On 10 April, Esther Akoth, popularly known as Akothee, stunned everyone when she finally wed her fiancé, Dennis “Omosh” Schweizer, in a lavish ceremony at the Windsor Golf Hotel. The event, which was notably attended by popular social media influencers, literally brought under the spotlight the glamorous lives of a new breed of micro-celebrities who have found fame and fortune outside the mainstream media structures. In attendance were The Bahatis (Bahati and Diana Marua), Terence Creative and his wife Milly Chebby, the WaJesus Family, Mungai Eve and Director Trevor, among others—all filmed mingling with guests and engrossed in small talk in their resplendent attire.
Akothee, who has in the past recounted her rise from humble beginnings, says she started as a taxi driver after walking out of a marriage where she became a mother at the age of 14. Today, the mother of four is an artiste, farmer and lifestyle content creator. She capitalises on the latter role, using both her popularity and social media visibility to reach out to millennials and Generation Z—demographics that are said to “make up 55% of the Kenyan population”—to market the products of various consumer brands.
Working with the brands leads to more social media followers, which translates to more potential customers and targeted ads for her clients. It’s a cycle that’s subtly cutthroat but has led to massive fortunes. It’s a life that’s the stuff of dreams: big houses and exclusive house tours that garner close to a million YouTube views, fancy holiday trips, designer cars and the opportunity to hobnob with other newly minted celebrities and micro-celebrities. It is a world perfectly described by Drake’s popular line, “Started from the bottom, now we’re here,” in his song, Started From the Bottom.
It’s a new world
Welcome to the new world of social media influencers.
Less than five years ago, virtually all the people we now know as content creators were relatively unknown. Most were toiling at the margins of obscurity, pursuing goals other than creating content aimed at catching the eye of some well-paying brand. Well, before TikTok, Instagram, YouTube and the delights of using Facebook and Twitter for business, only traditional media platforms like newspapers, radio and television enjoyed the monopoly of offering such services. The legacy media, a by-product of a rather conservative society—less experimental, less innovative, less creative, less curious—churned out its share of men and women it deemed the true representatives of Kenya’s celebrity culture. However, that fundamentally exposed its limitations. The rise of digital technology, which has opened a vast world of faster information flow and heightened global awareness, is a testament to that reality.
The rise and rise of influencers thus speaks to the silent but forceful contestation over identity among young people. While writing about the ratchet culture that became the cornerstone of Gengetone music, Christine Mungai says the young people involved in producing such content are not simply making music to enjoy themselves, for the sake of it. Instead, there is a simmering tension between defiance of authority and the need for attention. Mungai writes that the music is “a pushback against the bleak logics of a society that defiles in so many other ways, a society that ruthlessly forecloses on opportunities for the young and poor in particular”. Her central argument is about the power of resistance that lies beneath sub-genres of popular culture often frowned upon by mainstream society.
There is a simmering tension between defiance of authority and the need for attention.
Kenya’s influencers have continued to defy all forms of criticism—from accusations of producing banal content that most of the time amuses rather than educates, to being dedicated agents of exploitative brands that hardly care about their consumers simply because money is involved. They are also seen as the prime symbols of what Susie Khamis, Laurence Ang and Raymond Welling call an “epidemic of self-obsession” in their article Self-branding, ‘micro-celebrity’ and the rise of Social Media Influencers. I’ll come back to that later.
In other words, if the content creators’ videos on YouTube and social media postings are anything to go by, the end often justifies the means. In a society where principles and moral values have profoundly deteriorated, it is vain to blame a person for trying take care of his or her material wellbeing. Social media influencing culture should, therefore, be viewed from a broader perspective that takes into account the underlying socio-economic and political tensions that define our existence as Kenyans. The extravagant lives of influencers and their desire for status symbols could thus be speaking to something bigger.
Is there a bigger picture?
Kenya went to the polls on 9 August last year, and William Ruto was declared president, garnering 50.5 per cent of the valid votes cast while his closest rival, Raila Odinga, got 48.9 per cent. Odinga has since disputed the results and is now demanding a forensic audit of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission servers. However, what stands out most about the 2022 general election is the significant number of people who decided not to vote —almost 7 million—a majority of whom are under 30.
