Trust in Allah and tether your camel
The ability to communicate facilitated cooperation. Language re-enforced cooperation and gave early humans the evolutionary advantage allowing them to dominate their competitors. It engendered trust among individuals, enabling them to develop the institutions, monetary systems, and technologies resulting in our mastery over the natural world. Now human evolution has reached the tipping point where trust is no longer intrinsic to societal processes. Crypto-currencies and blockchains, for example, are marketed as repositories of monetary value and methods offering trust-free transactions.
Digital technologies are reordering society, eroding trust in our institutions, and short-circuiting faith in traditional sources of information. They challenge the authority of formal education, making it possible to revise the historical record and subvert commonly accepted facts. Software and invisible algorithms can now restore the bodies to dead bones, recreate artifacts from the past, and conjure up alternate realities.
For those who came of age during the decades preceding these changes, the changes appear to undermine how we engage with our friends, society, and the wider world around us. If for those coming of age during the spread of the Internet and mobile phones it was not a major problem, now it is.
The art of persuasion has been turned into the new science of attention capture. Community is no longer a function of physical proximity as individuals gravitate into mimetic tribes fronting a multiplicity of competing claims, interests, goals, and organizations. Society’s culture wars thrive in these conditions, fuelling political polarization and lowering the threshold for conspiracy theories and extreme ideologies. Politicians exploit information tunnels and echo chambers. Bytes travelling at high speeds maximize short bursts of communication and ephemeral images lacking context. Eyes on screen degrade our ability to make nuanced observations and compete with complex ideas in our minds.
Critics like Yuval Hariri claim humans are caught in an evolutionary arms race pitting our declining cognitive capacity and shrinking brains against the rising robotic master race. Many other observers share his concerns about the power of data-driven technology concentrated in a few powerful entities. The disruptive power of artificial intelligence demonstrated by basic language models like Chat GTP has already prompted scientists and programmers to call for a pause in their development. What begins with a decline in trust will end with the loss of human agency.
The rise of artificial general intelligence offers a great leap in efficiency and scientific advancement unimaginable until recently. This is just the beginning. In a recent interview the veteran technology tracker Kevin Kelly pronounced that the “long-term effects of AI will affect our society to a greater degree than electricity and fire.”
Into the global info jungle
Two decades ago, the prophets of digital progress told us that the new technologies would bring us together, freeing us from physical constraints while liberating our creative talents. The world was shrinking, encouraging us to believe Marshall McLuhan’s global village was at hand. It was, but the village turned out to be not the friendly place we assumed it would be. It is actually a sprawling city with all manner of good and bad neighbourhoods, high tech and legacy infrastructure, parks and dangerous dark spaces. An increasingly compressed and still diverse population inhabits this mega-village, and the great majority display essentially the same peasant mentality as the generations past who brought us to this juncture.
Where technology was formerly regarded as neutral among those living on its cutting edge, now it is regarded as an indispensable public good. It needs to be embraced if the peasants are to remain competitive and enjoy the benefits of the global mega-village. The digital ecology is actually a jungle with many unseen dangers. Scams abound. Hustlers scan the media looking for dubious partisan stories for transplanting into the mainstream. The capacity to deceive is outpacing the implementation of corrective measures.
The technology industry and its commercial partners are, of course, keenly aware of the problem. Digital disruptions arising across sectors from health and education to commerce and banking led researchers to develop the technology acceptance model (TAM). Meta analyses and multiple studies identify perceived usefulness and perceived ease of use as the two main variables influencing adoption. Trust ranks lower, a complementary factor that varies across sectors and applications.
Where technology was formerly regarded as neutral among those living on its cutting edge, now it is regarded as an indispensable public good.
I would add place. Technology adoption is a longstanding concern in this region of the mega-village. For decades Africa’s low level of technological progress figured prominently in Western developmental narratives. My professor of soil science, a veteran of many years of research in Zambia and Malawi, drove this point home by showing us a slide with some 40 kinds of short-handle hoes. The short handle hoe never made sense to me, but to this mzee’s credit, he avoided generalizing offering any judgements on what he framed as the diversity of agricultural practice.
It is true African technology adoption has lagged due to a constellation of factors including cost, maintenance and support systems, cultural appropriateness, and the inconsistency of expected behaviours of the humans in government and leadership positions. In some cases, like the adoption of industrial monocultural farming, this has been a blessing for the environment. The coming of the digital age buried any notions about Africans being somehow averse to technology change.
