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Human Rights and Fourth Industrial Revolution

Published Dec 12, 2021


The paradox of 4IR - the more things advance the more inequalities worsen

06/08/2015. Tshwane Metro Police Department executive director Console Tleane who has been falsely accused of lying about his tertiary qualification. Picture: Oupa Mokoena


The appearance this week in front of a United States Congress Committee (the equivalent of our parliamentary portfolio committee) by the leadership of Instagram to account for assertions that the photo-sharing platform is harmful to the mental health of teen users, has highlighted the paradox of some of the technological platforms that have revolutionised our lives.

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The very fact that this writer can learn about the Instagram story, try to make sense of what it may mean for us and draw some parallels, write this review, and submit it without having set foot in Washington or the offices of this newspaper is a demonstration of the many benefits of what has come to be known as the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR).

Thanks to the world of computers, the internet of things, satellite communications and many other network platforms, we can communicate and undertake many activities with relative ease compared to thirty years ago.

The onset of Covid-19 has propelled the world to use available communications capabilities and extract even more value from them. Who would have thought that we could literally work from home and yet still be productive, as many organisations are now doing since the first lockdowns? And therein lie the benefits, marvels, paradoxes, contradictions, and even potential harms of 4IR.

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For many enthusiasts, particularly the elites, 4IR has only brought benefits that allow humankind to expand the bounds of technological capabilities. Critics include both conservatives and left-leaning activists. We need not waste our time with conservative critics.

Most of their articulations are based on unproven conspiracies, the latest and most notorious being the outlandish claim that Fifth Generation (5G) network technologies are responsible for the spread of the Coronavirus. How electromagnetic waves may transmit biological particles defeats all logic!

It is left-leaning criticisms that have made sensible contributions to the debate on how we may engage with the 4IR, and how we may address the inherent negative effects of this human innovation. It is within this broad spectrum of views that the book, Human Rights and the Fourth Industrial Revolution in South Africa, by Rachel Adams and other writers has to be located, approached and understood.

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The book illustrates how 4IR presents both benefits while also placing challenges on the doorsteps of policy makers. Let’s take the example of call centres. Some of the countries in the Global South, particularly South Africa and India, have welcomed the relocation of the call-centres from the North to their shores, with the claim that these moves create employment opportunities.

What is often ignored is that such moves have resulted in massive job cuts in the North. The new workers in the Global South on the other hand are absorbed into a system based on precarity of work – low wages and no full-time contracts. They may not demand better wages because the hiring firms may simply migrate the call centres to other countries that offer better employment regimes for the employers.

It is arguably in the area of privacy and the security of peoples’ information that many may realise the human rights concerns raised by the onset of 4IR and Artificial Intelligence. The ubiquitousness of network technology and its ability to collect data on everyone and everything has made the predictions in George Orwell’s dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four sound like a Sunday school read.

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To say that ‘big brother is watching us’ is now the under-statement of the millennium. Our every move both physically (look around how many CCTV cameras you pass daily) and digitally is under 24-hour surveillance.

What makes the whole situation scary is that the companies that survey us are mainly multi-nationals. We have little recourse against them, unlike national intelligence agencies that we may still hold to account, whether through legal means or political pressure and protest.

Whereas some may correctly support the use of surveillance technologies in tracking down criminals, and we must admit that in many cases this has indeed helped, it is the abuse of the same technologies that is of concern.

Stories abound of how political opponents, especially those on the left of the political spectrum, are often subjected to illegal surveillance made possible by network technologies. The same capabilities have been minefields for private security companies and private investigators who, as we know, do everything for money and nothing else.

Despite the many downsides that have raised the concern of human rights activists, the emergence of 4IR technologies has also facilitated some of the defining moments in the expression of rights in recent times.

Communities that would have ordinarily struggled to organise themselves through expensive traditional modes have been able to do so cheaply, also reaching wider audiences than it would have been the case thirty years ago.

Examples include the Black Lives Matter, Me-Too, and Rhodes Must Fall movements, which were not only able to reach their own communities but found footprints internationally.

At the same time as activists have been able to use network technologies to advance progressive causes, right-wing elements have used the same platforms to propagate racism and other forms of bigotry that they would ordinarily not be able to advocate openly. This they do through online platforms where they can hide their true identities but still reach their supporters.

Of concern also is the fact that the benefits of 4IR and Artificial Intelligence have all but widened the socio-economic disparities within many societies.

The poor no longer suffer from only material want. They are now deprived of the benefits to communicate and express themselves, while the middle classes and the rich enjoy the benefits of a world whose physical boundaries have all collapsed.

We may rephrase the old adage and now say: the more things advance the more inequalities remain the same, if not worse.

Human Rights and the Fourth Industrial Revolution in South Africa is published by the HSRC Press and can be purchased from bookstores or online outlets.

It retails for R240.