Some of those who did not vote vociferously defended their decision on social media, even as those who had voted gloated about having carried out their civic duty. Those who did not vote argued—rightly in my view—that the political system was already hijacked by crooks masquerading as visionaries who were only using young people as a stepping stone to another five-year term of plunder, deferred dreams, wasted opportunities and corruption. Their warning has come to pass. Ruto has so far reneged on many of his lofty promises of uplifting those at the bottom of society. His “Hustler” agenda is proving to be a mirage as political rejects and loyalists are rewarded with lucrative positions, even as the youth remain in economic limbo. They probably will be of use in the 2027 general election. Not now.
When Nanjala Nyabola—who has written a book on how Kenyans engage politically on digital platforms—writes that the 2022 polls was the “most boring election”, she is essentially bringing into sharp focus the growing disillusionment and despondency that have set in not just among the intelligentsia but, more worryingly, among young people. It has become the norm nowadays, during every election cycle—not just in Kenya but in Africa in general—for politicians to make grand promises about economic empowerment and job creation that hardly ever come to pass. A Daily Nation article quoting data from the Kenyan National Bureau of Statistics paints an even bleaker picture. It observes that there are Kenyans who qualify for the labour force but have now, weighed down by frustrations, opted not to look for employment. Then the bombshell: “The majority of those who have given up on job searching are aged between 20 and 24 at 363,018, followed by 25 to 29-year-olds at 232,146.” They are millennials and members of Generation Z.
Bragging rights/attention economy
The influencers should thus be viewed within the context of a new world order where attention is a scarce commodity, and hardly anybody gives it to anyone—not the politicians, not the society. In such a dispensation—with all its frightening dystopian undertones—the act of “self-branding through social media”, as Kham, Ang and Welling observe, “can be understood as a way to retain and assert personal agency and control within a general context of uncertainty and flux”. This consequently breeds a consumerist ideology whereby the lifestyle content creators promote the (false) idea to their followers that acquiring consumer goods—lots of them—is the ultimate goal in life.
I’ll give an example.
In one of their YouTube videos titled, SHOPPING IN DUBAI: BEST MALLS AND PRICES, the WaJesus Family, whose Youtube channel boasts a whopping 609,000 subscribers, showcase their expensive taste to their followers. During the Bonfire Adventures-sponsored trip, they hop from one mall to another, lavishly spending on Adidas shoes and outfits, bedding, home decor items, clothes and other luxury goods. The subtext that the couple ensures is not lost on the viewer is just how rich they are, how classy they are and how they are living the highly coveted soft life. In the comment section of the video, one of their fans affirms: “I’m shopperhollic…I’m shopping with you guys aki.” But it’s the comment that links the Dubai trip and shopping to acts of resilience and fate that provides a useful insight into the complex world of the influencing culture among the youth. A fan called New Wineskin writes, “So in short, everyone’s dreams are valid…Just give yoself time ie, 5years to save and work HARD towards yo goal.”
There are Kenyans who qualify for the labour force but have now, weighed down by frustrations, opted not to look for employment.
In a nutshell, according to the influencer-follower relationship carefully constructed on online platforms, one can always overcome their personal challenges through individual effort alone. This is despite the challenges being a result of poor policies rather than the mere shortcomings of an individual. Also, while the influencers often control the narrative in line with the demands and dictates of the brands they are promoting at any given time, what is projected to the followers conceals the fundamental issues at stake: we are living in a society where the political class has abdicated its roles and responsibilities and shifted the burden to the individual.
Rejection of the political process
For young people who essentially look up to social media influencers as role models and heroes, there is bound to be a rejection of the political process. There is the idea that the entire political process is flawed, and that there is no redemption whatsoever in participating in it, be it by registering as a voter, or voting or taking part in campaigns. Apart from the sticky issues of underrepresentation and analogue politics, the youth believe the process, which still rides on ethnic mobilisation, in the end only benefits a few people. Also, Ruto’s campaign slogan, kazi ni kazi, which entrenches the hustle culture in a society where young people struggle not just with unemployment, but also underemployment, is likely to lead to further alienation. Zak Essa captures this simmering discontent when he writes that “recognising their shared marginalisation, the youth are sceptical of politicians who promise solutions to their problems and consciously choose not to interact with hegemonic political structures”.
