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Human Agency in the Internet of Things

What is the effect of the IoT on free will and self determination particularly for Africans?


The pervasive, always on, ubiquitous internet of things; also referred to the internet of everything and the Evernet is no longer the stuff of science fiction. Have we however, considered the effects over time of IoT on our free will, free expression of ideas and self determination – our human agency? Furthermore have we placed enough significance on the agency of the African citizen in the IoT?


As more and more people make good on their wish lists of Fitbits, contact lenses with cameras and smart watches, the possibilities for harnessing personal and behavioural data seem infinite. Clouds of data will combine with complex algorithms in deep neural networks to make sense of the big (read gargantuan) data emerging from the cameras, sensors and actuators literally all around us, if not on us. Then the data is intelligently applied. In time, not only will we be presented with best fit restaurants, movies, career paths and travel destinations, but we will be classified according to insurance risks, health conditions, voting patterns, and propensity to commit crime…and so will our children. Furthermore IoT’s predictive analysis promise means virtual reality schools generating custom curricula, machines diagnosing illness and administering medication and an alarm clock that wakes you according to your schedule for the day.


It’s dawning that the IoT is more than the smart fridge that analyses its contents and generates

shopping lists. While smart fridges may be our first experience, we need to prepare for seamless

processes and invisible things that connect the microscopic data of our existence and will guide the decisions we freely make today.


The burgeoning concern around legal and ethical parameters of IoT is about the preservation of so called human agency. With access to authoritative knowledge at the fingertips of the IoT networks will we default to machine responses and choices? When will we favour human choices if at all? How comfortable are we with algorithms selecting the optimal curriculum for our children or selecting optimal medication?


Looking at emerging discourse from internet governance thinkers, it seems there are 3 crucial levels at which this issue is to be addressed:


For internet policy stewards the question is must be how we provide for a commitment to human agency. The internet of things is a complex ecosystem of products, services, vendors, not to mention developers, engineers and of course, users. The seminal policy issue is getting the ecosystem to preserve powers of self-determination and choice through appropriate policy and regulatory instruments.


At the technical level, the inquiry is how does IoT embed this human choice? What is proposed is a coding of human rights, social and cultural norms into the workings of IoT and a capability to respond to change including political and environmental changes that may have a bearing on choices that must be offered to humans. Difficult to perceive? Imagine that all the technological determinants or results from IoT are poised to render the results in the context of a million human conditions.


At the citizen level, we need to stop avoiding conversations on complex technology policies and laws. The pervasiveness of IoT means its everyone’s thing and we need to engage fully on the legal and ethical parameters. This should be driven by civil society actors who need to place IoT effects on their agenda.


This brings me to my concern over the inclusion of the African narrative in setting the legal and ethical parameters for IoT. I have for some time held the conviction that human agency amongst many Africans in the globalised world is a fiction. By this I mean, the legacy of slavery, colonialism and industrialisation to name a few have resulted in a paradigm prison for Africans particularly when it comes to definitions of success, education, entrepreneurship etc. on the global stage. African endeavour must correlate with the accepted dominant way popularised by American and European norms for recognition.


With IoT comes a new challenge for African inclusion or exclusion. Even while global internet

stewards argue for the need for technological determinants to be informed by human contexts,

Africans need to ensure that the contexts include the African narrative. Challenges, voices, choices and powers unique to the diverse African citizen set must be coded too. Or once again, we face exclusion from the norm of the future reducing Africa to safari, tourism, poverty and aid yet again and perhaps more permanently.

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