Tomorrow we as South African commemorate Freedom Day to mark our achievement of formal political equality on the 27th April 1994 – exactly 25 years ago.
For those of you listening carefully, I didn’t use the word “Freedom”. Because some may ask what freedom do we celebrate when half of our country lives in poverty and over a quarter of our population is unemployed; whilst a few revel in economic advancement given to them by the new dispensation. Some through hard work and entrepreneurship, and others through nefarious means or patronage.
Advocate Tembeka Ngukaktobibi put 1994 in context when he said recently “perhaps the main success of 1994 is not freedom, but the possibility of it”.
I want to interrogate the notion of Freedoms and what it means in today’s world. I want to view it through different lenses.
There are many stories of freedom in the Quran reflecting various circumstances: the liberation of Bani Israa’il from Pharoah, the freedom of Yusuf from the well and his elevation to high political office; the story of Prophet Ebrahim and his freedom from the fire, as he sought freedom for this people from idolatory. The Prophet’s migration to Madina and his capture of Makkah was also a quest for freedom.
The meaning of Freedom is contested. If you are a socialist – freedom will mean one thing; if you are a capitalist, it will mean something else; if you are liberal it will have specific meaning; if you are libertarian it will mean something entirely different. If you Muslim it may have an entirely different paradigm. So, we have definitions and notions of freedoms.
My concept of Freedom is based on the simple, but profound Quranic injunction: “we have honored the children of Adam”. Flowing from this fountainhead, I would define freedom as a society that allows and encourages every individual to attain their maximum potential. It stands for securing for everyone an equal opportunity for life, liberty, and growth; and the pursuit of success and happiness. This means a society free from want, and a truly equal opportunity society – that encourages talent but has a safety net for those in need.
It means that inherited privilege is not simply reproduced, but that inherited disadvantage is mitigated to give everyone an equal opportunity for success. An equal opportunity society is a myth without accounting for this because privilege and poverty are reproduced in a vicious cycle where the rich get wealthier and the poor get poorer.
It is important to remember that our Constitution is among the very few in the world that recognises socio-economic rights as a human right. These rights include the right to food, shelter, education and healthcare. Freedom Day should be a reminder for us to ensure the realisation of these rights enshrined in our Constitution.
I will leave you to judge whether our society is truly free 25 years after we attained our political freedom.
I would argue that every political or philosophical movement that arose in history, did so under the banner of freedom.
I therefore want to interrogate the notion of freedom in a slightly different way today – and argue that we are becoming more constrained and less free. Even in the traditional liberal democracies, or especially so in such societies.
Let us go back in history and look the birth of Islam in 7th century Arabia. It was born out of a yearning for freedom. Freedom from tyranny, from superstition, from patriarchy, from slavery, from tribalism and from materialism and other gods,. Islam was a liberatory force. Over time this religion become fossilised and became tyrannical under oppressive political leadership and reactionary religious leadership. With many exceptions course.
This was the fate of all religions – Islam, Christianity and Judaism.
The rebellion against this came in the form of secular humanism (which formalised in the early 19th century).
Secular human embraced reason and human logic as the supreme virtue and extolled a freedom from religious dogma, supernaturalism, superstition and a higher being. It posited humans as being good, ethical and moral purely through reason and logic and without religion or a god. In a sense science and empiricism became the new gods, as did philosophy to answer the greater questions of metaphysics.
As a reaction to gross iniquities arose socialism and communism which promised freedom from want and an egalitarian society. Both these, or variations or dysmorphic version of them, have been overthrown as they themselves became corrupted. Or survived in different forms – most successfully as social democracies.
A reaction to secular humanism came in the form of post-modernism which developed in the mid- to late 20th century mainly in Europe and encompassed a wide variety of approaches that essentially challenged notions of power embedded in society. It challenged the universalist notions of objective reality, morality, truth, human nature and meta-narratives. Post modernism based itself on the contingent realities, socially conditioned nature of knowledge, embedded power, values and hierarchies in systems of knowledge and control, specific cultural discourses, moral relativism and pluralism. There was also a sense of irreverence.
So while secular humanism claimed to free us from obedience or servitude to a higher Being and posited rationality at the center of human existence, post-modernism debunked this. Post modernism exposed the fallibility of rationality, its false constructions of moral truth; its epistemic inheritance; its construction and imposition of a ‘universal’ value system and systems of power and hierarchy; and its linkages with particular political, cultural and historical discourses and hierarchies.
