Text by Hans Wetzels
What I am mainly interested in, is what technology does to human relations and in societies, how technology itself is formed by humans.
- Prof. Dr. Bart Barendregt
Bart Barendregt is a professor in the Anthropology of Digital Diversity at Leiden University. He lives in a big house in The Hague filled with bookshelves and all kinds of travel paraphernalia from Asia. Since the 1990s he has done field research in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. A big piano stands by the window, an oak cabinet is almost entirely covered by a giant Chinese dragon. ‘I don’t know anything about programming or how an algorithm works,’ Barendregt laughs. ‘What I am mainly interested in, is what technology does to human relations and in societies, how technology itself is formed by humans.’
He had just returned from the Indonesian capital Jakarta where he is the project coordinator of LDE-BRIN Academy: a cooperation of the national scientific organization of Indonesia BRIN (Badan Riset Dan Inovasi Nasional) and the Dutch university collaboration LDE (Leiden-Delft-Erasmus). ‘Jakarta is a super futuristic city,’ the Professor enthusiastically exclaims. ‘Returning back to Holland always feels like coming back to the backwaters of global civilization after a trip like that. Many Europeans forget that the Asian century has already begun in the megacities of the east.’
‘At the same time there isn’t even electricity in many parts of Indonesia,’ he says. ‘Asia is making a technological great leap forward surpassing the west, but it’s also a jump involving different speeds. The difference between high technology cities and underdeveloped hinterlands is very big in Asia.’
AI Apocalypse or Transhumanism
Barendregt’s current research project in Indonesia revolves around questions about how religious communities imagine their futures in a world of rapidly developing technology – with a focus on everyday applications of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in the world of Southeast-Asian Islam.
‘Our Western view on the future and technology is highly influenced by images we receive from movies and Hollywood, and by concepts that are derived from Christian beliefs,’ he explains. ‘Because of such religious motives our imagination of the future centres on the idea of an oncoming AI apocalypse, or on faith in salvation through big data and a transhuman future. I want to know how people from different cultural contexts imagine their future through technology.’
Globalisation has a big influence on this cultural construction of technology, says Barendregt: ‘In many ways Asia has already surpassed Europe. In Singapore there are about 600 robots for every 10.000 inhabitants. They hand out tickets, make coffee or do your vacuuming. In Malaysia there’s a lot of experimenting with drones. It’s not smart tech yet, but the future is much more visible there than what you see in the Netherlands.’
Toward an Islamic View on Technology
Apocalyptic and religious themes connected to technological development are as prominent in the Muslim world as they are in Europe, Barendregt explains. But Islamic state universities or Imams in Indonesia do apply AI-programs, ChatGPT for example, in a much more flexible way than most westerners would expect: ‘Several mosques already use ChatGPT to write their Friday prayers. They have this typical relaxed attitude toward technological development. But there are dangers: users might not be aware of the fact they are importing a specific strand of Islam through online applications. Extremist versions of Wahabi Islam are much more prominent online and also available in English. ChatGPT will feed on that. Moderate versions of South-Asian Islam are often taught in local languages and could be overrun by more radical interpretations from the Middle East.’
However, that does not mean every Islamic view on high technology should be critically scrutinized, Barendregt stresses. He gives an example: Muslim scholars have been working on the Lahore Declaration exploring ethical and community based AI-applications revolving around Islamic values: ‘The future of AI has been colonized by the west; by Hollywood and by Silicon Valley. Looking around in Asia you see how people are developing their own takes on technological progress as a means to decolonize that future and build it themselves. All that can take many different forms. Privacy laws, for example, are less important in Asian cultures. While Europe is endlessly debating data protection, Asia is passing us by in the sheer speed of its development. I’m not saying privacy isn’t important. But Europeans should be aware of what’s going on in the rest of the world.’
Barendregt also visited the Kenyan capital of Nairobi recently for a conference. There he noticed an increase in south-south cooperation between Asian and African countries, scholars and entrepreneurs. ‘In Kenya I spoke to several urban planners and policy developers who were already quite involved with big data and city development in their country,’ he says.
‘Of course Kenya is less wealthy compared to China, or even Indonesia. But Africa does have the same mindset toward technology and in focusing on long-term future planning. More importantly, the continent is increasingly looking toward Asia for cooperation, not Europe. Westerners don’t realize that many countries in what we used to call the global south are now forming new partnerships and have created completely new circulations of knowledge bypassing Europe and the United States. What the next leap in technological progress will be we don’t know. But seeing the direction the world is developing in now the west might just as well be completely left out of it.’