The Time Traveler: Hugh Ellis

Data is the new land.

In the past, and still often in the present, the ownership of land determined who would survive, who had the potential to get rich, who married whom, and who had the most potential to influence government policies.

Now, ownership of the mass of data we generate and consume through the Internet increasingly determines the same things.

Consider Uber, the biggest taxi company in the world. It owns not a single car or service station, and (except where national laws force it to do so) it employs no drivers. What it owns is the data to connect drivers to maps to passengers. Or Amazon. Although Amazon does own warehouses (where it often overworks and underpays its porters and clerks), its real power is the data that connects buyers to publishers, and threatens to put small neighborhood book dens out of business around the globe.

Consider the Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which Facebook, through intermediaries, sold megabyte upon megabyte of personal data to governments, who used the information about people’s demographics and personal preferences to manipulate elections to stay in power. Consider how tech investors, like early Facebook financier Peter Thiel, throw their weight around in demanding policy changes from the US government.

Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari provocatively states that the way we sign away our precious data to tech firms in order to gossip on social media or read the latest news might one day be compared to those African and Native American tribal leaders in the nineteenth century who sold hectares upon hectares of land to European merchants for handfuls of glass beads or a few outdated weapons.

We Namibians are rightly concerned about land ownership and the urgent need for land reform. As we are with many other forms of capital – such as when we support striking checkout clerks against South African supermarket magnates. But of late, I’ve come to think we are not concerned enough about who controls our data.

There is little we can do, I guess, about the Facebooks and Twitters and Googles of this world. I too have a Gmail and a WhatsApp and an Instagram account, and just like you, I didn’t read the small print before signing up. Why bother?

Maybe there is more use in local activism.

Do we know who the shareholders of Paratus are, and how much they make from all the data we are sending on their cables beneath our streets? What about AfricaOnline, ultimately the property of Telkom South Africa? How much real control do we have over our own state-owned technology companies, MTC, Telecom Namibia and PowerCom?

Do all these tech firms represent a fair cross section of our population? Do they feature women as well as men on their boards and in their shareholdings? Can we expect our Internet to be gay-rights-compliant if only heterosexuals are making decisions about our data, and the data that comes to us?

Are we people with mental health issues represented in the structures of Namibia’s tech companies? If not, perhaps we should not be surprised that the Internet is not a very healthy place for those with depression, anxiety, or worse.

Maybe we need some bright Namibian web designer to create the next Facebook or Twitter, and keep our data here, before some global social media company is tempted to sell it to Vladimir Putin or Cyril Ramaphosa?

I’ll admit I don’t have all of the answers. Things are developing fast, and we all have to survive in this digital age. Not participating is not an option. But I do think we need to think, strategize and research more around these issues.

Or else, like the poor Nama Captain taken advantage of by Adolf Lüderitz, we’ll find ourselves selling off our data-land and data-ports once again for a few British pounds and a couple of hundred rifles.

Hugh Ellis is a Namibian citizen and lecturer in the Department of Communication of the Namibia University of Science and Technology. The views he expresses here are personal views. Follow Hugh’s blog on http://ellishugh.wordpress.com