The Berkeley Forum gathered a panel of four speakers Thursday to discuss the impact of Silicon Valley and other Western technology industries on the Global South.
Although the panelists came from a variety of backgrounds, they all agreed that large corporations are exploiting workers across the Global South. However, the panelists noted that solutions to this issue remain contentious and complex.
In his opening remarks, Michael Kwet, author of “Digital Colonialism: US Empire and the New Imperialism in the Global South,” emphasized that the consumption of material goods has played a large part in creating the wealth inequality between the Global North and South.
“U.S. tech giants have amassed more wealth than entire countries. Tech executives and investors have more money than God,” Kwet said at the event. “Poor people in the Global South dig in the dirt for metal and perform digital labor for pennies.”
Another panelist, Hugh Morgan, has previously worked as a volunteer coach to senior executives through NGOs like Level Up and Stanford Seed and has worked with several software development teams in the Global South. In his introduction, he addressed ideas like how empires facilitate the spread of technology, how this moment is different from past technological booms, and how these issues are affected by overpopulation.
One of the first questions the panel addressed was to what degree the Global North should withhold patents and other technological developments from the Global South, specifically in the case of COVID-19 vaccines. Panelist Deepti Bharthur, a research fellow with IT for Change, spoke against the withholding of such vital and potentially life-saving information.
“What I do know is this: the efforts of the Global South and other developing countries to ask for vaccine patents was soundly rejected, and I think it’s an absolute shame. It’s a very simplistic, emotional answer,” Bharthur said during the forum. “If we keep tight control of technological resources, you’ll keep repeating patterns of inequality.”
One of the questions for the panel addressed the Global North’s dependency on the Global South and how it might be alleviated. Panelist Yael Perez said one of the most effective solutions would be to increase access to education in the Global South.
Kwet noted that disrupting this dependency is only possible through global planning and cooperation.
“De-centering and tackling structural power is a definite first step,” Bharthur said during the forum. “Dependency is locked in.”
The panelist also talked about mission statements that claim to value diversity and equity, while the companies that espouse them profit off of the exploitation of labor in the Global South. For example, Kwet noted that Amazon, one of the world’s largest corporations, is seeking to build their African headquarters on an indigenous cultural heritage site in South Africa.
In closing remarks, Kwet emphasized the role Americans can play in taking accountability for the actions of these companies.
“What I’m hoping to see happen as time goes on is that the digital justice movement in the United States starts paying closer attention to and trying to work together with people in the Global South,” Kwet said during the forum. “It is our companies that are exploiting people down there.”