Coronavirus is a wake up call that humanity’s needs are not actually at the centre of global systems

Profile picture for user ddpreez By Derek du Preez March 25, 2020
Author of ‘Digital Democracy, Analogue Politics’, Nanjala Nyabola, spoke about the tension between citizen, state and corporations - which has been amplified by Coronavirus.

An image of the word COVID-19
(Image by Miguel Á. Padriñán from Pixabay )

Coronavirus - or more accurately, COVID-19 - is going to change the way the world operates forever. We are not going back to the old way of doing things and we as citizens, governments, companies, need to figure out what the ‘new normal’ looks like. 

Why? Because COVID-19 and the fallout from countrywide lockdowns and isolation, as well as the workarounds people and companies have had to deploy, have highlighted how precarious the global systems we have created are. Not only this, but it has also given people time to reflect about what is and isn’t working for them. 

What our ‘new world’ looks like, nobody really knows. But COVID-19 does feel like a reset and an opportunity to think about how we do things going forward. 

This was the consensus on the first day of TICTeC 2020, a conference that was due to be held this week in Reykjavik, Iceland, but due to the worsening global health crisis shifted online to a (very successful!) Zoom conference call. 

This week the keynote speaker, Nanjala Nyabola, author of ‘Digital Democracy, Analogue Politics’, was a real treat and privilege to listen to. Nyabola gave a very thoughtful presentation on the impact of technology on democracy, and vice versa, within the context of recent Kenyan political history. 

I won’t go into the specifics of that too much in this piece, as I’ve ordered Nyabola’s book and want to read it in full before commenting. That being said, I think Nyabola put forward some particularly interesting points about the impact of the Coronavirus - most notably that it’s a wake up call for citizens about the role we play in society. 

Nyabola said: 

[For a long time] we’ve been thinking about disruption, move fast and break things - and slowly and slowly we’ve been editing humanity out of these frameworks. How do we re-centre the human? COVID-19 is a wake-up call, it’s a reset, that we have built all of these systems without people. And now the people really need the systems to work and the systems don’t know how to work.

Society in a triangle

Nyabola explained that we should think about the role of technology, participation, democracy and society in terms of a triangle - where at the top you’ve got the State, in the bottom right you’ve got the Citizen, and in the bottom left you’ve got the Corporations. 

She said that in an ideal world you’d have a balance between the three, a healthy tension between the three points of the triangle. However, when that balance is out of whack, that’s when problems arise. Nyabola explained: 

Once one point of the triangle has far more power than the others, then you start to get these challenges that play up in the democratic space. 

That’s what’s happened in Kenya. We went through a process whereby the citizen had taken the lead in using technology and incorporating technology into public participation, to the point we are at now where the state and the corporations are almost in collusion with each other. They have way too much power and it becomes difficult for a citizen to have a voice and be represented in society. 

The questions we are asking ourselves now about COVID-19 play into this - what’s the point of being in a society? What’s the point if your state is paying more attention to the interests of a corporation than it is to the interests of the citizen? I think that underpins a lot of the conversations we are having right now about civic tech.

We are entering a moment whereby the people building the technology have a tremendous amount of power in the legislative space, in the participation space, in the representation space. And the people who are legislating the state are more responsive to corporations than they are to citizens. It’s disrupting our lives.

Ownership and citizens

Nyabola said, for example, if there were to be a moment where a British PR company decided to use a social media platform to develop hate speech and target a Kenyan election, with the intent of misinforming the Kenyan electorate, resulting in violence. What is the course of action she would have as a Kenyan citizen? Nyabola said: 

The social media companies are responsive to an American shareholder, who is responsive to an American legislator, and is governed by the American state. Where do I come in? What can I vote on? I can’t. I don’t own any shares in the company. For me, it’s coming back to the fundamentals, it’s about balance.

Again, Nyabola said that COVID-19 is serving a reminder about ownership and responsibility and how vulnerable nations and citizens are when something disrupts - or goes wrong - in our global economy. 

Ownership is a key issue. Again, I’m thinking about the COVID-19 situation and I’m thinking we are going to need a bunch of respirators in Kenya soon. And we don’t make respirators. In fact, nobody in Africa makes respirators. And African countries are about to experience this rise in cases, what are we going to do when Germany says we are not going to export anymore respirators? And China says we can’t make them fast enough and the US says we’re not going to make them fast enough? 

This is an analogy to what’s happening in the tech space. African countries are not building the platforms. We are end users, we are consumers. The challenge with ownership becomes, how can I as a citizen have my rights and interests protected when I don’t have any say?

And Nyabola said that she’s very deliberate about using the word ‘citizen’ within this context, as it has more weight than the terms ‘user’ or ‘consumer’. And she believes that we need to think about our ‘new normal’ within the context of the ‘citizen’. She said: 

The point I want to underscore is about the word ‘citizen’. I think it’s important for us to be deliberate about using the word ‘citizen’. Not consumer and not user. I think ‘citizen’ recognises that as human beings there’s a political context in which we are adopting this technology and using this technology. Citizens have rights, citizens have obligations. Consumers are passive. Consumers receive. Consumers are only valuable because they have a monetary contribution.

My take

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly the piece of advice I’d give off the back of Nyabola’s presentation. There are a lot of ideas here and the reason I think they are important to highlight is because I think they underpin a lot of what people are feeling right now. I think we are going to come out of the COVID-19 pandemic having gone through a period of serious reflection - one we haven’t been afforded the space to have for a while. What was working for us before and how do we want to operate going forward? I don’t want this to become about nationalism and populism, which is the risk. However, I do think companies, states and citizens should be thinking about value, purpose and the principles they want to guide our new future. Companies that don’t understand that things have changed have missed a trick. I think citizens already get it.