After a slow start (for those who remember the 071 numbers), Kenya surpassed the expectations of investors at the time of the roll-out of the first mobile networks in 1999. The projected 300,000 mobile phone lines turned out to be 900,000 in use after one year. This doubled after a year, and now Kenya mobile line penetration is calculated to be 119 per cent. The launch of Mpesa mobile money in 2005 accelerated growth and employment in the new economic sectors, contributing to Kenya’s number one world ranking for financial inclusion. Within several years mobile money comprised half of the country’s GDP.
The mobile phone also spawned a new generation of con artists. I suspect very few people did not fall at least once into the traps they set. Safaricom upped its customer service and users got smarter. We still get those dodgy messages, but online loan and gambling apps are a far greater problem.
The issue of trust has come to the forefront as the digital ecology penetrates every corner of the global mega-village. Many sincere and normally intelligent people are concerned about these trends as us villagers cope and adjust to life in the new jungle. Five years ago an article in a leading journal of science declared that trust is the internet’s next frontier. It cited the unreliability of online information, the manipulation of social media, and the loss of privacy and protection for digital data. A study based on a sample of 42 countries confirmed that the decline is global.
The problem transcends the digital sphere. Like an infectious disease, the loss of confidence in information is just a symptom. It is contaminating everything. During a recent Ramadhan podcast, for example, a participant asked the scholars: “When the angel of death comes to take our souls how will we know it is not fake?”
Not too long ago we would have asked, “Who is this miro?” But it was a North American.
Trust is defined as the willingness of a party to be vulnerable to the actions of another party based on expectations of the latter’s behaviour. Online trust, in contrast, is developed through use: the individual’s interactions with online information systems. The more we use it, the more we trust it. The decline in the former is linked to the spread of surveillance technology. CCTV cameras, facial recognition software, and unregulated tapping of phone data and tracing in turn lower the baseline for trust in human behaviour. Threats real and perceived, terrorism and the coronavirus pandemic, have accelerated governments’ capacity to monitor citizens. The impression conveyed by all of this is that our online interactions are inversely related to our trust in fellow humans.
“When the angel of death comes to take our souls how will we know it is not fake?”
Kenya is no exception. According to World Value Survey data, Kenya ranks low in interpersonal trust and trust in institutions. Because the baseline referred to above was already low, it provides an interesting comparison to the Western world, where the invasion of privacy and implications for human rights has provoked a backlash.
For a person like myself, arriving from a high-trust environment, the trust deficit in Kenya was obvious. When I was growing up, the only time we locked up our house was when we went on overnight trips or vacations. I saw locks on telephones and refrigerators for the first time in Kenya. My friends kept their chequebooks under lock and key, citing the mischief of teenage sons. I wondered at the uniquely designed signatures, unreadable as a name but equally hard to forge.
Transactional relations tended to be problematic, even with friends and colleagues: loans were forgotten, contracts not honoured, and sworn promises did not hold water. People I highly valued disappeared over minor issues. I also found that these problems were often more due to situational than ethical issues. Differential terms and conditions applied. One had to be alert, savvy, and over time norms of reciprocity usually compensated. You might suffer some short-term losses, but participating in this system generated useful repositories of social capital. There were other upsides.
Attitudes towards information proved to be the more perplexing dilemma. Instead of flowing freely, information was controlled by some invisible cultural algorithm. Reputable sources and even scientific truths were not accepted at face value. Books and magazines once borrowed never returned. When taking an interest in a new book in my possession, the first thing people would do was peruse the acknowledgements and credits. Newspapers were both shared and hoarded. Most wananchi displayed a healthy thirst for knowledge, many of the educated stopped reading books after graduating from secondary school. Inattention to detail could be deadly, details intentionally withheld even more toxic.
When asked, strangers would always respond generously, with large margins of error. Simple questions received perpendicular responses. Sometimes the answer would be buried in a puzzle of peripheral facts; sometimes it was a cat-and-mouse game. Replies reiterated the question as statement.
For example: I go to my friend’s shop, don’t see him, and ask: “Koome yuko wapi?”
“Koome hayuko hapa.” Koome is not here.
