THE REAL NUMBERS: Pali Lehohla is the former Statistician-General for Statistics South Africa

JOHANNESBURG - Nick Durrant of Bluegrass Digital and Wesley Diphoko of Kaya Labs make important points as regards our immersion in the transient wave of fourth industrial revolution and what one may term the incipient fifth industrial revolution with all its future derivative forms.

Diphoko picking up on the onslaught of what Elon Musk terms misinformation that is directed by fossil fuel companies on Tesla - the electric car that presumably threatens fossil fuel companies - discusses in the main the foundational architecture and the central thrust of governance of data, information and statistics in the context of greed for accumulation.

Durrant, in a complementary way, discusses social engineering, but points to the limits of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in social engineering again in the context of chasing finance.

My attempt is to bring these complementary views and add them as a nascent body of evidence on what in one occasional paper I termed the “tyranny of money, technology and statistics”. All signals point to this ultimate end given our unfettered and incessant flattery with these three forces of finance, technology and statistics.

I draw on the works of Helmut Spinner, Geoffrey West and Vincent Hendricks. I juxtapose this framing in the all-important Durrant-Diphoko nexus.

Both themes by Diphoko and Durrant illustrate how the ubiquitous influence of technology on society is poised to shape the world. This is whereby the quest for achieving the mantra of leave no one behind espoused by the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is reaching feverish altitudes, but paradoxically by potentially delivering the opposite.

The question is whether the unavoidable tyranny of finance, technology, data and politics can be mediated by a rights-based democracy? Whether those who rule can reverse this inevitability by instead governing?

If those who, independent of their will, find themselves as drivers and victims of this emergent edifice are capable of shackling off their electronic chains of bondage?

In response to the massive challenges poised by this ensuring tyranny, the hapless Facebook hearings in the US, the hurriedly invented new privacy laws passed by the eurozone and the silent panic striking the rest of the world, especially Africa with its monumental victimhood and inaction.

The point is that hearings or no hearings, rules or no rules, for now we have no framework to deal with these insurmountable challenges.

In a globalised world of technology you need global frameworks to set the accountability right. The efforts are hapless in that they are only made relevant in their jurisdictions and clutch at straws when it comes to privacy.

The global "own affairs" approach throughout the past 130 years to technology has not been very helpful and victimised Africans the most.

Helmut Spinner of Karlsruhe Institute, in his seminal lecture to the Economic Community of European statisticians in 1998, makes an important point on the role official statistics plays in society.

This he did especially in anticipation of the dangers accompanying the tyranny of money, technology and statistics. He correctly argues that the meta strictures of technological input to development have been solved. What remains are the uptake conditions and these are three in the main.

First, information must be free, freely available simultaneously and everywhere. Second, society must be literate in order to interrogate validity of information and formulate own opinions and third the values of free choice must be experiences lived and not just desired.

I would confidently conclude that the intersection of this triumvirate enhances the positive effects of these three important resources of finance, technology and statistics for the good of society if these conditions are met.

But, unfortunately, all three crucial conditions have not been met, leaving a fertile vacuum that the tyranny of finance, technology and statistics have to occupy.

Geoffrey West in his book titled Scale discusses how unbounded growth requires accelerating cycles of innovation to avoid collapse.

The cycles of innovation in time are getting shorter and shorter and are asymptotically approaching saturation of the socio-economic metric of possibilities.

Vincent Hendricks makes an important observation that social media is about the economics of attention.

It follows a power law whereby only a handful of individuals in the world hog up to 80percent of the world's attention.

Hendricks and Vestergraad, in Postfaktisch 2018, observe that the world democracy has entered a post-factual state. They define this as a state when opportune political narratives, but factually incorrect information replace facts and evidence as basis for political debate, opinion formation and policy making.

My synthesis of this complex set of interests and interactions leads to three conclusions which are as follows.

First, as African statisticians we anticipated that data revolution without a global governance, and in particular intergovernmental facility for its management, will precipitate conflict that can lead to a world war. It was in this connection that we asked the UN secretary-general to introduce and implement an intergovernmental platform in the UN to lead the interrelated matters of finance, technology and statistics. Unfortunately, this resolution was never taken.


We would be naive, though, to imagine that the taking of the resolution would solve Elon Musk's problems - far from it, and quite the contrary. What the resolution would facilitate, however, would be to ensure that the discussions take place in the context of a semblance of a rules-based paradigm. That opportunity was lost, unfortunately.

Second, in the place of this possibility, we see the powerful nations and powerful regional blocks moving ahead, leaving the weak and disorganised to be fodder for the enabled. A perfect scenario for leaving everyone behind in the fourth industrial revolution - except those in front - has emerged.

Third, in similar ways the developed world will hatch an 1881 Versailles-type compromise which was followed by the 1884 Berlin conference to colonise the rest. When that fails, as happened with World War I, the powerful will come with a League of Nations-type solution. When that fails, as it did with the outbreak of World War II, again the powerful will bring about a Washington consensus under the Bretton Woods-type bandage.

And when that fails, as precipitated by the 2008 financial and economic crisis, there will be a constant but accelerating disequilibrium swinging from bipolar to unipolar finance-driven matrimony of private multinational bodies with the weakened state. This matrimony will be presided over by technology with faked statistics as the straw man “mbongi” or praise singer - Hendricks's “perfect democratic post-factual state” will have been globally achieved.

The discourse by the two articles of Brummer and Diphoko that appeared in Business Report on May 25 have brought the emergent on-the-ground-experiences to the philosophical postulates discussed.

They cause the tyre to hit the tarmac and give us a taste of bitter inevitability. They thus force us to focus on the importance and immediacy of what needs to be done if we are not to be cooked like frogs.

The tyranny of money, technology and statistics left to their own devices would be a danger to society in that it would open doors to benefit from harmful practices, undermine science by denial, cast doubt when cornered, enlist a pack of litigants to avoid class costs and limit innovation and destroy competition through monopolistic practices and the advent of a monopsony (a market situation in which there is only one buyer) inspired bribery.

If the world slumbers in this episode of increasingly shorter and shorter cycles of technological developments against a significant proportion of the population left behind, then Geoffrey West's collapse is inevitable and the SDGs project will have ground to a halt.

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Dr Pali Lehohla is the former Statistician-General of South Africa and former head of Statistics South Africa.

The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.