Digital Apartheid

Last week, Twitter announced that it is testing increasing its character limit from 140 to 280 characters. It rolled this out to some users to test. At first, myself included, there was some outrage. After all, Twitter is about brevity. I thought about this, then Twitter allocated me 280 characters to tweet with, then I realized that actually, languages (and by extension cultures) are different.

Allow me to explain.

Perhaps 140 characters are sufficient to express a thought succinctly in English but is it sufficient to express the same thought in Sesotho (I use Sesotho as an example because it is my native language)?

I found myself, after a while, tweeting more regularly, and longer, in Sesotho, being able to also share some idioms in Sesotho to elaborate on my thoughts. This would have previously required more than one tweet. This brings me to the subject of this week's digest, digital apartheid.

Are there perhaps some things that are intentionally or unintentionally built into the technology products and services we use daily that discriminate against different cultures, races, genders etc.?

Earlier this year I spoke to the CEO of one of South Africa's leading public Wi-Fi providers. He explained to me how they deployed their service in various townships in South Africa and realized that people were not registering in the expected numbers on their Wi-Fi hotspots. Upon investigation a few weeks later, they realized that it is because their registration requires an e-mail address, which it occurred that their target users didn't seem to have in this case. They then included an option to register using a mobile number and as was expected, registrations took off and people started using their Wi-Fi hotspots.

Another example, if I may, is Bitcoin mining or running a Bitcoin node. By design, running a Bitcoin mining rig or node requires it to be running 24hours if you are to reap the benefits. This would be fine if Bitcoin was limited to enterprises, for instance, it becomes an issue (for lack of a better phrase) when you consider that Bitcoin is supposed to democratize the storage of value (primarily). Why? Because in some countries, like Nigeria, you would need to be running your Bitcoin mining rig off a generator powered by diesel/petrol 24 hours a day because electricity supply is not reliable to put it diplomatically. The result then is that the scales are tilted, you will likely find more Bitcoin nodes in countries with reliable electricity supply (and Internet connections) than countries that don't.

There are many examples of how UI (user interface), UX (user experience), and engineering of a product or service can intentionally or unintentionally prejudice a specific group in society. It's not even about race. In some cases, it's as simple as considering that it isn't wise to do a data visualization map with red and green dots juxtaposed because you get millions of people who, like myself, are red/green color blind (all I see is dots on such a map).

Have you experienced or witnessed any design bias/prejudice in technology products and services?

This article first appeared on 2 October 2017 in the iAfrikan Weekly Digest Newsletter, a Pan Afrikan weekly digest of the most important stories of the week which includes insights and analysis on the most topical story of the week. Subscribe here to the weekly digest and receive it every Monday morning at 06h00 Central African Time.