Again, there was an underlying template at work. I lost count of the number of times I asked for directions and the bystander took me by the hand or jumped in the car to guide me to my destination. Some of the informational non sequiturs were intentional, many stemmed from different orientations and methods for accessing information. I became highly invested in human sources and networks: baraza discussions, neighbourhood grapevines, conversations in matatus and with taxi drivers. Radios attracted small crowds who redistributed the info.
Instead of flowing freely, information was controlled by some invisible cultural algorithm.
My breakthrough moment came when I realized information was a commodity, something to be stored, husbanded, and re-allocated parsimoniously as needed. In the post-colonial environment, it was not the near-unlimited public good I had mistakenly assumed it to be.
The coming of the internet qualified both of these qualities. In his 2013 book, Who Owns the Future, Jaron Lanier, exposed how the free flow of information has enabled a small number of strategically placed players to hoover up and use our data without acknowledging ownership. A decade later nothing has changed. A handful of American and Chinese tech giants own the servers.
AGI and Africa’s upside
The new digital ecology was a black swan. We could not predict the problems it wrought although they appeared obvious enough after the fact. This is not the case for the coming of Artificial General Intelligence. Weak or narrow AI is designed to do specific tasks; AGI is trained to replicate human learning and problem solving.
Countless works of science fiction have explored future AGI scenarios, I Robot; 2001: A Space Odessey; Neuromancer; Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Non-fiction titles have joined them more recently: Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow; Artificial Intelligence: A Modern Approach; Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies; The Economic Singularity; Deep Learning. Before that, movies based on books like Blade Runner, The Matrix, Ex Machina, and Westworld introduced AI scenarios to wider audiences.
In 2018 Stephen J. Hawking warned that AI will either be the best thing that’s ever happened to us, or it will be the worst thing. He and others like Yuval Harari observe that unlike the rapid progress realised since the adoption of deep learning based on neural networks, humans are constrained by the slow pace of biological evolution. This was given substance in an analysis appearing in the Journal Computers and Society, which concluded that over the longer-term evolution will favour AI over humans.
The free flow of information has enabled a small number of strategically placed players to hoover up and use our data without acknowledging ownership.
This brings us to the concept of the singularity, the irreversible point when super-intelligent machines transcend human intelligence. The term, first used by the Hungarian-American mathematician, John von Neumann in 1958, went mainstream with the publication of a book by Ray Kurzweil that predicted we could reach the singularity by 2045. There is nothing in the roll-out of AGI language models since last year to significantly challenge these hypotheses.
I grew up anti-robot. My favourite comic book was Magnus, Robot Fighter, and nothing has changed my instincts. My distrust of Safaricom is based on experience; my iPhone’s brain is already too independent. My Chinese phone is an Android phone and TikTok is non grata. Having said that, I think the impact of AI will be positive for Africa. It should follow the pathway of digital technologies, which have been a communications life saver, leap-frogging many of the problems I mentioned. There are, of course, risks and considerations. If digital tech has opened up some of the minds crippled by Kenya’s rigid education system, AI may replace them.
The continent has been catching up, mobile telephony is removing bottlenecks, improving life in rural areas, and mitigating the isolation of Africa’s remote and wide-open spaces. Africa has been on the sidelines of digital technology and AI development. The usual biases are showing up in the developed world’s algorithms and the parade of misinformation.
This may be only a temporary problem. Being on the periphery of technological change has its benefits. There is time to get it right and our guys are somehow good at doing things differently.
I trust in Africa’s upside in this increasingly mechanical era. There is something about the embedded assymetries, the mish-mash colours, imprecise angles and architecture, and the resilience that comes with that deep trust in human nature. As my brothers in Lamu are fond of saying, Kitu kimetengezwa na binadamu hakishindi akili ya watu. Information is a human invention.
Being on the periphery of technological change has its benefits.
At the onset of the industrial revolution the poet William Blake preached the gospel of human imagination to resist the march of the new infernal machines and satanic mills. Maybe this optimism comes from watching Chappie and District Nine, or listening to too much jazz.
Let us tether the camels, trust in Allah, and put faith in the record of human adaptation. The informational gaps and disconnects, the cock-ups and rip-offs, the scams, the political economy of lies and tricksters, and all those preventable problems feeding the This is Africa meme—they have all contributed to our adaptive fitness.
Africa is the land of non-linear evolution. If this continent, as many of us believe, is the future, that is good news for the human race—at least until the sexbots pass the Turing test.