For young people who essentially look up to social media influencers as role models and heroes, there is bound to be a rejection of the political process.
In an interview aired on NTV’s The Wicked Edition show titled “Mungai Eve: Why I can’t get employed or go broke”, the former journalism and mass communication student told the show’s host, Dr King’ori, that one of the reasons she was against employment was because she knew her worth. Employment, she said, would limit her from achieving “so many goals” that she hopes to achieve before she dies. While it is tempting to read her statement as empty bravado, especially on the aspect of never going broke, there’s an underlying message Mungai is passing that is worth emphasising. That in the digital age, with its myriad of opportunities, one cannot wait to be rescued by the politicians so to speak. With the ubiquity of smartphones and improved internet penetration in various parts of the country, the power is at one’s fingertips, literally. This type of messaging —however flawed and outrageous it may sound—is likely to become the new reality consumed by a segment of young people for whom there’s no world other than the internet that is sensitive to their dreams and aspirations.
Is there a way out?
Social media influencing culture is here to stay, and it will only grow bigger and bolder as the internet continues to radically push the boundaries of communication technologies, as witnessed by the enormous popularity of TikTok. The attention economy will also continue to produce its micro-celebrities, such as Akothee, The Bahatis and the WaJesus Family, who will be sought out by various brands to reach out to an ever-demanding consumer base. However, what should be of great concern to policymakers and politicians is how they will be able to craft inclusive policies that can bring back to the fold the millennials and members of Generation Z in particular. This is because, by the look of things, some of these young people are on the verge of completely dropping out from mainstream society and its responsibilities to become permanent digital natives.
Support The Elephant.
The Elephant is helping to build a truly public platform, while producing consistent, quality investigations, opinions and analysis. The Elephant cannot survive and grow without your participation. Now, more than ever, it is vital for The Elephant to reach as many people as possible.
Your support helps protect The Elephant's independence and it means we can continue keeping the democratic space free, open and robust. Every contribution, however big or small, is so valuable for our collective future.
Every Man Gotta to Decide His Destiny
Survival is an album with a purpose. Released in 1979, it is Bob Marley’s most political recording.
In September 2014, Rolling Stone reported that Bob Marley’s Legend, his posthumous greatest hits collection, had reached the top bracket in the Billboard 200 weekly music chart of album sales—Marley’s first appearance in the top ten since 1976. As is the frequent custom, this spike in sales was not due to any palpable cultural shift, but instead the result of a sales marketing ploy (cheap music downloads for a limited time) on the part of Google Play for Google Play, with Marley a surprise beneficiary.
It was thirty years since Legend’s 1984 release, only three years after Marley’s early, tragic death from cancer at the age of 36 (a striking coincidence with Frantz Fanon, who also died at 36 from cancer). And I might have entitled this piece “The Legacy of Legend,” except for the raw fact that the album largely, if not completely, erases Marley’s political legacy. Containing most of his charted hits with his backing band the Wailers, it is primarily an apolitical affair, though inclusions such as “I Shot the Sheriff” and “Get Up, Stand Up”—both originally from 1973’s Burnin’—provide a sense of the irreverence found in his back catalog. “Buffalo Soldier” (from the posthumous album Confrontation released in 1983) and “Redemption Song” (from his final album, Uprising, released in 1981) similarly invoke histories of black empowerment and resistance, the latter song drawing in part from Marcus Garvey (Garvey is considered a prophet by Rastafarians). But the trouble with Legend, as with most retrospective compilations, is that it upends the album concept—the sound recording as a problem-space, to borrow an expression from Columbia University anthropologist David Scott, who also happens to be from Jamaica.
