By Enoch Sithole:
Communication academics from universities across South Africa will gather at the University of the Witwatersrand for the South African Communication Association (SACOMM) annual
conference, under the theme of “Unravelling Big Tech: Power and the Global South”. 

The conference will be a platform for discussions and scholarly engagements – ranging from politics and media, cultural studies, digital media, film, and will include feminist and decolonial theory, said Wits University’s Professor Glenda Daniels, who is also a leading researcher on various aspects of communication and author of the book Power and Loss in South African journalism: news in the age of social media. Big Tech, said Prof Daniels, has brought a lot of good things, but are challenges that need to be dealt with, hence the theme of this conference. These include job losses, journalism sustainability, the state of the newsroom and cyberbullying, added Prof Daniels.

The theme was formulated on the basis that the “stunning technological ingenuity” the world has experienced had resulted in media and technological convergence blurring the lines between historically discreet concepts such as “audiences vs participants, consumers vs creators, distributors vs users, curators vs observers,” reads the SACOMM website. It adds: “New online narrative visual modalities have challenged traditional storytelling conventions. Tremendous technological leaps are being made, but the economic and social benefits remain geographically skewed against countries in the Global South.”

Big Tech has a number of positives, but also some negatives, said Prof Daniels. Considering that normative framings based on the trickle-down model that increasing access and appropriation of technology would lead to radical developmental gains everywhere have failed, according to SACOMM, the conference will discuss ways in which the Global South can contest and defy these limited normative framings. 

The conference will also discuss ways in which alternate digital and online microcosms which inculcate a plurality of decolonial perspectives, innovative ideas, creativity and inclusivity can be instantiated. Furthermore, the event will discuss ways in which Global South scholars can conceptualise ways of mitigating the technological gap, reads the website. 

Prof. Bruce Mutsvairo of the University of Utrecht, Netherlands, will deliver the keynote address under title “Toward an architectonic explication of technology: A South-South standpoint”. Another keynote address will be delivered by Danielle Bowler, a writer with the recently closed New Frame, under the title “Hearing Each Other, in the Glitcch”.  

Scholars will deliver papers on the following themes:

  1. Global South politics and Big Tech
  2. Afrotech and ‘afrofuturism’ (from periphery to centre, representation; technoculture, innovation, steAm, African culture, mythology, diaspora; cosmologies and spiritualities)
  3. Cyborgs and dystopia (surveillance, AI, power, control, ethics)
  4. Anthropocene and ‘technospheres’ (humans, tech, culture, arts, circular economy)
  5. Streaming, gaming and the self(ie) (sharing, streaming, binge-watching, subjectivity, individualism, alienation and so on)
  6. Journalism from the North to the South and the impact of Big Tech:  Shutdowns, censorship, and safety of journalists, press freedom
  7. COVID 19 – enabler or destroyer of domestic space through Big Tech in the home (Netflix and chill culture/ the domestic and care/ Youtube kids and watching without end)
  8. Cyberbullying, celebrity and consumption: spurred on by Big Tech
  9. Big Tech and images of the South: who lives here and who governs the gaze?
  10. Gender work and Big tech: GBV/ gender identities and enabling/ disabling access.

Prof Daniels said, depending on papers from participants, the conference would also address the issue of media freedom. She decried the fact that while there was relative media freedom in South Africa, journalists were still being detained, killed and made to disappear in Eswatini, Zimbabwe and other countries on the sub-continent. In South Africa too, police and political parties displayed tendencies of oppressing journalists, she added.   

The conference expects some 150 delegates, some from various African countries such as Ghana and Nigeria, said conference administrator, Annelize Vermeulen.