Without going into a critique of post-modernism I simply want to make the point that all these philosophical traditions from religion to post-modernism were predicated on notions of freedom and liberation.
The newest technological and philosophical revolution that now confronts us also claims to be a liberatory force.
The Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR – a termed coined by Klaus Schwab of the WEF), which builds on the digital revolution of the 3IR , represents new ways in which technology becomes embedded within societies and even the human body. The 4IR is marked by emerging technological breakthroughs in a number of fields, including robotics, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, quantum computing, biotechnology, the Internet of Things (IoT), 3D printing, stem-cell therapy, gene technology and autonomous vehicles. The fundamental basis for 4IR lies in advances in communication and connectivity rather than technology. Beyond that it forms the basis of an integration of information technology and biotechnology to reconfigure human experiences.
In fact, some designate the 4IR as the next greatest step in the evolution of humankind, as it signifies a qualitative transformation of society. In a sense it is man becoming God – as posited by those from novelist Dan Brown’s in his novel Origin, to Yuval Noah Harari in his various works. In the book Origin a supercomputer called the ‘e-wave’ allows the chief scientist Kirch to mimic the creation of the universe (called the Miller-Urey experiment). Using algorithms he predicts that in fifty years, in a continuation of the evolutionary process, humanity and technology will merge. That we will cease to be the humans we are today.
Thus the 4IR may usher in independent creation, genetic modification, artificial intelligence – all which required God or human intervention in the past.
It may perhaps bring huge advantages in human experiences, but accompanied by large moral, ethical and philosophical questions about freedom and other issues.
The 4IR may certainly bring freedoms – freedom of expression, the democratization of media space because of social media, it may free humankind of some diseases, and mundane tasks.
However, it will also mean that traditional jobs will be no more. AirBnB, Uber, Amazon are cases in point. 4D printing will destroy artisanal jobs. It will hugely benefit the rich and educated, and leave the poor and poorly educated behind.
BUT this new world will challenge what we define as FREEDOM.
We have already entered a new world of technology, meta-data, surveillance and risk-free wars (through the use of armed drones, wars can be wages without risk to citizens).
- It is a world where, for those of us who use smart phones and apps such as Google maps, Garmin and Waze every movement of ours not only direct us but is stored and predicts our future movements. It recognizes our home destination and our workplaces.
- Face-recognition technologies track our every movements and places us in different spaces.
- Our music preferences are tracked by Spotify.
- When we search on Google all our searches are stored, creating a profile of ourselves.
- When we use Twitter, FB, or Instagram our conversations are analysed for key words, which are stored. They determine our social, entertainment and even our political positions.
- Many of these apps tap into our contacts on our phone to better understand our networks. And it uses FB, twitter and Instagram to further understand our networks, family, friends, acquittances and those with whom we share beliefs, values and ideology.
- When we shop on Amazon or Takealot – our shopping preferences are stored and when we use News24 or other news sites – the things we have been searching for eerily appears on the screen.
- When we pay with our credit cards or on our accounts at shops or use loyalty cards, every store knows our peculiar shopping habits and movements.
- Many of these apps I have mention cross-platform – meaning they talk to each other, and some of them link into our email accounts like gmail.
All of this data adds up to mega-data which are used to create algorithms – which creates a profile of every one of us – where others begin to know us better than we know ourselves.
These algorithms don’t only define us but will be able to influence and determine our actions and behaviors. They will compromise our freedom in ways unfathomable to us – by determining our choices and decision making.
These new forms of targeted marketing will make traditional marketing and propaganda look crude.
In the past we were governed by authority – largely religious authority. Then society moved towards the individual as the maker of choice in what is called secular humanism. Now we are manipulated into choices by exploitation of our data, and consequently our feelings, to determine what our aspirations are, what we think, what we buy, etc. We are now governed by an authority not of our choosing. We merely have an illusion of freedom of choice, and other freedoms.
Let me give some examples of what I mean:
Many of use already know about Trumps victory and the alleged Russian meddling in the elections.
Let us take the case of Cambridge Analytica (CA), which will concretely demonstrate what I said earlier.
CA was a British political consulting firm which combined data mining, data analysis, data brokerage, with strategic communication during electoral processes, military disinformation campaigns, social media branding, and to study and manipulate public opinion and political will.
CA’s data analysis methods were to a large degree based on the academic work from Cambridge University on a profiling system using general online data, Facebook-likes, smartphone data, consumer behaviours, internet activity and other public and private sources. They also used a mobile app that tracked physical movements and contacts and, invaded personal data.