Survival is an album with a purpose. Released in 1979, it is arguably Marley’s most political recording, forming part of a trilogy with Uprising and Confrontation. While the titles themselves signal this tenor, historical context is also important: Jamaica was hit hard economically during the 1970s (similar to many countries in Africa and elsewhere in the “developing” world), different civil rights movements in the Americas appeared to be reaching uncertain denouements, and, not least, political struggles remained, particularly in southern Africa. Marley himself was a victim of the political violence that had gripped Jamaica, surviving an assassination attempt in 1976.
Reflecting these uncertainties, Marley unapologetically revives a pan-African spirit in Survival, with a front cover that looks like the ultimate flag quiz—representation from 48 African countries, plus the album title overwriting a version of the infamous “Brookes” slave ship diagram. The back cover resembles a BlackPowerPoint slide from an African history 101 class (Rasta style), including a photograph of Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia operating a machine gun juxtaposed with a quote by Marcus Garvey: “A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin, and culture is like a tree without roots.”
Among the tracks themselves, “Zimbabwe” is the most famous, a recording that signaled the right to self-determination (“every man gotta right to decide his own destiny”) specific to the Second Chimurenga then occurring against white minority rule in Rhodesia—an act of solidarity that would further manifest in Marley and the Wailers performance in Zimbabwe as part of its independence celebrations in April 1980. (Read Tsitsi Jaji’s recent, wonderful book, Africa in Stereo, for a recollection of the importance of this moment.) But tracks such as “Africa Unite,” “Survival,” “Babylon System”—“Babylon” being Marley’s preferred Rasta expression for Western (neo) colonialism (“Babylon system is the vampire, yeah!”)—and “So Much Trouble in the World” also sing/shout Marley’s political concerns. Survival was banned in South Africa by the apartheid government. And none of its tracks, it should be noted, show up on Legend either.
That Marley’s politics have been minimized by the music industry is not necessarily surprising. Furthermore, his pedagogy is decidedly different from that of, say, the urban feel of Public Enemy, the confessional dislocation of Earl Sweatshirt, or the broken, art-rap lyrics of Death Grips. Marley’s rage comes with backup singers. And you can dance to it. Yet, as part of a long-standing tradition of insurgent thought and political resistance emanating from the Caribbean, Marley and his album Survival contributed to his political time and place, enabling a recurrent sense of continuity from Garvey to the present, as only recorded music can.
Prof. Ebrahim Hussein: Kiswahili, Poetry and Freedom
The Anthology of the Ebrahim Hussein Poetry Prize 2014–2020 is a great achievement for Prof. Ebrahim Hussein in the creativity it has inspired in ordinary Tanzanians who have shared the poetry in them through this prize.
Prof. Ebrahim Hussein—poet, playwright, author—is a powerful teller of Tanzania’s and Africa’s story, a relentless chronicler of the African post-independence condition and a towering figure of the arts and literature in East and Central Africa. His works—Kinjekitile (1965) in particular—are studied across the region by university students and are set texts for high school students studying Kiswahili. His plays Mashetani (1971) and Jogoo Kijijini (1976) are also famous across East Africa. The Anthology of the Ebrahim Hussein Poetry Prize 2014–2020 is a collection of poems submitted towards the award of the prize that bears the professor’s name in 2014, 2015/6, 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2020.
Kinjekitile tells the story of the defining Maji Maji uprising against the Germans in Tanzania between 1905 and 1907. It uses the African voice and perspective of the leader of the uprising, Kinjekitile Ngwale, to reconstruct the epic struggle between the coloniser and the colonised in Tanzania that delineated the contours of Tanzanian nationhood and spoke to similar struggles across Africa. A student of Hussein’s explained: “We found Kinjekitile far more accessible than Mashetani … but Prof Hussein was unapologetic—in that way he resembles Wole Soyinka in attitude—it was up to you to travel the journey of knowledge and enlightenment with him. If you didn’t understand him that was up to you.”
Students of Hussein are energised just hearing that an article is being written about him. The impact he has had on those he taught is palpable whether one speaks to Tanzanians, Kenyans or other students that he taught. “Kinjekitile is a profound, biting and rich exploration of the process of African freedom from colonialism”, one of his students from the 1980s explained, “Mashetani is a deeper and more sophisticated critique of Ujamaa and Mwalimu Nyerere’s government… Prof Hussein taught me how the mechanics of Kiswahili provides enlightenment for Africans seeking to understand themselves. Intellectually Hussein is a person of rare and great depth who is not limited to a narrow field but would have something wise to say if you asked him about politics or nuclear physics.”
