During August of 2011, Marc Andreessen (founder of among the first widely used web browsers - Mosaic, co-founder of Netscape, and currently co-founder and general partner at venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz) wrote an article for the Wall Street Journal titled “Why Software Is Eating The World.” In it he explains a trend he was observing at the time and how the infrastructure and technology necessary to disrupt and innovate within industries using software is now in place and allows such solutions to be implemented at a global scale.

In short, it means that a lot of our world and the world around us is now readable by software, allowing the software to provide insights, analytics, and more.

However, with many things becoming readable to software comes the potential downside, big data is watching you and everything you do.

Reframing the 4th Industrial Revolution

Sometimes I am asked to speak across Africa on the 4th Industrial Revolution and emerging technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), Blockchain technology, and many more, as to how they impact Africa (and its individual states) and how we as Africans can harness these technologies to improve lives and business across the continent. In such cases, I take a few steps back and reframe the topic from a different perspective (don’t worry, I will get back to the downside of why big data is watching you shortly).

For me, before we can even talk about and frame what is happening currently and what we’d like to happen in the future from a 4th Industrial Revolution perspective, we need to understand the steps and things that need to happen before anything can become readable by software and thus be able to use AI and other emerging new technologies.

Making everything readable by software

Essentially, before anything can become readable by software it needs to be transformed to data, i.e. it needs to be digitized because anything that follows afterward (AI, data analytics, ride-hailing which needs digitized maps, etc.) needs to interpret data to offer value-added services.

For this to happen, i.e. taking things that are offline and making them readable by software and available across the Internet, several things need to happen first like broadband infrastructure, data collection and capturing and more, and, across most parts of the continent, many things are not yet readable by software.

Now, with that context in mind, let’s go back to the positives and negatives of big data watching you.

The good and bad news of a digitized Africa

First, the good news. With your activity being tracked, e.g. for health and nutrition purposes, you are not only able to stay healthy but you (and your doctor) get to understand your body that much better in terms of what works or not. This has led to a whole industry of health practitioners who use your personal data to recommend nutrition and exercises specifically suited to you. Similar applies to tracking car data which allows us in advance to know which roads to avoid in cases of traffic and which routes will get us to our destinations quicker. This extends to retail too, for example, one retailer in South Africa has a rewards type program linked to a rewards card which you swipe (it records all the items you have bought, when you bought them, and at what price) and it not only offers you rewards or general discounts but also discounts only for you based on the items you regularly purchase. Typically, they would e-mail/text you a discount offer on your regularly purchased items.

There are many more examples of how big data is helpful. However, the downsides of big data are potentially harmful.

Big Data and data analytics can be used to discriminate, for example, against a black person who was a first-time offender and was deemed more potentially harmful to society than a white male who was a hardened criminal. There’s also the now infamous example of how a microfinance app in Kenya requires full permissions to customers’ mobile phones including their texts (the app literally saves customers texts on the company’s servers), call logs, app usage, and more in order to be able to advance loans to them. This is a case of Big Data not only watching your every move (the app also logs users’ location data) but also holding a customer to ransom considering that people who typically request loans from the app are typically low-income earners, as such, they are required to give up all their privacy in exchange for a loan.

These examples are probably just a small part of what is about to happen in the near future as we speed towards making everything readable by software. As I explained above, it is not all bad, but the negative side of big data watching our every move is a bit unnerving.

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