A truly ethical South African digital society

Our MD Josine Overdevest imagines in the January 2023 IITPSA Newsletter what a truly ethical South African digital society could look like if viewed through the lens of Africanfuturism. A new perspective that causes you to ask: ‘what if?’ You can read the original here, we also publish it below:

Do you also find that being away over the holidays sometimes provides an interesting perspective on issues you’re dealing with back home? A new perspective that causes you to ask: ‘what if?’

I had an amazing experience in the game reserve where I was lucky to stay in December. We knew that a big herd of elephants lived in the reserve but somehow on our first few game drives we never spotted them.  And then, on the third day they suddenly appeared right next to the lodge while we were having drinks on the stoep. Quietly and majestically, they moved past with only a ditch and an electric fence between us. From that evening we saw them everywhere. On game drives that had to be rerouted because of them and close to the lodge where I saw them out of the kitchen window when looking up from doing the dishes after lunch.

Back home I found my news and social media pages flooded with articles about ChatGPT, the latest chatbot introduced by OpenAI last November. Everyone was suddenly talking about it and testing its relevance to their work and industry. I was reminded of our surprise at seeing the elephants while we knew they were there all along.

The rapid proliferation of ChatGPT feels like one of those dystopian sci-fi scenarios where technology becomes all powerful in the hands of a few. And when I read an article in which ChatGPT considers its own ethical implications, I wondered if we as a society are prepared to deal with the spread of misinformation, impersonation of individuals and perpetuation of bias that are mentioned in the article. Have we even considered how it could be used to support the public good?  Or are we caught on the backfoot while it has already widened the Digital Divide?

Then I remembered another genre of sci-fi, Africanfuturism, in which African writers use African culture, points of view, themes and history to explore positive visions of the future for the continent. For example Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti trilogy in which a native Himba girl from Namibia travels into space for her studies at a prestigious intergalactic university bringing local knowledge with her.

So I asked myself ‘what if?’. What if instead of sliding down the rabbit hole of a dystopian future we explore an optimistic vision of the future in which we’ve built a truly ethical digital society in our country?

A digital society in which state of the art secure technology infrastructure, computer resources and data capacity are widely available and accessible to all individuals and communities. Where models, tools and apps are designed, developed and implemented relevant to the (South) African context and in collaboration with its users, where data is collected, processed and shared respecting privacy and human dignity. Where the education sector adequately prepares children from a young age to be digital citizens who are aware of the technological culture in which they live, know how it influences their lives and have a say in the design and use of it. And these young digital citizens fill the pipelines of an ever expanding community of IT professionals whose members actively engage with IT professionals on the continent and worldwide ensuring a worthwhile exchange of values, knowledge and relevant ICT skills.

If we can ask ‘what if?’, we could also ask ‘then what?’. What needs to happen to move us from where we are now to realizing that ethical digital society of the future?  What do I need to do? As an IT professional, as a member of our Institute, as citizen of this country, of this continent? What steps can we take, starting today?

It’s this kind of ‘what ifs’ and ‘then whats’ that we as the Social & Ethics Committee look forward to presenting  to you this year. In enticing webinars and opinion pieces we’ll challenge thinking and initiate robust conversation on the shape and trajectory of ethical digital transformation in our country.

Wishing you all an inspirational 2023!

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