Ironically, despite being most likely the world’s most influential thinker and author in the Kiswahili language, Prof. Hussein, remains largely unknown outside the vibrant and growing ecosystem of Kiswahili speakers—because he writes in Kiswahili. Unlike others, however, Prof. Hussein has never engaged in advocacy about the use of language and accessibility. Implicit in his life and politics—for lack of a better term—is the centrality of African culture and thought in everything he does. The use of Kiswahili for Hussein is as close as one gets to manifest truth. Debate is unnecessary for, in life, Kiswahili’s dominance in the most enduring narratives of the African reality is unquestioned and, with the passage of time, this has become even more true. Hussein’s notable fellow writers in their African tongues include Ngugi wa Thiong’o, from Kenya (1938- ), who writes in Gikuyu, Peninah Muhando, from Tanzania (1943- ), who writes in Kiswahili as did the late Shabaan Robert from Tanzania (1909-1962), Euphrase Kezilahabi (1944–2020), also from Tanzania, Ben R. Mtobwa, from Tanzania (1958–2008), and Kenya’s Ken Walibora (1965-2020). Except for Ngugi wa Thiong’o who has been based in the US for decades, the rest of this accomplished community is largely unknown outside East and Central Africa.
Kenyan Professor Chacha Nyaigotti-Chacha—former dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at Egerton University, former executive secretary of the Inter-University Council for East Africa, currently chair of the Commission for University Education in Kenya, an educationalist, playwright, Kiswahili scholar and contemporary of Professor Hussein, explained: “Hussein is a profound creator of knowledge in the Kiswahili language whose contribution to literally discourse has helped Kiswahili penetrate the politics realm across the African continent.” Prof. Chacha fondly remembered the time in the 1980s when they almost succeeded in getting Prof. Hussein to spend time teaching in Kenya, something the academic bureaucracy unfortunately moved too slowly to make possible. Hussein was, however, able to spend some time in Kenya with students at Kenyatta University who have strong memories of him to this day.
Kiswahili has always lent a unique power to Prof. Hussein’s work for he writes in the tongue of those who live the lives he describes. The Ebrahim Hussein Poetry Prize honours Prof. Hussein and the language whose authenticity and immediacy he has implicitly championed all of his life. For hundreds of years Kiswahili was considered a mongrel language —a mixture of Bantu languages and Arabic—and its speakers similarly a hybrid nation produced of Bantu and Arab blood. This early fake news has been debunked comprehensively and the Swahili nation is today acknowledged as one of the East Coast of Africa’s oldest people, cultures and language.
Kiswahili has always lent a unique power to Prof. Hussein’s work for he writes in the tongue of those who live the lives he describes.
So, the true richness in the latest anthology rests in the fact that it publishes the original Kiswahili poems alongside their English translations. Kiswahili allows the most painful subjects to be handled respectfully and with an African nuance, unavailable in English, and with the kind of ease the cross-section of poets achieve. They tackle everything from the challenges of leadership in Africa to paedophilia, rape, female genital mutilation and other anxieties and complexities of rapidly changing societies.
Most of the poets in the anthology are men but women provide the most touching and interesting works. Their poems are powerful, personal, immediate and handle the most uncomfortable subjects. The themes are ones that speak to those that have preoccupied Prof. Hussein all his artistic life, from African culture to nationhood and leadership. But it is when they explore the issues only women have to contend with as they hold communities together that their art is most compelling in the anthology. Their every day struggles are society’s most enduring challenges. In my opinion they make for the most powerful poems in the anthology. It would be most interesting if the publishers selected poems only from the women who have ever submitted their work for the prize.
Kiswahili is now Africa’s most powerful indigenous language. It is spoken as far north as Oman and as far south as South Africa where the language was approved to be taught in schools in 2018. Kiswahili is a national language in Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Burundi, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Mozambique and South Sudan. In 2019, Kiswahili was designated an official working language in all of the 16 member states of the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC). It is also an official language of the African Union.
