Op-Ed: Why African innovation is better than Silicon Valley

Picture: Blue Diamond Gallery

The apps of the future are those that help our lives get better – offline. And that’s why African innovation has the better approach.

By Nnamdi Oranye

It’s been a bad year for Silicon Valley, and things are only just getting started. Uber’s woes continue to compound, with the latest in the last few weeks being the death of Elaine Herzberg in Arizona, after an Uber self-driving vehicle collided with her. It apparently did not see her. Subsequent revelations reveal Uber may have been cutting corners, after installing only one Lidar Array (the technology that helps detect objects) in its car as opposed to its previous seven. (Waymo, Google’s autonomous car effort, installs six).

Then there’s been Facebook’s massive Cambridge Analytica blunder, which is currently putting Zuckerberg under the coals under U.S. congress. When you watch the videos and look at the pictures, Zuckerberg looks like he is undergoing a major baptism of fire. He does not look happy. He seems to be endlessly apologising. And the pressure is not getting any easier.

Google, Apple, and Amazon, for their part, are riding under the radar. Except when they’re making snide remarks at Zuckerberg and Facebook. They’ve played their cards well, up to now. Trump may be saying some vicious words with Jeff Bezos and Amazon, but that’s not affecting business, unlike in Facebook’s case. But Trump plays to popular opinion, and his words might point to what I think is certainly happening: there is a general groundswell against Silicon Valley right now. People are tired of the tech cowboys who just do stuff, break industries, forget regulation, and apologise later. Republican Rep. Greg Walden probably summed it up well when he opened the session in the House with Zuckerberg, saying, “While Facebook has certainly grown, I worry it has not matured. I think it is time to ask whether Facebook may have moved too fast and broken too many things.”

That’s exactly what Silicon Valley has done: moved too fast and broken too many things in the process. Late last year I released a book called Taking on Silicon Valley, which is about how African innovators can (and must, and should) shape our African future, rather than Silicon Valley or China, who are waiting in the wings. I highlighted just how much can continue to break if we continue to give Silicon Valley all the wide open doors we do right now.

Because African innovation is better.

Let me explain. African innovation is about Africans finding solutions to African problems. That is actually how it has come to be defined. When it comes to technology, we’re developing apps that make our lives offline better. That should be our aim and that appears to be our aim in most cases.

Silicon Valley, by contrast, appears to be focused much more narrowly. What began as a revolution to make our lives easier has drifted into keeping our eyes on the screen and our fingers scrolling. Tristan Harris, who used to design for Google, highlights how it works. It’s called intermittent variable rewards, and it’s how slot machines work. You don’t give out a big prize because people will cut their losses and go. Instead, you just keep feeding little prizes, intermittently, and that keeps them glued.

“If you want to maximize addictiveness, all tech designers need to do is link a user’s action (like pulling a lever) with a variable reward. You pull a lever and immediately receive either an enticing reward (a match, a prize!) or nothing. Addictiveness is maximized when the rate of reward is most variable,” he says.

When you open a social media app and it takes a few seconds to refresh, do you know that that’s deliberate? It keeps us in suspense, and then rewards us! And that’s why you do it again! As Harris says, we effectively play a slot machine every time we check for the next notification, or the next email, or refresh our Instagram feed. As far as Harris is concerned, much of this (like email) happened quite by accident, but now it is the responsibility of tech companies to convert intermittent variable rewards into less addictive, more predictable rewards with better design.

I couldn’t agree more. ‘Gamification’ – which effectively is the concept that helps to make Facebook addictive – is a concept that works well for education. But it is also employed by casinos. In a speech, Facebook’s head of marketing, Michelle Klein, basically bragged about how millennials check their phones more than 157 times a day. That’s not healthy – and not even for sustainable business.

The emergence of voices like Harris, as well as ex-Facebook developer Justin Rosenstein, who co-developed the ‘like’ button that has taken over the world, and who has become a fierce critic of the very tools he has helped develop, is absolutely key. Roger McNamee, a venture capitalist and early investor in Google and Amazon, and mentor to Zuckerberg from 2006 – 2010, is another voice that is speaking openly about the possible threats we’re currently facing. And the rather prophetic 2011 essay by Marc Andreessen, “Why Software is Eating the World,” is fascinating. There appears to be one thread that is coming out from this all and it’s this:

The next wave of tech innovation will be all about getting our lives offline.

And I think this presents a fantastic opportunity for African innovation because our innovation is already geared in this fashion. As far as I’m concerned, our innovation is undergirded by the right mindset. The way in which we approach it is to change African lives, solve African problems in the real world, and make things more seamless, easier, and productive, offline. I’ve argued this emphatically in the public in the last five years and I will continue to argue it. We’ve got the right approach to innovation: it’s just that we need to be telling people more about it.

It may even be time, at last, for Facebook competitors to rise and design something better. Imagine a localised, regional, African social network that is designed not to keep you on it and your fingers scrolling, reading fake (or real) news and watching your notifications, but to help us connect and stay in contact on our beautiful, vast continent, in an African way and in African style. I dream of that sort of thing. It could solve a huge amount of our communications issues, if done well. And I don’t have to dream too wild, because I believe that, as long as we stick to how we’re doing it right now, that’s the kind of place we’re going.

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