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Thursday, Aug 24th

The Internet in South Africa ...Lurching our way towards an uncertain future

The Fourth Industrial Revolution is extremely disruptive says ICT veteran Walter Brown who poses the question: how should South Africa respond to it?

"We stand on the brink of a technological revolution that will fundamentally alter the way we live, work, and relate to one another. In its scale, scope, and complexity, the transformation will be unlike anything humankind has experienced before. We do not yet know just how it will unfold, but one thing is clear: the response to it must be integrated and comprehensive, involving all stakeholders of the global polity, from the public and private sectors to academia and civil society" - Klaus Schwab, Founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum (WEF), discussing the Fourth Industrial Revolution on 4 January 2016.

South Africa's fit into the Fourth Industrial Revolution (FIR)

Where are we in this Fourth Industrial Revolution? South Africa is already feeling its heat: we need not look further than the current Uber phenomenon, an app born of the FIR that is severely "disrupting" an important part of our public transport system, with some distressing responses.

The threat of yet another FIR product is on the horizon – a growing army of remotely controlled little drones capable of delivering mail and small packages to disrupt our already severely stressed Postal Services sector. We plead for a rapid expansion of our manufacturing base to drive economic growth and create jobs, while the FIR introduces 3D printers and robots that produce widgets and other useful things by remote control, even from beyond our sovereign borders.

The list continues to grow exponentially, and we have not even considered the impact of Artificial Intelligence (AI), a product of the FIR that is here already.

The FIR is extremely disruptive, not just for us, but for the whole world. So how should South Africa respond to it? If we fight it, it will win. If we join it blindly, we will lose.

South Africa must emulate the "enlightened" segments of our world which understands the full impact of the FIR; its opportunities for sustainable development; its capacity for extreme disruption of the existing socioeconomic order; and its inevitability. This "balancing act" begins with the basic building block of the FIR, the ICT industry, and its principal converged tool, the Internet.

The building block for this balancing act is the National Integrated ICT Policy White Paper. South Africa can choose the traditional adversarial mode of ICT policy formulation and ICT development: pitting the high business and technological savvy of the national ICT industry against the equally high ideological and political concerns of Government against each other.

Or the ICT Policy formulation process can/must be steered towards developing a common understanding of the FIR and its impact on South Africa's multidimensional developmental challenges. How can South Africa's White Paper process position the FIR as a developmental tool instead of a disruptive one?

The White Paper and the FIR

Even a superficial review of the National Integrated ICT Policy White Paper suggests a very strong common ground shared by both Government and the ICT industry.

The Vision Statement relegated to chapter 2 of the White Paper states: "By 2030, we seek to eliminate poverty and reduce inequality. We seek a country where all citizens have the capabilities to grasp the ever-broadening opportunities available. Our plan is to change the life chances of millions of our people..."

This unambiguous vision statement is fully shared by all South Africans, including the seemingly adversarial constituencies of Government and the ICT industry, both of whom are tasked with its implementation. And yet the bulk of the White Paper tends to focus on the technologies underpinning ICTs. In the 2680-word introduction of the White paper, the word "Inequality" is used 4 times, each referencing an entity external to the ICT industry.

Similarly, the word "Poverty" features 3 times, each referring directly to the NDP or Government obligations. The introduction to this vital policy development process correctly identifies ICT as critical tools for the alleviation of inequality and poverty, but its perceived techno-centricity seems to position ICTs as the ends themselves, not the means to the desired ends. Can this perception change as the vital public consultations progress?

The above paragraph is not an actual or implied criticism of the White Paper, it is a suggestion of how the well-publicised adversarial responses to the White Paper can be overcome. It suggests a way forward to embrace the key tenets of the FIR, both its threats to social stability which must be minimised, and the growth opportunities which must be maximised. The concept of the FIR must be moved out of the realms of ideology and philosophy, into the realms of reality, pragmatism and proactive intervention.

The White Paper process provides a powerful instrument to do the above for South Africa. It can begin with a close examination of the basic definitions used to describe the Internet, and the indicators used to measure its utility. The current definitions are valid, have stood the test of time, and have been vital instruments for the growth of the Internet and all its associated infrastructures.

But, as observed by the high level multi-stakeholder communities that made up the Internet Governance Forum recently held in Mexico, and the recently concluded World Economic Forum, this highly desirable success has also fuelled the dangerous inequalities that threaten today's world order.

The reality and inevitability of the FIR suggests that we must reorient our successes to this new global, and specifically South African threat.

* By Walter Brown, ICT veteran


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