Algorithmic colonization. It is a term that isn’t widely used or known. However, it is something being done on the continent of Africa on a large scale. So what is the algorithmic colonization of Africa? One researcher explains.
Abeba Birhane, a cognitive science Ph.D. student at University College Dublin, Ireland and Lero, does a deep dive into the subject in a study published in “Scripted: A Journal of Law, Technology and Science.”
“While traditional colonialism is driven by political and government forces, algorithmic colonialism is driven by corporate agendas,” Birhane wrote.
Violence and “brute force” are replaced by state-of-the-art algorithms and AI (artificial intelligence) -driven solutions, the study states.
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Both traditional colonialism and the algorithmic kind have the goal of gaining power, dominion and wealth. However, algorithmic colonization does so under the guise of technological advancement and is less obvious to discern.
It’s what Birhane said drives the desire to maximize profits at any cost.
Knowledge, authority, and power to sort, categorize, and order human activity rests with the technologist, for which we are merely data-producing “human natural resources,” Birhane wrote.
She then provides a vivid example to drive her point home.
“In 2016 Facebook declared that it is creating a population density map of most of Africa using computer vision techniques, population data, and high-resolution satellite imagery. Facebook, in the process, assigned itself the authority responsible for mapping, controlling, and creating population knowledge of the continent. In doing so, not only does Facebook assume that the continent (its people, movement, and activities) are up for grabs for the purpose of data extraction and profit maximization, by creating the population map, Facebook also assumed authority over what is perceived as legitimate knowledge of the continent’s population. Statements such as “creating knowledge about Africa’s population distribution”, “connecting the unconnected”, and “providing humanitarian aid” served as justification for Facebook’s project. For many Africans this echoes old colonial rhetoric; “we know what these people need, and we are coming to save them. They should be grateful,” Birhane wrote.
Birhane further asserts that “much of Africa’s digital infrastructure and ecosystem is controlled and managed by Western monopoly powers such as Facebook, Google, Uber, and Netflix.” In short, the tech giants are exploiting the continent for monetary gain under the guise of helping it through technology.
Noting that some of the solutions that work in Western don’t parallel the same results in Sub-Saharan Africa, Birhane called algorithmic colonization harmful in some instances.
“The importing of AI tools made in the West by Western technologists may not only be irrelevant and harmful due to lack transferability from one context to another but also is an obstacle that hinders the development of local products. … The West’s algorithmic invasion simultaneously impoverishes development of local products while also leaving the continent dependent on its software and infrastructure,” Birhane wrote.
She added, “Silicon Valley’s tech start-ups can be found in every possible sphere of life around all corners of the continent” and they are data mining without regard for Africans’ humanity, hopes, dreams and emotions.
Advising putting “guidelines and safeguards” in place, Birhane also encouraged her fellow Africans to ask tough, critical questions. Ultimately, she wants what’s best for her belove continent.
“In the spirit of communal values that unifies such a diverse continent, ‘harnessing’ technology to drive development means prioritizing welfare & benefit of local communities, not distant Western start-ups or tech monopolies,” Birhane said.