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Hackernoon logoWeb 3.0 and the Semantics of Global Immigration by@natasha

Web 3.0 and the Semantics of Global Immigration

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@natashaNatasha Nel

👋 I'm the Managing Editor here at Hacker Noon. I also make podcasts and write stories.

I saw the phrase “distance-shrinking technologies” in the UN’s 2020 World Migration Report yesterday and haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since.

I guess you’re wondering why I’d be reading such a thing on an otherwise average Tuesday afternoon, publishing tech stories and making podcasts.

The thing is, I’m an immigrant — technically speaking — and I’m failing at it, miserably. In a very first-world-problems kind of way, but still. Failing. Flailing, even. Falling, too. (Off of my bicycle, literally.) 

I immigrated (see: escaped) from Cape Town, South Africa, to Amsterdam, in the Netherlands, three days before they started shutting the borders down. I was lucky. In a way. The Dutch kept their freedoms: leaving the house, exercising outside, being able to buy things like alcohol and weed. 

Lockdown in SA, by contrast, was total, and terrifying: overnight, the price of a packet of cigarettes not only quintupled, but you also had to have shady connections in dark, underground-parking-lot-type places to get your hands on a smoke — all the while dodging the notorious apartheid-era South African Defence Force, who’d been deployed to keep people inside of their homes using force — if necessary. (All of this is not to say you should feel sorry, hell no — South Africans are scrappy as fuck. ‘’n Boer maak 'n plan,’ as the now probably quite controversial saying goes.) 

This is all just to say I should feel very lucky indeed, to have had the option to escape to first-world Fortress Europe when the world caught fire in March this year. Thing is, I don’t. And, because it’s part of my personality to consume copious amounts of information when overwhelmed, I’m reading the UN’s 2020 World Migration Report.

It begins:

As the processes of globalization deepen, these transformations increasingly shape our lives... Increasing numbers of people are able to access information, goods and services from around the world because of the ongoing expansion in distance-shrinking technologies. There is also a sense that we are in the midst of a period of considerable uncertainty. Others are calling this time the “age of anger”, tracing back the current sense of geopolitical uncertainty and discontent to a dominant and relentless focus on “logic” and “liberal rationalism” at the expense of emotional responsiveness.”

Did you know that at least 3.5% of the world’s total population are currently classified as international migrants?

Those 272 million ‘international migrants’ are grouped into separate categories of people, dependent on their reason for mobilizing. 

One such category is the ‘forcibly displaced’ : an estimated 1% of our planet’s total population at the end of 2019, already — 1% being unprecedented 79.5 million human beings, in need of refuge.  

Among the forcibly displaced, there exist:

  • 3.5 million asylum seekers (people in need of international protection from danger in their country of origin, but whose application for refugee status hasn’t been decided),
  • 25.9 million refugees (forced to flee their homes due to conflict, violence, or persecution), and
  • 41.3 million IDPs (persons seeking temporary refuge somewhere still within their own country as a result of conflict, epidemic, or natural disaster where they live). 

I am not among the forcibly displaced. Like I said, lucky. But my discomfort with my voluntary displacement has made me very curious about the subject of migration, and considering it’s one of today’s most critical social and political issues, I think it warrants an attempt at understanding.

There are a lot of false choices and constructed dichotomies in the stories we tell ourselves about human migration. But being mobile is something Sapiens have been compelled to do since the beginning of our species — “no other animal had ever moved into such a huge variety of radically different habitats so quickly, everywhere using virtually the same genes.” 

Today, entire elections are bet on immigration policies — feel free to listen to The New York Times’ Daily Podcast exposé on Trump's Immigration Crackdown cover-ups for the most recent confirmation of that fact. 

Opposing immigration has been a central pillar of the platforms of extremist parties in many Western countries, in the Leave campaign against British membership in the European Union, and in Donald Trump’s election as U.S. president.” 

I was recently at a dinner with friends of my Dutch partner, one of whom I heard through the grapevine (openly) voted for the right-wing populist party currently gaining ground in the Netherlands. 

When he at dinner (again, openly) expressed anti-immigration sentiments, I implicitly understood that he wasn’t referring to immigrants "like me" (I wonder, did he?), but I didn’t have the balls to call him on it. Hey, why is it that we call some people ‘expats’, and others, ‘immigrants’? 

And now for some more fascinating insight from the UN’s 2020 World Migration report: 

  • International remittances increased to $689 billion in 2018
  • The top 3 remittance recipients were India (USD 78.6 billion), China (USD 67.4 billion) and Mexico (USD 35.7 billion).
  • The United States remained the top remittance-sending country (USD 68.0 billion) followed by the United Arab Emirates (USD 44.4 billion) and Saudi Arabia (USD 36.1 billion).”

What is a remittance?

“A remittance is a transfer of money, often by a foreign worker to an individual in their home country. Money sent home by migrants competes with international aid as one of the largest financial inflows to developing countries.” — Wikipedia

So, the existence of migrant workers is one of the biggest levers the Global South has to pull when it comes to the fair distribution of wealth, globally? 

Interesting. I mean, I can totally see why you might be against that — assuming you haven’t yet seen the link between the unfair distribution of wealth and the existence of migrant workers…

But that’s neither here nor there.

For the purposes of this platform, I’m interested in taking a look at the so-called “distance-shrinking technologies” driving and enabling 2020’s unprecedented global migration patterns and opinions, because that term doesn’t resonate — I suppose more existentially than literally — with the way I experience technology.

As the UN’s World Migration Report later acknowledges:

“International migration has increasingly become weaponized. It is being used by some as a political tool, undermining democracy and inclusive civic engagement, by tapping into the understandable fear in communities that stems from the accelerated pace of change and rising uncertainty of our times. Some leaders seek to divide communities on the issue of migration, downplaying the significant benefits and enrichment migration brings and steadfastly ignoring our migration histories. And we are increasingly witnessing the harnessing of social media as a means of division and polarization.” 