It would be most interesting if the publishers selected poems only from the women who have ever submitted their work for the prize.
As I have observed above, Prof. Hussein is a major literary figure in Tanzania and the East African region and is now the most significant figure writing in Kiswahili globally. He speaks rarely and is known most for his plays and books published in the 1960s and 1970s. Indeed, it would seem that one of his last appearances in public was to launch the poetry prize named in his honour after which he has rarely been seen. Interestingly, he is actually best known and studied in the region as one of the founders of African experimental theatre. While his reputation as a dramatist overtakes his renown as a seminal theoretician and observer of the African condition, this has changed considerably over the last two decades. Hussein’s PhD dissertation completed at East Berlin’s Humboldt University in 1973 was titled: “On the development of theatre in East Africa”.
His works explore the major political themes of the age and while clearly a committed Pan-Africanist, his most political work—Jogoo Kijijini (1976)—was understood to express disappointment with Tanzania’s defining Ujamaa policy. Hussein has incessantly surveyed refrains of Africa’s post-independence situation, nationhood and the resilience of colonial patterns of political and economic organisation after independence from colonial rule. Ironically, he met Canadian filmmaker Gerald Belkin (1940-2012) when the latter was himself immersed in Ujamaa, studying African socialism in the rural villages of the Tanzanian countryside in the 1960s. The bond the two forged saw Belkin bequeath seed capital of US$57,000 that became his way of honouring his friend and, ultimately, the Ebrahim Hussein Poetry Prize. The prize and the organisation around it were supported by the Gatsby Trust, now the Tanzania Growth Trust, among others. Hussein also helped teach Belkin Kiswahili, first when Hussein was still based in Berlin but later when he joined Belkin and his wife Paule in Ngamu Village, Singida Region. The story of how the award brought together organisations and individuals committed to poetry, to Kiswahili and to honouring Prof. Hussein is thus far unheralded but it is noteworthy that no other such prize exists in the entire region.
Prof. Hussein is a major literary figure in Tanzania and the East African region and is now the most significant figure writing in Kiswahili globally.
It is uncommon to see collections of poetry published in Africa featuring not notable authors but ordinary citizen poets. The book is a great achievement for Prof. Hussein in the creativity it has inspired through the prize named after him in Tanzania. What is compelling about these collections of poems from the competition named after him are the bios of all the poets. Among them are many teachers but also academics, drivers, miners and others—ordinary Tanzanians with poetry in them that they have shared through this prize. The disproportionate number of teachers is fascinating in and of itself. I cannot pretend to even have an elementary explanation for this; only to observe how interesting it is. Still, locals explain that as part of Tanzania’s founding father Mwalimu Julius Nyerere’s Ujamaa policy of using Kiswahili for nation-building, Tanzanians attending national schools study in Kiswahili from pre-school until the final exam before graduating to high school. In high school they are subsequently taught in English. Kiswahili is now a global language but nowhere in the world is it spoken better and studied more intensely than in Tanzania. Few countries can produce such a large and totally organic cohort of citizen poets in Kiswahili as Tanzania has.
Tanzania is also home to the Bagamoyo school and tradition in the performing arts. The country’s top dramatists and poets therefore have a range of indigenous avenues for expression not available in many other countries. Taasisi ya Saana na Utamaduni Bagamoyo (TaSuBa) or the Institute for Arts and Culture Bagamoyo—formerly the Bagamoyo College of the Arts—is the only dedicated institution of its kind in the region and serves students and practitioners from all countries in the region.
At the end of this work, I was left wondering: What’s next? What’s the plan for the prize, the poets and their impressive work?
The You, the Me and the Technology
When power feels its position is under threat, then all conventions of trust may be abandoned, with the danger of breaking down the social contract between the governed and the governing.
“Two bind a word, three unbind it” is a very loose translation of a Luganda proverb. It certainly strips the saying of its poetry. It in its original rendering, “Ababili babilila ekigambo, abasatu bakisatulula”, it is a play on the words “bili” (two) and “bilila” (to make obscure or inaccessible, to take into deep water, possibly to make forest-like), and the words “satu” (three), and “kusatulula” (to cause to unravel, to fray, to unstitch). Poetically: “Two ‘two’ a word; three ‘three’ it”.
