Of Goats and Information: How Africa Must Accelerate Modernisation

The title is meant to capture your attention. Having done that, let it be explained that the issue is about the impact of ‘the internet of things’ on Africa.

While some leaders may feel more at home with cattle and goats, it is technology that will keep a nation alive and stop Africa’s dead men from walking towards economic oblivion and irrelevance.

Many items have been written about the effects of the fourth industrial revolution or 4IR: How robotics will replace most of what we do and how high-income countries will be able to cash in on the opportunities; that humans will choose to have the latest digital health hardware and longevity software that will make them super humans with unlimited powers in a new world of dataism. Forget liberalism, humanism and even religion – all will be overshadowed by the worship of data.

Flows of data
So, what is dataism? Dataism is a term that has been used to describe the mindset or philosophy created by the emerging significance of big data. It was first used by David Brooks in The New York Times in 2013. The term has been expanded to describe what historian Yuval Noah Harari, in his book :Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow From 2015,” calls an emerging ideology or even new form of religion in which “information flow” is the “supreme value”.

Dataism is the belief that everything in life is dependent on efficient and effective flows of data – from information about the performance of the economy through stock exchange dealings in real time, through to data shared between autonomous automobiles using swarm intelligence to information on DNA and genetics that enable every living thing in the biosphere to be monitored and even human longevity to be extended almost indefinitely.

Imagine every tree in the world being mapped and named and its health status known so that the global biosphere can be monitored. Let every tree be linked to rainfall, hours of sunshine temperature and its rate of photosynthesis and carbon sequestration is known accurately. That Botswana will put up its first satellite to enable better environmental and land monitoring is a step in the right direction.

Severely constrained
If Africa is unable to be in that space, it will become almost irrelevant. And if irrelevant, it might as well not exist. If data cannot be processed in sufficient quantity at a fast enough speed, then knowledge will not advance and decision-making will be severely constrained. At best Africa will remain a distinct liability for being unable to offer what the world needs.

Of course, voices ring out loud and clear that it has lots of super resources, and that is true. But data will be far more important than minerals in the future internet of things, and that requires excellent governance organisation capacity and stability, which has eluded the continent for half a century.

While goats, cattle, chickens and pigs are nice, the future world of robotics and AI-produced food will have no need for them. While diamonds are pretty and currently valuable, synthetics will, at a fraction of the price, outsparkle the real thing. Already Swiss watchmakers are turning to synthetics and industrial use of diamonds will follow. Decision-making will be mostly influenced by digital technology that processes billions of bits of information in micro seconds and there will be no place for MDAs or private companies that are unable to respond because somebody is at a workshop, on holiday or at a funeral.

Data and football referees
From football referees to doctors, lawyers and engineers, irrelevance will be the nemesis of societies that get left behind. Shopping will be a matter of delivering goods that historical data shows will be needed, given the buyers shopping history and current state of mind. Lawyers and doctors will be able refer to billions of legal cases almost instantly and AI will produce legal opinion or diagnosis with 99 percent accuracy. Economics will use the most complex algorithms that only artificial intelligence can unravel. Any country that is without such algorithms will sink.

Of course, all materials will be recycled by robots and design through 3D printing will become so efficient that there will be no more need for new natural resources. Self-evidently, energy will be limitless and free because all buildings will be photovoltaic. Walls, roofs and windows will generate electricity, there being no need for central generation and expensive transmission systems. Naturally, mobility will be provided robotically.
One can hear the chortles of disbelief from readers, the unspoken comments such as “this scenario will not be in Africa for one hundred years”. But it is exactly that innate conservatism and reactionary mindset that holds Africa back. While leaders continue with their anachronistic strategies for development based on mining and production of primary products, heavy infrastructure and unsmart farming, the data-driven world will be racing ahead.

Research and development
Only improving education, research and development can save African nations from annihilation. Education will not be remembering stuff but unravelling what information and data is useful and what is not. Almost certainly what kids are being taught today will be totally irrelevant well within half their lifetimes. Education curricula will need to be dynamic and sensitive to the rapidly changing world. In schools today, children are taught that a “good environment” is a “tidy yard.”

Education will be digital, of course. Education will be about delivering the world of information and data to the student, not moving the student to the institution. In that way, the very best teaching resources in the world will be exploited. Classical red brick universities will have long become extinct as private capital will be the driver of change. If academic papers represent a measure of intellectual output, then Botswana has been responsible for 0.04 percent of them.

For a country like Botswana that is intellectually moribund – spending only 0.2 percent of its GDP on research and development and able only to rustle up two WIPO patents in 10 years – it is obviously doomed. No amount of flag waving or hand-on-heart anthem signing patriotism will save it. The same applies to most African nations.

Deliberately alarmist
This item is deliberately alarmist in the hope that the intuitional lethargy that afflicts Botswana and many other African nations will be addressed before the data knowledge and intellectual gaps between developed and developing nations becomes so huge that it is irreversible.

Yet the signs are already there of African dead men walking into oblivion. What was heralded as Africa’s demographic dividend has become its lost generation. While goats, cattle and minerals rule the mindsets of decision makers, and research and development are so appallingly under-resourced, the likelihood of this becoming the status quo is highly probable.