They showed that with a limited number of “likes” on FB, people can be analysed better than they can by their friends or relatives, and that individual psychological targeting is a powerful tool to influence people.
The CEO Alexander Nix said in 2016: “today in the United States we have somewhere close to four or five thousand data points on every individual … So we model the personality of every adult across the United States, some 230 million people”.
The company used “data enhancement and audience segmentation techniques” providing “psychographic analysis” for a “deeper knowledge of the target audience”. The company uses what it calls “behavioral microtargeting” that can predict “needs” of subjects and how these needs may change over time. Services then can be individually targeted for the benefit of its clients from the political arena, governments, and companies, providing “a better and more actionable view of their key audiences.” According a commentator CA can tell things about an individual he might not even know about himself.
CA claims to have been involved in 200 elections across the world.
Not only did CA collect data, analyse data, segment this data, and devise strategies to influence everything from voting behaviour, views on various issues and on consumer behavior – they did so without our consent or knowledge.
Let me take a simple example of reading a book. In the past our book choices were determined by friends or those in authority. Now with algorithms, when you go to Amazon or other websites, they will proffer you books based on your previous reading. So you will be inclined to particular books offered.
If you read this book on a kindle or other device, it will track your reading patterns, how fast you read, where you pause, what you highlight. And store this information.
With face recognition technology this device will determine how you react to a book – when you laugh, cry, smile, smirk or show anger. That information will also be stored.
Now link this device to your smart-watch and this device will measure your heart-rate, sweat rates and physiological parameters while reading different sections of a book.
This data will be collated to determine your reading preferences and a whole lot more about you. This will influence not only future books sold to you or the way authors will write in future, but will paint a larger profile picture of an individual.
So for the first time in human history not only do you read a book, but the book also reads you!
The content of material also determines our positions and I quote Mortimer Adler:
“The packaging of intellectual positions and views is one of the most active enterprises of some of the best minds of our day. The view of television, the listener to radio, the reader of magazines, is presented with whole complex of elements – all the way from ingenious rhetoric to carefully selected data and statistics – to make it easy for him to “make up his own mind’ with the minimum of difficulty and effort. But the packaging is done so effectively that the viewer, listener, or reader does not make up his own mind at all. Instead, he inserts a packaged opinion into his mind, somewhat like inserting a cassette into a cassette player. He then pushes a button and ‘plays back’ the opinion whenever it seems appropriate to do so. He has performed acceptably without having had to think”.
Much of what is done is done in the name of a new alluring religion called consumerism. Noah Yuval Harari describes this in his book Sapiens:
“The capitalist and consumerist ethics are two sides of the same coin, a merger of two commandments. The supreme commandment of the rich is ‘Invest!’ The supreme commandment of the rest of us is ‘Buy!’ The capitalist–consumerist ethic is revolutionary in another respect. Most previous ethical systems presented people with a tough deal. They were promised paradise, but only if they cultivated compassion and tolerance, overcame craving and anger, and restrained their selfish interests. This was too tough for most. The history of ethics is a sad tale of wonderful ideals that nobody can live up to. Most Christians did not imitate Christ, most Buddhists failed to follow Buddha, and most Confucians would have caused Confucius a temper tantrum. In contrast, most people today successfully live up to the capitalist–consumerist ideal. The new ethic promises paradise on condition that the rich remain greedy and spend their time making more money and that the masses give free reign to their cravings and passions and buy more and more. This is the first religion in history whose followers actually do what they are asked to do. How though do we know that we’ll really get paradise in return? We’ve seen it on television.”
What I have attempted today, is to paint a broad picture of notions of freedom, than just in a political sense. Our greatest dangers, particularly in liberal democracies come from elsewhere. In totalitarian regimes, the lack of freedom is recognized. In liberal democracies the illusion of freedom is more dangerous sometimes than the lack of freedom.
The question is how this determines our ethics and how do we claim back our destiny. I don’t have the answers and for that you will have to wait for another talk.
With our national and provincial elections around the corner, I will end with the sage words of Raymond Suttner: “even though elections, with all people entitled to vote for the first time was a massive victory, freedom is never finally realized … it needs to be seen as a concept with an indefinite scope and meaning”.
We pray that the Almighty guide and protect us and our children and shields us from the dangers we recognize, and those we don’t. Surah Naas could not be more apt as we seek protection from the known and unknown evils; from the whisperings and the shouts; from among the jinn and men.