When did you last use your fingerprint as identification? When was the last time you had a look at WhatsApp? For most of us, these habits are part of our everyday life. Even though we are used to them today, they cause major disruption and changes, as all new technologies do.

The international research network DiSAA aims to analyze the social and political transformations brought about by digital technology in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. The network brings together fifteen researchers working on the social issues raised by technology, based in India, Kenya, South Africa and Europe.


Technologies and societies, a close bound


Mathieu Quet, an IRD sociologist, co-coordinates the network: "I have been working for many years on exchanges between Kenya and India, in particular on pharmaceutical circulation. During my stay in New Delhi, I worked towards stronger links between researchers in the interdisciplinary ‘Sciences, Technologies, Societies’ field in Kenya and India”. Following a meeting in Nairobi in May 2018, the group formed the international network and included scientists from South Africa.

Digital currency, electronic voting, fingerprint identification, communication technologies in times of protest, etc.: scientists seek to decrypt these technological phenomena having a large impact on our societies. Keith Breckenridge, researcher at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research, studies the history and politics of fingerprinting, for example in the distribution of social grants in South Africa and India: "People are given cash grants. Biometrics have helped to prevent fraud and fight corruption, theoretically. However, their use may lead to other biases such as the asymmetrical power given to the company or the institution managing the system" he explains. With 13 million cash grants beneficiaries in South Africa, we can understand the significance of the issue.

M-PESA, an electronic money system widely used in Kenya, is also a recent phenomenon which is transforming the East African societies. "This system shows that Africa innovates in the digital field," underlines Mathieu Quet, "but it is also revolutionizing means of payment and social and political behaviours associated with them."


New imperialisms?

M-Pesa is a mobile phone-based money transfer service based in Kenya.

© IRD - Mathieu Quet

The originality of the network lies in its focus on technological imperialism. If colonial history still influences international relations, new forms of imperialism are also emerging (role of India and China in Africa, power of philanthropic foundations, etc.). This creates new interdependencies among different countries. "We can even talk about the imperialism of the technologies themselves. Who has never felt that Facebook or WhatsApp sometimes guided their behaviour or opinions?” asks Mathieu.

The researchers chose not only to compare situations between countries, but also to study the relationships and technological relations between Africa and South Asia: "This network is original as it links African studies to Indian ones. Africanists are not used to reading about India and vice versa," said Keith.

The various topics studied by the network will be feature in a collective publication in the next few months, before considering setting up a joint research project bringing together teams based in Europe, Africa and South Asia.