Indeed, the things our world leaders say and don’t say about migrants on social media have increasingly violent and confused consequences IRL.

An ugly irony: the tech unfortunate people use to send and receive real-time, potentially life-saving information during migration journeys from developing nations to established economies is the same tech those economic powers then use to ensure more fortunate people will turn against them when they arrive. 

That same tech sends remittances, helps migrants avoid exploitation, enables human trafficking, supports integration in new countries, spreads misinformation, creates digital identities, emboldens far-right extremism, banks the unbanked, automates jobs, changes labour markets, tracks climate change, maps wildfires, wins elections… 

For our new Hacker Noon podcast series, I asked a few top contributors to tell me what everybody should be most (a) excited about and (b) worried about — tech-wise — for the future, and why. 

“Technology must solve the problems of technology.” — Tian Zhao, Product Designer

Tian Zhao said he’s most excited about Web 3.0: the third generation of internet services for sites and applications that’ll use a machine learning-based understanding of data to provide a more intelligent web.  

What is Web 3.0? 

Web 3.0 is an internet smart enough to vibe check your semantic intent, and 3D enough to ensure you’ll never have to leave your smart home again. 

At its best, applications of AI in Web 3.0 like Natural Language Processing (NLP) promise to “throttle the ‘wisdom of the crowds’ from turning into the ‘madness of the mobs’, by balancing it with a respect of experts,” says the serial entrepreneur currently ranking first with a featured snippet for ‘web 3.0 definition’ — “leaving behind the cowardly anonymous contributors and the selfish blackhat SEOs that have polluted and diminished so many communities.”

The idea is that by giving our machines the capacity to go beyond keywords and understand context, the quality of information ‘going viral’ on the internet will improve. 

A simple example:

Wikipedia, considered a Web 1.5 service, is experiencing the start of the Web 3.0 movement by locking pages down as they reach completion, and (at least in their German version) requiring edits to flow through trusted experts.

For those who haven’t been around long enough to remember: Web 1.0 was pretty much about building the internet: protocols like HTTP, open standard markup languages like HTML and XML, Internet access through ISPs, the earliest web browsers, web dev tools, languages like Java and Javascript, creating websites, commercializing and developing early web business models, etc. With Web 2.0 came Facebook and friends, more wikis, ALL of the communication platforms, and tagging folksonomies.

We thought Web 2.0 would facilitate inclusion and collaboration. Were we completely wrong? Of course not. In unprecedented times, people build unprecedentedly amazing solutions. We all know good news doesn’t grab as many headlines. But while #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter are often celebrated as wins for Web 2.0 in mobilizing the masses for social change, I’d argue the jury’s still out on that one. Let’s talk again after November. 

What will Web 3.0 mean for migrants and mobility?

Many expect that Web 3.0 will not only make the internet smarter and more secure but also ensure that all of its data is organized in a more meaningful way. ‘Meaningful’ — as determined by..? Machines, naturally. Machines programmed by..? My question is: who or what exactly will build Web 3.0? 

“Blockchain will build Web 3.0.” — Jamie Burke, Founder, at the 2016 NEXT Conference

In advocating for blockchain and AI adoption and immigration, largely because the “founders of companies such as Google, Yahoo!, eBay, Intel, and Paypal have been immigrants,” The Blockchain Council argues this decade’s most hyped (and least widely adopted?) decentralized tech can help speed up the distribution of aid funds, add security transparency to each point in a digital exchange, and better track global payments.

It’s even a listed action under the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, #SDGAction31113: “Integration of Blockchain and Artificial Intelligence tools to optimise processes and increase transparency, fairness and accountability in the field of international legal migration” (latest progress report, pending): 

That’s some real expensive vocabulary they’re throwing around to say, essentially: “Hey, how can we perhaps prevent 250,000 migrant domestic workers from being stranded without access to their money or passports next time a bunch of ammonium nitrate the government stored beneath their children’s feet explodes in Lebanon?” 

Since it seems people are still only trying to create decentralized, blockchain-based replacements for all our major services (removing power from Big Banks and Big Tech at the same time? Beautiful! What are we waiting for?); and all the blogs and studies and SDGs about its potential impact on immigration are still being posed as clickbaity questions, coulds and maybes ("Is Blockchain the Holy Grail for Global Immigration?", "This new technology could be the solution to Trump’s border crisis!"), let’s talk semantics.

"What does semantics really mean? What is the difference between 'I love Bitcoin' and 'I <3 Bitcoin'?"

Indeed: what is the difference between the CEO of Space tweeting "Take the Red Pill" and a 22-year-old in Santa Barbara shooting 6 people after years of openly identifying online as an incel (involuntarily celibate) “even after taking the red pill”?

It appears one of Web 3.0’s aims is for AI to enable an internet able to process data with intelligence comparable to humans, while preventing that data from being manipulated by humans (think viral Covid-19 doccies filled with misinformation, or fake Amazon reviews). 

This semantic superpower promises to provide us with faster, more reliable data, which I suppose is what people mean when they talk about a more intelligent internet.  

What are the semantics of global immigration? 

An easy way to understand semantics is to consider again the distinction between ‘expat’ and ‘immigrant’. The terms are so loaded with racial, classist, and economic assumption, it’s a real wonder it took us until 2017 to start questioning their usage. 

In our Web 3.0 utopia, what kinds of content will be served to a person looking for integration advice for immigrants vs. someone looking for integration advice for expats? 

Will Web 3.0 simply be a smarter, faster, distance-enhancing echo-chamber for people looking for confirmation of their most divisive, misguided fears? 

Who decides?


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