Anyway, the main point is that a secret only really remains one for as long as it remains the property of the two parties primarily concerned with it. A kept secret is the definitive test of trust. Trust is the basis of everything else, an essential for business, governance, family, healthcare, legal work and so on.
If this is true, then secrecy is dead, because tech is now the permanent third person in the relationship. There may be no secrets anymore; simply information that has not yet been deemed worth unearthing. Wherever a tech-based record exists, it can be reached, by one means or another.
A little-known story is that of two high-ranking officials of the tumultuous Mao-era China who had fallen under suspicion. Meeting in a house they suspected to be bugged, they resorted to holding a pretend vocal conversation about mundane things while holding their real conversation by writing notes to each other, in a last-ditch attempt to evade surveillance.
Technology and power
Power seeks out information so as to secure itself, and seeks out technology to be able to better seek out that information. This has gone from looking for what is in the market, to making its own technologies, to commissioning technologies
For example, many innovators of the computer era, such as Apple’s pioneering Steve Jobs, and Microsoft’s software genius Bill Gates, have knowledge foundations that can be traced back to work originally developed by the US Defense Department. Google Earth software used to be called EarthViewer 3D and was developed by a company called Keyhole, part-funded by the US Central Intelligence Agency.
American investment in security technology is a reflection of this. The National Security Agency began life as a centre for the development of communications encryption for the domestic armed forces. Today, it is a seventy-plus billion dollar-a-year program that collects communication data globally, employing over 30,000 people to analyse and otherwise manage it.
It was also therefore always going to be the place where breaches of trust, resulting in leaks, would occur: its own expertise in secrecy. It is a reworking of the response the notorious American bank robber Will Sutton gave when asked why he robbed banks: “Because that’s where the money is”.
The initial idea seemed to be to have less people handling more work, thereby minimizing the number of eyes that see the work, or see all its component parts. The exponential increase in volume, and the ever-increasing need for speed are what have led to the tech developments that in turn have led to new issues of trust within the information collection bureaucracies.
But the initial breaching of trust began at the other end. It was not the spy agencies being betrayed by rogue employees; it was the general citizenry that was initially betrayed by the spy agencies and their needs. When power feels its position is under threat, then all conventions of trust—be they enshrined in company board resolutions, doctor/lawyer-client relations, or even constitutional provisions—may be thrown out the window. The danger with this is the eventual breakdown in any notion of a social contract between the governed and those governing.
The initial idea seemed to be to have less people handling more work, thereby minimizing the number of eyes that see the work, or see all its component parts.
The programmer Richard Stallman, founder of the free software movement and creator of the GNU operating system, has been warning of this for a long time.
“I don’t have a cell phone. I won’t carry a cell phone,” says Stallman. “It’s Stalin’s dream. Cell phones are tools of Big Brother. I’m not going to carry a tracking device that records where I go all the time, and I’m not going to carry a surveillance device that can be turned on to eavesdrop.”
So, while the evolution of tech in informational work is both a statement about the lack of trust between all those within the sphere of human interaction and also potentially a fundamental threat to it, collection is one problem, and collation another.
As his regime crept towards its full unravelling in 1991, then Somalia president Siad Barre was so paranoid that he felt the need to maintain a very large bugging programme of his perceived enemies. At the same time, the same paranoia meant he could not trust anyone but himself to review, analyse or summarize the collected information, and he was reduced to spending long hours far into the night listening to the raw recordings.
Technology and the personal
In the days before DNA technology, when pressed by her parents keen to know the identity of the male responsible, it was not unknown in Ugandan society for a young lady who found herself inconveniently pregnant to point the finger at a young man from one of the more well-off families in the neighbourhood or social circle.
This was a good gambit, because the only means of proof (or negation) was something called ABO blood typing in a which the possibility of a man being the father was eliminated based on the type difference between him and the child. The flaw here is obvious: some such accused young man could indeed present a blood match, but not be the one who actually caused the pregnancy in that particular instance.
