The Specter of Digital Colonialism and the Ummatic Imperative

In 2017, the newly minted Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, laid out an innovative and ambitious extension to his still-developing multi-trillion dollar “Vision 2030” modernization plan named NEOM. Envisioned as a futuristic city-state, NEOM was planned for (and is currently being built in) a mostly, though not entirely, desolate region of the Kingdom roughly the size of Belgium. Early input from technology consultants yielded an array of proposals meant to distinguish the futuristic NEOM from the rest of the world, including flying taxis, robot maids, and an artificial moon to light the city at night. Like “Vision 2030” itself, NEOM is said to be part of Saudi Arabia’s future, a bustling hub of innovation, technological progress, and economic activity in a region that has been characterized by Western powers as rigidly adhering to medieval traditions and relevant primarily, if not exclusively, for its natural resources.

Though Bin Salman’s endeavors include more than a little by way of wayward ambition, he is hardly alone. The world is currently awash with countries aggressively modernizing their technology infrastructure and clamoring for collaboration with multinational tech firms. Prime Minister of Pakistan Imran Khan recently announced over Twitter the expansion of Amazon’s operations in his country, describing the move as a “great development,” while Kenya, host to  Konza Technopolis (dubbed “Africa’s Silicon Savannah”), is on the verge of hosting the continents first nanotechnology and semiconductor manufacturer. The mad dash for technological innovation around the globe promises progress for nations suffering under the weight of domestic dispossession, environmental deterioration, and geopolitical disadvantage.

As Muslims envision for themselves a better future, one characterized by ethical and effective theo-political governance, transnational umma solidarity, and ecological revitalization, a pivotal piece of that vision must account for the role and place of technology in such a future. And it is my contention here that the technological future of Muslims cannot merely be accidental to the umma project, but must in fact be one of its key drivers. That is, to say, that the imperative of umma is bolstered by the urgent need to shape a technological future that can overcome the spate of challenges that technology presents to the Muslim community at large.

Perhaps the most significant of these challenges is what Michael Kwet has termed “digital colonialism.” In Kwet’s telling of “digital colonialism,” the imperial tradition of dominating societies economically, exploiting domestic labor, and repressing local populations has been supplanted by a “softer” form of colonial exploits that relies not on machine guns and bombs, but smartphones and connected devices. Google/Alphabet, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, and Microsoft (GAFAM) now comprise the five wealthiest corporations in the world, with a combined market cap exceeding $3 trillion, and their expansion into the Global South provides them the means by which they can control domestic media, access user and institutional information, and affect public opinion while increasing their bottom line. As Kwet writes concerning South Africa, “Google takes 70 percent of local online advertising, while social media – led by Facebook – takes another 12 percent. The major South African media groups are left with just 8 percent of the pie.”

Digital colonialism is abetted through the extraction of user data and undermining of individual privacy. Facebook’s Free Basics, a program providing limited internet connectivity at no cost for developing nations, raised concerns from citizen media and activist group Global Voices for “harvesting huge amounts of metadata about users and violating the principles of net neutrality.” As of July 2019, the program was available in 65 countries including 30 in Africa, though it was met with resistance by digital rights activists who penned an open letter to Mark Zuckerberg regarding “net neutrality, data privacy, digital divide, government censorship, and surveillance.” The spread of this program not only enabled internet access, but drove specific forms of user behavior. In 2012, researchers in Indonesia were surprised to discover that many people reported not using the internet at all though they all used Facebook. Like Facebook, Google, Apple, Amazon, and others collect a raft of user data which is then sold to the highest bidder or used to sharpen their own algorithms to target users more precisely with ads and material that conforms to their predispositions and personality type. Data collection is big business for tech, and the usurping of data from people across the world provides them the means to both monetize that data and influence user behavior and thinking on a wide variety of issues.

In 2012, Facebook conducted “social experiments” on over 700,000 users by manipulating their social media feeds to observe how they would react, an act which generated more than a little outrage and for which they later admitted “failings.” Nevertheless, the collection of user data and use of it by state and non-state actors continues largely unabated. The power of this information is understood perhaps best by global powers. In 2013, the infamous Edward Snowden leak revealed the size and scope of US federal data collection, which included details on the intercepting of data from big tech providers by both the NSA and UK equivalent GCHQ. Technology has also been used to foment unrest in rival states, with a 2014 report on the CIA’s use of Twitter to stir unrest in Cuba. More recently, tech providers collaborated with the Israeli government to censor material considered “incitement” by the Zionist state, while others deliberately silenced the Palestinian voice in what activist and scholar Omar Zahzah dubbed “digital apartheid.”

