What happens when Westerners discover and acknowledge a series of identifiable facts? According to Western logic, that body of knowledge puts them in a position to create the tools that will enable them to solve problems. Those tools fall into two broad categories: methods and technology.
The methods they create — whether they’re called science or management techniques — focus on the collection and organization of data and the invention of logical procedures that serve to structure sets of rules. They design the rules to produce a desired outcome and apply those rules to analyzing the data. The methods then guide the creation of technologies that render the processes less labor-intensive and increasingly efficient.
For the past 500 years, Westerners, their institutions and, indeed, Western thinking as a whole have worked on the assumption that the tools they create are designed not only to execute manual tasks in the spirit of traditional tool-making, but also to solve problems. This innovative, cultural orientation launched the trend that spawned the Industrial Revolution, radically transforming human environments, both urban and rural. The trend then accelerated, literally reaching the speed of light with the digital revolution in the late 20th century.
The Veiled Face of Data Colonialism Exposed
One of the unstated assumptions that has driven technological progress is the belief that there is no problem that human ingenuity and entrepreneurship cannot solve. One of the consequences of this belief is that we are inclined to see every phenomenon encountered even in our daily lives as a problem to be solved. Typing, for example, provided the solution to communicating with machines, until typing became a problem to be solved by substituting voice commands. That cumbersome problem is now being addressed by technology that treats thought commands. Our ingenuity is incessantly directed at facilitating our control over the environment. Its ultimate manifestation will be the transformation of humans into cyborgs.
Consequently, nobody appears to be interested in a more fundamental question: Do all problems need to be solved? Even more fundamentally, why do we treat so many phenomena of the natural world as nothing more than a problem to be solved?
Accepting to explore the history of thought and the avenues toward knowledge in the rest of the world may help those of us raised and educated with Western values to understand our own tendency to seek to account for everything as if it represented a problem to be solved. This obsession has produced the ultimate problem to be solved: weaning ourselves off our addiction to solving even problems that don’t exist and selling our solutions to others.
The website Aeon features an intriguing essay by the historian Toby Green, who is specialized in the history of West Africa. The article is called “Africa in its Fulness.” Green challenges us to discover the complex historical and cultural reality of a continent that we tend to dismiss as an enigmatic “heart of darkness” that we need not even try to understand as we focus on exploiting its resources. African history has not just been deformed but quite literally annihilated. This is not just through a lack of interest, but also by the Western approach to problem-solving.
In his essay, Green makes an observation that merits serious reflection: “Long into the postcolonial era, the effects of this colonial effort live on in the migration crisis, and the loss of former ways of knowledge that – like those related to ecology, and many other things – have much to offer the world in the 21st century.”
Here is today’s 3D definition:
Ways of knowledge:
For most of humanity and throughout human history, avenues toward creating a living relationship with the environment and even the universe that lead to the construction of human understanding. For Western culture, the collection and exploitation of proprietary data for the purposes of identifying problems to be solved thanks to monetizable problem-solving ingenuity.
Green reminds us that African civilizations, whose cultures the West has alternately ignored or sought to suppress, possess “ways of knowledge.” This puts them in direct contrast with the West’s conception of “bodies of knowledge.” The West now finds itself on the brink of exhausting its own preferred way of knowledge, a way that has focused on extraction, exploitation and production. It justifies itself by the infernal logic of obsessively seeking or even creating problems in order to have new problems to solve.
Climate change stands as a prime example of this logic. Green suggests that humanity, at least in Africa, may have approaches — call them “unexploited resources” — that can save us from the self-destruction that compulsive problem-solving entails. Alas, these purely human resources have no easily discernable monetary value.
Africa provided the original home of humanity. It also happens to be the richest continent on the planet for its sheer quantity of natural resources. Africa “has approximately 30 percent of the earth’s remaining mineral resources.” As every student of modern history should know, Africa has also been the most brutally exploited continent for the past five or six centuries. That history includes all of European colonial history dating back to the 15th century, the mad imperial conquests of competing European powers during the 19th and early 20th century, the neocolonial American empire of the late 20th century, and now the iron-fisted logic of global capitalism that has brought China into the game as a major player.
When most Westerners deign to ponder the issues they associate with Africa’s history, their thoughts tend to coalesce around three words and the values they associate with them: “slavery” (bad), “colonization” (mostly bad but now sealed off in the past) and “independence” (good but fatally flawed). Connecting the three concepts to make sense of history introduces a new challenge. It’s one that most Westerners have no time or inclination to address, if only because of Africa’s bewildering diversity. It entails looking to Africans to draw on their own history and culture to build their own prosperity.
What our consideration of those three concepts — slavery, colonization and even independence — takes for granted is the idea that it is all about finding and implementing the most efficient form of exploitation. In Western terms, it goes without saying that this has little to do with people; it’s about extracting resources and creating wealth.
As Westerners assume the traditional role they long ago assigned to themselves of being the indispensable instrumental agents endowed with the talent of turning resources into wealth, one of the biggest problems they must then solve is to devise an effective way of sharing some of that created wealth with the natives. It also implies deciding which natives deserve to be designated as the worthy partners of those who know how to maximize wealth creation, whether it’s the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, PricewaterhouseCoopers or Goldman Sachs. As soon as the question is framed in those terms, it should be obvious that it is all about the exploitation of people rather than the creation of wealth and cultural enrichment.
Toby Green reminds us of a truth few in the West are willing to acknowledge: “Africa is a voice to be heard, not a problem to be solved.” But the West has consistently denied Africa’s voice, feigned not to have heard it or actively moved to deprive the continent of its voice. The slave traders of the 17th and 18th centuries understood the value of separating slaves who spoke the same language during the transfer to North America. This served the dual purpose of making anything beyond basic communication impossible and destroying the cultural memory of slaves. It was the perfect strategy for preventing insurrection and rebellion.
The bodies of slaves, their muscles combined with their mobility, were the first African resource exploited by Westerners. By the time slavery was finally outlawed in the 19th century, the Western world had reached a point of technological mastery that allowed its nations to focus on pillaging the resources of the continent itself. The bodies could remain in Africa and work under the supervision of Europeans and, later, Americans or Chinese to scientifically exploit the full variety of available resources, essentially mineral and agricultural but definitely not cultural. The culture that could supervise and make sense of all that was — and still is — made in the nations that master technology.
If we in the West could hear the voice of Africa, if we simply allowed it to be heard, we would certainly have something to learn that could contribute to solving the monumental problems our civilization has created. That voice, which can reveal the unacknowledged “ways of knowledge” that Green mentions, remains largely silenced. Having exploited African bodies for centuries, the West now focuses on the project of strengthening its own most precious body: its “body of knowledge.”
That body — stuffed not just with big data, but also with the statistics that reveal the secrets of our behavioral patterns and personal decision-making — will increasingly serve a new purpose. The force of that body, which we see as our latter-day slave, is already being made available to our emerging brain: artificial intelligence. This new super body aims reassuringly at processing as efficiently as possible the knowledge that will facilitate the solving of an ever-expanding bank of problems.
Perhaps the West has reached the point where it should consider abandoning its obsession with seeking bodies to exploit — whether it’s the bodies of slaves or bodies of knowledge — and look for an opening into the ways of knowledge that are still alive, as Toby Green suggests, in parts of Africa.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.