Like other technologies initially touted as “liberatory” for women, DNA removed all possibilities of doubt. However, this became a double-edged sword, because it could disprove a denial as much as it could a claim. Because while men typically hide any “secret children” they may have outside the home, many women with “secret children” often hide them among the rest of their children in the home. The blow-back comes in the form of males now also being able to use tech to make effective claims or denials, as the case may be.
DNA-test technology thus proved to be the ultimate test of trust.
The general African convention tended to be that any child a woman gave birth to was deemed to be the child of the man known as her husband. So, the question of trust had been addressed and settled, at least on the male side. The issue of doubt was eliminated through various cultural ruses.
Like other technologies initially touted as “liberatory” for women, DNA removed all possibilities of doubt.
Tech comes among us as a new, permanent, temptation to not trust. It is a facilitator of distrust, since the evidence to justify the mistrust can now be provided.
Tech and business
The nexus of power and technology is bad in general, and worse under capitalism. Beyond tracking for security, there is also tracking for profit because, under capitalism, the ultimate purpose of “security” is to protect the profit-making system. The business of security is business, and technology, produced by business, is also used to enhance the security of the business system.
One of the great (and greatly under-reported) pressures that all British leaders are coming under, is the push to privatize the vast UK National Health Service (NHS). The former Labour Party leader, the outlier Jeremy Corbyn, was among the very few to speak openly about it at the national level, and state that this pressure is coming mainly from powerful American pharmaceutical corporations.
It is often assumed that this is an interest in the real estate, and the paying customers. However, tech creates value also in patient data to study trends, technological developments and opportunities; treatment performance data; and “customer” (patient) personal information for marketing. Due to its effective and all-encompassing existence of over seven decades, the NHS holds all these in vast amounts. That is the real value.
Trust, therefore, is largely theoretical at this point. The truth is that ordinary people will never be able to know what really goes on between the state spy agencies and the vendors of social media, email and telephone services.
In managing that relationship, the private sector tech companies have to weigh three things. First, it is the state that grants regulatory licences. Second, it is the same state that provides the ultimate security guarantee for the safe operation of a multi-million dollar business. And third, it is often the state that commissions large-scale information technology from the sector.
Against this, there is something called the “rights of citizens to privacy”. No contest, really.
The problem is when the tables are turned, and the citizens uses technology to express and justify their distrust of power; digital technology has to some extent helped democratize information compilation and exchange.
Technology came as a solution to the matter of trust, but also exacerbated the problem. Julian Assange’s Wikileaks would not have had the impact it had, and would not have been as successful as it was, had it not been for the advantage that digital technology gives. The people that leaked information to him were able to get hold of enormous amounts of files within a very short period of time (basically however long it took to download them). This is different from having to raid a filing cabinet in person and then leave with only as many files as one can physically carry (or, possibly, photocopy) as kind of happened with The Pentagon Papers, the last serious leak of American security information before Wikileaks.
Digital technology has to some extent helped democratize information compilation and exchange.
The Pentagon Papers was an official but secret study of the history of the US military involvement in Vietnam that was commissioned by the then US Secretary of Defense, in 1967. The published (and still secret) report was made up of “three thousand pages of analysis and 4000 of original government documents in 47 volumes”, according to Wikipedia. Only fifteen copies were published.
Daniel Ellsberg, a government employee with access to the documents, was the Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden of the time. Except in his case, whatever he was able to pass on to the media was initially physically photocopied.
From the perspective of those in power, trust is good for the people to have, and tech is better for the exercise of power.
From the perspective of the governed, it is the other way round.
Politics2 weeks ago
Bloody Times: Sudan’s Counter-Revolutionary War
Politics2 weeks ago
Black Africa: How North of the Sahara Was Whitewashed
Politics1 week ago
In Tech We Trust?
Politics2 weeks ago
Africa Before the Doctrine of Discovery
Politics1 week ago
Where are North Africa’s Jews?
Politics6 days ago
The Horrors of Shakahola: Which Way Forward?
Culture6 days ago
The You, the Me and the Technology
Photos1 week ago