenges. Even in the best-case scenario, in which North Africa constructs an innovation-friendly ‘ecosystem’ and takes maximum advantage of the available opportunities, it is unlikely to make a significant dent in the enormous levels of unemployment and under-employment which plague a region where one in four young people have no job.
There is a chance that investing in high tech, with its capital-intensive nature, could end up destroying more jobs in the region than it creates
In fact, there is a chance that investing in high tech, with its capital-intensive nature, could end up destroying more jobs in the region than it creates. Although technological change has historically created more jobs than it has dispatched to the dustbin of history, at least in developed economies, this looks set to change as automation outpaces our ability to create meaningful numbers of new jobs. Although the majority of automation is likely to occur in high-income countries, this has a knock-on effect further down the income scale, as imports of more labour-intensive products and outsourcing dry up. This may be particularly devastating on North Africa, whose manufacturing sectors have already been ravaged by low-cost competition from Asia and especially China, with its low labour costs, economies of scale, and vast internal market.
Moreover, the egalitarian, upwardly mobile image of new tech is, at certain levels, deceptive. Although there is still some space for a feisty innovator to start from nothing and build something world class, the barriers to entry and success are becoming ever higher.
Unemployment, inequality, and the repressive apparatus required to maintain privileges for the few, were major factors behind the revolutionary wave which spread through the region and has been seen most recently in Algeria and Sudan. If new technologies exacerbate this situation by widening inequalities, or by not creating enough decent jobs, or both, then repression may increase. Even in Tunisia, where a vibrant democracy has been constructed at remarkable speed, the future is highly uncertain if average economic welfare is not enhanced.
Futuristic utopia or dystopia?
New technologies were widely credited for helping facilitate revolution, especially in Tunisia and Egypt. While this is sometimes overstated, its ability to foment counter-revolution is too often under-appreciated. “It’s like a game of cat and mouse,” explains Wafa Ben-Hassine, North Africa policy lead at Access Now, which defends the digital rights of users at risk. “Repressive regimes will continue to react, reuse, and recycle. And social movement advocates will continue to adopt new technologies to fit their purpose.”
The region’s autocracies are not only harnessing social media for propaganda, they are also purchasing sophisticated snooping technology to keep a closer eye on citizens, journalists, dissidents, and opposition figures
Although activists are finding ever more creative and innovative ways to widen the scope of freedom, the region’s autocracies are not only harnessing social media for propaganda, they are also purchasing sophisticated snooping technology to keep a closer eye on citizens, journalists, dissidents, and opposition figures.
While the data held by tech giants erodes privacy and raises human rights concerns for people everywhere, this is even more true in repressive regimes, where such information can lead to imprisonment, or worse.
This is not meant as a condemnation of tech innovation and entrepreneurship, but as a caution against unrealistic expectations. Too much utopian thinking may at best deliver disappointment, and at worst a dystopian future.
If no effective framework is developed to tackle inequality, then the situation is unlikely to improve significantly. New tech and innovation need to be seen as part of a broader sustainable development strategy designed to meet the specific realities of the region, not an end in themselves.
Khaled Diab, award-winning journalist and author of ‘Islam for the Politically Incorrect’ (2017) and ‘Intimate Enemies’ (2014)