The 77 days of January

Greetings, friends:

Instead of saying ‘I hope this newsletter finds you well’, I’m instead going to say I hope you made it through the 77 days of January relatively unscathed. I have been thinking about vaccine nationalism, algorithms and the limits of tech (a heavy week, as you can see). This weekend, Twitter suspended access to the account of @thecontinent_, a WhatsApp-distributed weekly pan-African newspaper. The apparent offence was a tweet promoting one of the stories in this week’s edition, that critiqued the injustice of unequal access to the coronavirus vaccine, and Bill Gates’ outsized role in instituting what the story called ‘vaccine apartheid’; Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, head of the WHO, has called the situation a ‘catastrophic moral failure’. Rich countries are hoarding far more of the crucial doses than their populations needed, leaving less-rich countries with only untested or expensive alternatives. 

Within hours of publishing a tweet promoting the story, Twitter had suspected @thecontinent_’s access to their account, labelling the tweet as misinformation. It was likely that this was inadvertently set off by an algorithm triggered by key certain words – possibly having ‘Covid-19’, ‘Bill Gates’ and ‘vaccine apartheid’ in the same tweet. After this, @simonallison was also suspended from Twitter, for calling for the restoration of The Continent’s account. 

Allison regained access to his account by the time we were publishing this newsletter, and it may seem like a little storm in a digital teacup. But something about that incident had me thinking a lot about the potential troubling outcomes of automation and AI. Already, there is facial recognition technology that claims to be able to guess, with “reasonable accuracy” a person’s political affiliation and sexual orientation just by looking at their face. There’s also a disturbing resurgence in race science – the claim that empirical research exists which proves that certain races are superior to others.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution is all the rage now, touted as the development of “cyber-physical systems” involving entirely new capabilities for people and machines. But we would be well to think of these little storms now, before the teacup develops all too new capabilities. I’m only half-joking.

In the meantime, here’s –

  • What We’re Reading: The Tyranny of Work by Aeon Magazine. There’s nothing we do with as much regularity, intensity and unquestioned submission as work, the article states. But the idea of a work ethic can easily be weaponized to deflect calls for better, more dignified jobs.
  • What We’re Watching: The Incredible Story of Bobi Wine, by DW Documentary. There’s something always heartrending when I watch or listen to anything about Robert Kyagulanyi. I think we are so afraid to dream, that Bobi Wine’s dreams always remind me of the smallness of mine.
  • What We’re Listening To: The Comb, from BBC World Service. The latest episode explored being ‘tricked and shipped’ – African parents living overseas who want to send their children back to their native country, but use false pretenses to get them on the plane (!)

As always, I remain yours,

Christine Mungai

Curator | Baraza Media Lab

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