Is Big Tech Setting Africa Back?

Is Big Tech Setting Africa Back?

Data colonialism is rampant on the African continent. Smart regulation can stop it.

Technology transcends national borders, so it shouldn’t be surprising that, in 2020, private technology and telecommunication companies control more data on the average person than governments do. And it’s not just data ownership: Policymakers similarly fall behind in understanding the power of data. That’s a problem, particularly as social media platforms are able to influence political outcomes with few to no repercussions and geopolitics becomes a duopoly of technological trailblazers like the United States and China, with the rest of the world looking on as spectators—and reluctant participants.

The coronavirus pandemic has moved many people’s lives online and demonstrated the revolutionary power of technology in driving economic growth despite physical stasis—whether in e-commerce, continuing employment for those able to work digitally, or virtual schooling. This dramatic shift wouldn’t have been possible without artificial intelligence (AI) embedded within now-essential services like Alexa, Siri, and Zoom.

Artificial intelligence is usually talked about in sensationalist terms. But hyperbolic language can mask simple business truths: AI capabilities—understanding everything from shopping habits to future careers or propensity for criminality—will only ever be as good as the datasets that feed them and, without diverse data sets, the ability to innovate and enhance existing AI functionalities is limited. The de facto U.S.-China AI duopoly doesn’t accurately represent the cross-cutting, global consumer bases tech companies serve; for the game to go on, spectators need to pitch in—lest they lose their pastime.