It is important to remember that technology on its own is not the great equaliser, writes Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane
The fourth industrial revolution is characterised by a merging of technologies that blur the lines between the physical, digital and biological spheres.
It has been speculated that the technologies that underpin the fourth industrial revolution will lead to a paradigm shift in the sociopolitical organisation as it currently exists.
For example, technologies such as artificial intelligence have the potential to lead to a dramatic reduction in the quantity of human labour absorption into the commodity production process.
Undoubtedly, these developments will impose an obligation on lawmakers across the world to formulate new policy measures to address the new challenges faced by modern society.
This will require, among other things, the adaptation and modernisation of existing policies, particularly in the areas of labour market regulation, social protection and welfare.
Historically, the development of the productive forces has always demanded that the law be modified to adapt to the new mode of production.
Writing in his book titled German Ideology, Karl Marx observed: “Whenever, through the development of industry and commerce, new forms of intercourse have been evolved, the law has always been compelled to admit them among the modes of acquiring property.”
If it is true that the technologies associated with the fourth industrial revolution, as is currently speculated, will completely reorganise industry and commerce, thus creating new forms of social intercourse, the law will also be “compelled to admit them among the modes of acquiring property”.
All indications are that data will become the fuel of the fourth industrial society, which means data will become an important piece of property to acquire and own.
Inevitably, the law will have to concern itself with how this property – data – is acquired, by what means it is acquired, how it is (securely) stored and for what purpose it should be used.
The recent scandal involving Facebook and Cambridge Analytica illustrates what could go wrong with the collection and use of data.
Although joining social networking sites such as Facebook is voluntary, which means the users have given consent for these sites to collect their personal data, this case prompted a whole new set of questions about how these sites handle personal information.
Are social networking sites transparent enough with users about how their information would be used?
Should these sites do more to monitor how third parties use the data? More importantly, what kind of laws should be formulated to protect users from abuse of personal information?
Moreover, many of the technologies associated with the fourth industrial revolution have the potential to bring about undesirable externalities.
Gene editing, which can help humanity to prevent genetic diseases and increase life expectancy, can also lead to the creation of monsters who might threaten our existence.
Autonomous weapons can be used for purposes other than those sanctioned by the law.
The difficulty of regulating borderless online services such as Netflix complicate the efforts to protect children from inappropriate internet content.
Not only does this era require new laws, it also requires lawmakers who are alive to these technological changes.
In the South African context, the laws Parliament and provincial legislatures enact will have to minimise these undesirable externalities and, at the same time, respond to our country’s endeavour to deal with the triple challenges of unemployment, poverty and inequality.
Our lawmakers have a responsibility to ensure that, as we transition to the fourth industrial society, we do not lose the idealism of a future society envisioned in the Constitution, including that, “we the people of South Africa ... through our freely elected representatives, adopt this Constitution as the supreme law of the republic so as to lay the foundations for a democratic and open society in which government is based on the will of the people and every citizen is equally protected by law; and improve the quality of life of all citizens and free the potential of each person”.
By providing a platform for broader access to the market, technology has, in many ways, brought to the world the most democratic age of business in human history.
With this came a strong belief that technology would act as the great economic equaliser.
However, recent history has shown that inequalities have increased regardless of the rapidity of modern technology’s diffusion in society.
This means that, for South Africa to achieve quality of life for all our citizens as mandated by the Constitution, legislators will do well to remember that technology on its own is not the great equaliser.
It requires the formulation of proper developmental laws and regulations to achieve a more equal society.
By all indications, the world has reached the end of something.
For many years, we have invested in science and technology for we believed that human progress would be hastened with scientific discoveries.
However, the dream of progress has become the fear of progress.
Our legislators have a huge responsibility to ensure that one of mankind’s greatest achievements does not become its most dreadful tormentor.
Kubayi-Ngubane is the minister of science and technology