In discussing the structure and future of the internet, Jason Healey of the Cyber Statecraft Initiative analogized it to a state: although the internet has “paradise-like” potentialities, it is just as likely to end up a “failed state.” Tech writer Sean Gallagher described this “failed state” possibility as one resembling 1970s New York City where “low-level crime remains rampant, while increasingly sophisticated crime syndicates go after big scores. There is a cacophony of hateful speech, vice of every kind, and policemen of various sorts trying to keep a lid on all of it—or at least, trying to keep the chaos away from most law-abiding citizens.”

In keeping with the analog to “statehood,” Alan Jacobs wrote of the internet as an “ecosystem” with individual services playing the role of “states.” In this reading, Facebook, Google, and Apple are better understood as individual states and subsidiaries of the greater whole, and though they may fall, the ecosystem will go on. This ecosystem, relied on too exhaustively (or exclusively), becomes a false god for Evgeny Morozov who warns against the consequences of “solutionism” which denotes the unceasing reliance upon technology to solve all of our problems without consideration given to its power, legitimacy, or morality.

None of this begins to speak to the social costs of technology on the human family. Recent research has shed light on the rise of compulsive internet use, while Dr. Igor Pantic has written on the relationship between internet use and poor mental health outcomes. Joe Cortright writes in a 2015 “Less in Common” report about growing economic segmentation, declining trust, and greater social atomization across the United States. Put simply, people are more lonely, fractured, and depressed than ever before, in large part due to technological dependence.

Can the potential goods of technology be rescued from its existing articulation in modernity? Given the costs of technological apartheid, digital colonialism, and unfettered device addictions, the question is certainly an important one, and how the umma pursues its technological future relates directly to finding an answer. The world economy runs on technology, and the regnant superpowers possess considerable technological advantage which they weaponize as and when needed to enforce and maintain their dominance. Therefore, as attractive as the “Luddite option” may be, it would likely result in social and political suicide for a people already disadvantaged in a technocratic age.

It is here that Alan Jacobs’ “Third Way” may present for us the beginnings of an approach that neither rejects technology nor views its ubiquity as inevitable and necessary. On this, Jacobs writes:

“In an ever more highly developed technological future, mere accommodation will be co-opted; simple resistance will be unsustainable; naked myth-making will be despised and uprooted. But there may be an alternative. The great hope of the books is that one can pass through the technological to the mythical. There may be a path to areophany, to transcendence, that leads first to altering the landscape — terraforming — and then to another kind of transformation, areoforming.”

Arriving at a place where technology is leveraged intentionally, in deep consideration of its implicit assumptions and appreciative of its effective hold, power, and costs, can permit a technological future for the umma of its own making. Instrumentalized in keeping with the ethical and moral framework of Islam, striving towards a meaningful conception of “the good” (in contradistinction with the “empty center” of liberalism), technology can play a crucial role in producing outcomes that are both unique and fruitful for the human community at large.

Although this piece has meditated most pointedly on the question of digital technology, technology should be conceived of more broadly. Military technology, medical technology, and environmental technology are but a few of the many added domains of technological life that animate our world and carry with them attendant risks as well as opportunities for ethical/moral use.

Whatever future is in store for the umma will have to reckon carefully with the question of technology. As it stands, digital technology reigns as a hegemonic force of the powerful. It is a tool by which the powerful export their cultural norms and subordinate, if not extinguish, domestic particularities. It is used by multinationals, in collaboration with federal governments and intelligence agencies, to seize data at will which is then exploited for economic and political gain. But it is also a tool for resistance, for drawing attention to the plight of the powerless, and for subverting the strictures of hegemony and domination. Though this latter activity remains marginal relative to the techno-domination by global elites, its presence should nonetheless be appreciated for understanding a better and more ethical technological future for the umma. In other words, digital technology is not ineluctably dominative, which makes the work of technological formation possible.

The balkanized nation states that comprise the umma today are individually incapable of executing on such a future. Their resources, manpower, and political authority (or lack thereof) lack the capacity to embark on a project of this scale. Small scale collaborations between a handful of allies, though encouraging, will also inevitably fail on this count. Any future sovereignty for the umma and construction of a moral society – economically, politically, socially, or otherwise – will depend in great measure upon its technological future. It is past time to give attention to and plan for it.

And Allah Knows Best.

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