A tale of two worlds and high-tech feudalism

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It is arguably one of the most popular phrases to come out of literary works. Politicians, business people, scholars, and ordinary folks alike have, at some point, quoted it, often with misrepresentations when they seek solace from particular crises or when they wish to inspire others. Charles Dickens probably had no idea how the opening lines in his novel, A Tale of Two Cities, would become such a classic quote.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”

When Charles Dickens wrote the novel, it was, simply put, a time of great contradiction as the French Revolution took hold. Set between the 1770s and 1790s, Dickens weaves a tale against the French Revolution’s political backdrop and the Reign of Terror. The story begins against the backdrop of great social ills in London and Paris. Lucie Mannette’s father, Dr. Mannette, is jailed for 18 years at the Bastille for the cover-up of the rape and killing of Madame Defarge’s sister and brother by the Evrémonde family.

Lucie, who moves to London as an orphan, is eventually told that her father is still alive by Jarvis Lorry, a banker from Tellson’s Bank, who serves as a trustee of the Mannette family. The two go to Paris and find Dr. Mannette, now a shoemaker living with Monsieur and Madame Lafarge, who support the French Revolution. Lucie brings her father to London. In London, she falls in love with Charles Darnay. Earlier in his life, as a member of the Evrémonde family, Charles was so revulsed by the story of his uncle, Marquis St. Evrémonde, telling him of his cart killing a young child and throwing the father, Gaspard, a coin in compensation, that he abandons his titles, lambasts the aristocracy for their treatment of the people and moves to London. In London, Charles is arrested for espionage but is saved because his lawyer’s colleague Sydney Carton looks like him.

As the peasants in Paris storm the Bastille and the French Revolution begins to unfold, and the revolutionaries kill the aristocrats in the streets, Charles learns that Gabelle, who used to work for his family, has been jailed by the revolutionaries during the reign of terror of Maximillian Robespierre. Charles goes back to France and is arrested and put on trial. Due to the respect Dr Mannette commands among the revolutionaries for his time in the Bastille, Charles is acquitted. Later, he is re-arrested because Madame Defarge is hell-bent on destroying the Evrémonde family, including Lucie and their child. He is sentenced to meet the device named after Dr Joseph-Ignace Guillotin’s by the hangman. Sydney makes his way into the prison and swaps his identity with Charles. As Charles and his family flee to London, Sydney meets his death on the guillotine.

Dickens’ historical fiction is indicative of the effects of a revolution. The French Revolution was a violent transition from a feudal society to a democratic society based on the people’s will. It led to the abolishment of slavery in the French Colony. With Robespierre at the helm, it betrayed his call Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity. But many think that the violence of the reign of terror which is described in Dickens’ book, was a necessary pain to achieving a democratic society. Now that we are transitioning to the fourth industrial revolution (4IR), the question is, are we moving to high-tech feudalism where tech mandarins replace the aristocrats and the clergy?

To paraphrase Dickens, the 4IR represents the best of times when artificial intelligence (AI) can do many useful things, such as performing medical diagnostics better than human beings. On the other hand, it also represents the worst of times where it can harm human beings by doing terrible deeds such as undermining democracy and truth. The 4IR represents the age of wisdom where we can use AI for drug discovery and augmenting our intelligence. However, the 4IR is also ushering in an age of foolishness where AI is used to fake prominent people in pornographic settings.

The 4IR is ushering the epoch of belief by expanding and accessing spiritual infrastructure through online churches. On the other hand, it is also ushering the epoch of incredulity, where digital platforms are increasing the proliferation of spiritual leaders whose aim is to enrich themselves and exploit people’s naivety. The 4IR is a season of Light where, like Elon Musk’s company Neuralink, we can install devices that unlock and augment our brain. Alternatively, it is ushering the season of Darkness, where we can use these devices to control people and take away free-will.

In the 4IR, China and the US are emerging as two AI superpowers. Nature tends to converge into two systems. In his book Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman claims that our minds have two systems, one that acts fast and is impulsive, and another which acts slow and is reflective. We have two ears, two eyes, two nostrils, two feet, and two hands. During the nuclear age and the cold war, the world converged into two superpowers, the US and the Soviet Union.

The emergence of two AI superpowers will be consequential for the future of our civilisation. In capitalist countries such as the United States, the rich, especially the techno-billionaires, will yield unprecedented powers to determine many fates. This is fundamentally undemocratic as these techno-billionaires are not elected. On the other hand, in a communist country like China, the State becomes extraordinarily powerful. The countries that are not in the AI game will become economically forgotten and will become poorer. It will be a tale of two worlds.

What are we in South Africa doing about this to avoid the ensuing economic guillotine and prevent an era of economic terror? Last month, the South African Cabinet accepted the recommendations of the Presidential Commission on the 4IR. Accordingly, to avoid the brunt of the tale of two worlds, we have to invest in human capacity development in the areas of AI, blockchain, the internet of things, and other 4IR skills. Secondly, we have to establish the National AI Institute that should focus on applying this technology to our economic sectors. We have to use 4IR technology to improve competitiveness in our manufacturing sector. We have to invest in data for good to stimulate innovation. Additionally, we have to incentivise the adoption of 4IR technologies and build infrastructure to facilitate data and technology available to make sense of data. Furthermore, we have to create laws that enable 4IR and strengthen implementation capacity.

We risk falling prey to the dark underside of a revolution if we do not swiftly act. Just as it did during the French Revolution, history is once again turning in a manner we have not seen before. As we ponder the paradoxical nature of a revolution, we must ask what our own story will look like in the face of tremendous advancement. Frankly, whether this is the best of times or worst of times is up to us.

Professor Tshilidzi Marwala is the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Johannesburg. He is the author of the book: Closing the Gap: The Fourth Industrial Revolution in Africa. Follow him on Twitter at @txm1971.