/ 21 April 2023

Friday is a feeling | Call me old-fashioned but human beings are still valuable

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Retold wrong: An auction of enslaved people in America in the early 19th century. Image: Rischgitz/Getty Images

When I first read George Orwell’s novel 1984, it was before social media and it sounded like hyperbole. Published in 1949, it is a cautionary tale about a dystopian society where mass surveillance is enforced by Big Brother. 

I’m a history student and I remember scoffing at the idea of working as a “revisionist”. I tried to imagine a world where the facts and truth could be revised to suit a narrative that benefitted the powers-that-be and I concluded it was ridiculous. 

To my young mind, Orwell’s world was like Star Trek but as a horror movie. It felt like going backwards on everything we’d worked so hard for as humanity to achieve individual and collective freedom. 

As an African, I am committed to documenting history because of how badly our stories have been told and retold over the centuries. It was being a history student that made me want to be a journalist. The importance of telling people’s stories — properly and without bias — has always been a great motivation. 

My love for storytelling started when I read The Diary of Anne Frank. I was a teenager and was heartbroken that someone as young as me could go through the holocaust. As I read her account of what was happening to her and her family in the concentration camps I was in tears, glad she had decided to keep a journal to chronicle the atrocities of the Nazis, so we could know the truth. 

Going into history class and getting the hard facts about how deep Hitler’s hatred for Jewish people went, I was astonished that he could mobilise so many people to hate a group of people that had done nothing but be Jewish. From then, I knew telling stories was pivotal to the preservation of the human race.

Later, I learned about the slave trade, how people were abducted, sold and shipped to America. (Side note: this is why I’m amazed at racist white Americans who tell black Americans to “go back to Africa” as if they arrived in America on a cruise and decided to extend their vacation.) 

Both here, on the continent, and in America, the story of the slave trade was remixed and changed so it didn’t look like a human rights atrocity but more white saviours helping the poor blacks. Apartheid was the same — black people had to be relegated to townships and homelands, so white people could have vineyards and beach houses. But when one human being suffers, we all suffer. 

I have realised there are different ways to tell a story and that a good story is enduring. After the introduction of social media, I went back to 1984. This time, I was not so smug. 

With the introduction of AI, the message in 1984 is starting to sound like life imitating art. A couple of weeks ago, a rap verse in Jay Z’s voice went viral — it was AI recorded and sparked a debate around using people’s likenesses without their consent and the dangers of using someone’s face and voice to push a message that has nothing to do with them. 

Our fellow South African, Mr Tesla himself, may have made the electric car sexy but even he has reservations about AI and what it could mean for humanity. In a recent interview with Fox News, the Twitter owner said: “AI is perhaps more dangerous than mismanaged aircraft design or production maintenance or bad car production because it has the potential for civilisational destruction.”

Elon Musk might sound like he is talking about Minority Report but he is right. Because humans tend to only regulate once something has gone wrong, by the time the average Joe — that is me — realises the dangers of AI, it might be too late. 

I’m not even going to talk about taking livelihoods from starving artists or equipping scammers with even more tech tools to con people, I am worried about governments and facts being revised and mangled in order to control us even more. 

Now, before it sounds like I’m all doom and gloom, I’m just saying, like Erykah Badu first told us in 2008, we need to stay woke. The analogue world is still crucial to civilization. 

It’s not just about collecting vinyls and old cameras, it’s about not being distracted by new tech that none of us really need or understand the impact of. Our freedom is at stake. This is why I’m not only passionate about the art of storytelling, I’m also a firm believer in the arts and how artists create messages from source. 

When Kimberley Schoeman and I started talking about the Watches and Wonders luxury extravaganza that just took place in Geneva, I realised why I want to collect timepieces like Vacheron Constantin, Omega or Audemars Piguet. Craftsmanship is about imagination, creativity and how incredibly gifted human beings are. From the jump I knew I didn’t want to own an Apple Watch because I don’t need that kind of body surveillance in my life. 

What I need and deserve is to wear something made with love, that I love and that my children’s children can pick up in 50 years and it will be more valuable then than it is now. Call me old-fashioned but human beings are still valuable, we’re creators. This is why we should heed our creations.