Tuesday, 5 February 2013

ICTs, Time and Zimbabwean Socio-Economic Consciousness.

By Takura Zhangazha*

Ever since the onset of colonialism, information and communications technologies (ICTs) in Zimbabwe have regularly undergone 'revolutionary' phases. The most efficient of these technologies have initially been the privilege of the few and then with the expansion of free market economics, have been imposed on the masses to accept their full import or else re-negotiate their identities and cultural practices. This is true of the written word (paper, mechanised letters/postal services);  the telegraph and telephone; the gramophone/radio;  the television/ audio visual ‘technologies’ and in contemporary times, the internet and mobile telephony.

In the varying phases of the introduction of these mechanisms of communication, their ‘revolutionary’ import has been not so much in their invention for us here in Zimbabwe, but more their ability to change our societal way of life either by way of changes in the mechanics of our existence or by way of embracing new cultural traits and fashions that first came with the onset and longue duree of  colonialism.  

With each new communication technology came changes to different attributes of our society. The letter brought a scramble for literacy, the telephone, radio and television not only became status symbols but also were to be identified with proximity to urban success/westernization and therefore a departure from what was then perceived to be the ‘backwardness’ of rural life.  (During the course of the liberation war possessing a radio let alone a television set in the rural areas would be to risk life and limb after being accused of either being a spy or a sellout.)

But it is perhaps in the aftermath of independence that our country’s interaction with advances in ICTs becomes more apparent. Particularly  where one examines academic considerations as to the meaning of time, space, technology and or mobility . Where we liberated the country, we tended to focus more on ideological demagoguery (perhaps correctly and in tandem with the times) without understanding this important continuum (time, space, technology and mobility) that had been with us since our historical encounter with full scale colonialism. This is why perhaps it was reported that our post independence government turned down offers from potential satellite broadcasters to set up their operations here in the late 1980s. Apparently it was worried about the potential of the latter to undermine our national culture. This, perhaps without a fuller understanding of the full import of the end of the Cold War and the onset of the need to re-negotiate Zimbabwe's placement in the context of globalisation.  

 And this is why too, a now major mobile communications company, Econet Wireless, had to face years of legal battles in order to become legally operational in the 1990s. Our government then did not understand the nexus of time, space and technology or even if it did, it did not understand the new energies within the context of the global political economy.  It was therefore unnecessarily prohibitive and insecure about ICTs instead of harnessing them for the greater societal good without the blatant pursuit of the politics of the belly that we were to witness at that time. 

It is such an attitude that has made Zimbabwean society an unfortunate victim of what anthropologists have called ‘millenial capitalism’ due to our inability to mitigate the direct and indirect dis-empowering socio-economic effects of the technological advances in the ‘time-space’ continuum in tandem with globalized capitalism. An off shoot of which has been our continuing integration into a global economy that values, above all else, hegemonic free market capitalism without social democratic principles. This, at the expense of the livelihoods of a majority of our country’s citizens.

This is a salient point to make in the wake of mobile telephony, the internet and social media expansion in Zimbabwe.  It appears as though, as of old, we are unable to negotiate our way around these new technologies without our government seeking to resort to direct censorship, arrests and intimidation of those who would use these to express ourselves as is our constitutional right.

Where these ICTs would be used to seek to debate and find solutions to our national problems, government officials and state security are more keen on keeping their usage only in relation to the abstract while companies are more interested more in the profit motive in exploring our small but very energetic market. What continues to lack is deliberate application of democratic and maximum possible social beneficiation in utilizing these technologies

Particularly where one considers the scramble to make money from these ICTs by promoting a consumerist culture that does not begin to address issues and matters of production or innovation in our society. Or alternatively, seeking merely to use these technologies for the purposes of partisan and politicized democratization processes without framing their usage beyond the acquisition of power by one party over the other. 

Where we have taken lessons about the significance of ICTs to development processes, we have done so in mimic fashion without full application of context and a pace that is slow due either to government intransigence, businesses competing for maximum profit in the shortest possible time and narrow politically expedient perceptions about the impact of ICTs in the broader democratization struggle.

As it is, what we are witnessing is the unmitigated reinvention of Zimbabwean society via ICTs without a democratic and broad social development  oriented context. Proclamations of ICT policies have tended more to be hand-me-downs either from South East Asia or international NGOs and are rarely interrogated as to their full import for Zimbabwean society or its betterment.  As an unfortunate end product, we will be waiting for ICTs to determine how we utilize space, time and technology, and not vice versa, where we would determine to what best democratic interests these technologies should serve us.  

Takura Zhangazha writes here in his personal capacity (takura-zhangazha.blogspot.com)