Sunday, 18 September 2011

The mobile internet and the ‘reinvention’ of the Africans.

The mobile internet and the ‘reinvention’ of the Africans.
By Takura Zhangazha


We are potentially all the same now. And that is thanks to that gadget we call the cellular or mobile telephone. It is thing that should make us all very grateful to whoever is credited with inventing the gadget. This gratitude however depends on what  you use the mobile phone for and your mobile phone service company.   The latter point is something I learnt at the Highway Africa Conference hosted by the Rhodes University School of Journalism in Cape Town, South Africa between 16 and 19 September 2011. During this conference there were presentations by representatives of mobile and fixed phone companies that sought to explain the convergence of telecommunications (internet, fixed phones, mobile phones). These presentations were interesting in a number of respects but the most evident fact was that of a ‘new scramble’ for the ‘African markets’ by companies that provide telecommunications and their supporting technologies. And this scramble is a serious one. It is not only a scramble for the African consumer on a scale that would be the equivalent of a ‘hearts and minds’ operation minus the military influence. It is also a scramble that has identified a technological gap in greater sub-Saharan Africa that is to be pursued even where the context does not fit the manner in which the mobile and internet telephony was introduced in the West and the North. And this points to a scramble to potentially re-invent the African and African societies.
One might ask what would be an issue about what are assumedly ‘market economics’ at play. In fact, a number of colleagues have said that it is perhaps my left leaning persuasions that make me take umbrage with issues they consider straightforward. The truth of the matter is that the scramble for telephony markets on the African continent are not just about the arrival of a gadget through which people can talk or communicate. The big telephone companies are representatives of a hegemonic project that (whether willfully or not) is intent on re-inventing the African. And this stems primarily from the purposes of their pursuit of the African market for mobile and internet converged telephony. 
The primary purpose of the scramble is profit, and huge amounts of it. All of this nuanced in the language of innovation or that of the advancement of freedom of expression. To state the obvious, it is the business of private companies to pursue profits but in the instance of the mobile phone companies (who are almost literally affecting peoples lives everywhere) are now extremely influential harbingers of culture and the invention of new realities and as a direct consequence thereof, the re-invention of the African in the image of the technologically better-off  ‘other’. 
To make further profit, the phone and internet related companies have decided to introduce the ‘smart phone’ which would essentially fall short of doing everything for its owner. The ‘smart phone’ will do your banking, pay your bills, update your medical aid and life insurance, show you television, connect to your favourite radio station and access the internet for you. Now this is well and good except for the fact that it is cooptation into a lifestyle that is perhaps without local context. It assumes that most of our African societies are democratic or alternatively the companies collude with governments that are undemocratic to introduce these ICT technologies to the emergent ‘African markets’.  In the process the point that local context is important primarily because the uses of mobile phones and internet related technology in Africa does not have the same societal impact it would have in Europe or North America is lost, so long the money rolls in for the companies or for government revenue.
The question that arises therefore is whether we, as Africans, are mere pawns expected to act out the envisaged behavioural trends of those that have first encountered this technology overseas. In other words, is there an expectation that we will be mimics of our fellow world citizens in the north because like them, we are now connected via the ‘corporate internet’? And in this a further question arises as to whether we are now the subjects of a societal re-engineering project.
Answers to this question are not easy because one cannot run away from the societal/global significance of technological advancement in any field or sphere. We must however as Africans begin to harness the same technological advancement not in order to reflect the lifestyles of those that first encountered them in their own societies. This is particularly so given the serious lack of knowledge production systems of our own continent, both in relation to our history and contemporary societies. We would do well to utilize this technology for the further consolidation of our knowledge of ourselves as well as our knowledge of other world citizens.
Further to this, we are also in a unique predicament of having come from liberation and post liberation struggles for democratization that were never and are not intended to make us subservient to other models of how to interact with our societal processes. These were/are struggles for us to return to the democratic path of making our own history with its peculiar uniqueness. So when we facebook, google or twit something from the comfort of our smart phones, we must be cognizant, as Africans, that these technological advances must serve us before we serve them or the interests of those that invented them in societies elsewhere and in circumstances that might not be congruent with ours. Our aspirations to be economic or ‘privilege status’ equals with those from the developing world should not blind us to the fact that we are still who we are, children of Africa who must continue to seek the path of a purposeful return to making our own history with the refrain that we are equal human beings before we are on the world wide web.