Geert Lovink on Sun, 1 Sep 96 17:45 METDST

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nettime: Africa and Bust

On the dialectics of technology and development

By Geert Lovink and Patrice Riemens

What was formerly referred to as "The Third World" has gradually become
restricted to Africa only. After all, the U.S. will expand in the direction
of Central and South America (NAFTA), Japan will merge into a great-Asian
commonwealth (return of the Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere), while the European
Union will move from the Atlantic towards the Urals out of sheer necessity.
What is missing in this picture? Africa, where things are definitely not
happening. Apart from South Africa, which has been dissociating itself from
the continent in a fast pace. The land of post-apartheid belongs again-
with us, that is. Remaining Africa is left at its own mercy and
consequently works hard at abolishing itself. There high and low-tech are
not a sign of development, but quite the opposite: they are an answer to
the decrease or even total disappearance of development. While the
majority of the population returns to a stone age-like situation of very
meagre self-sufficiency, the (super-) rich hide on artificial islands of
anxious wealth, maintained by hi-tech, from which they violently keep the
surrounding hinterland at bay and plunder it. The middle classes are
disappearing from view quickly, along with the everyday technical
infrastructure, like roads, schools and hospitals, public transport or
common public phone booths.

A clue about where this development is headed is given in Mike Davis' City
of Quarz, which deals with Los Angeles. This is no science fiction, dealing
with the American west coast, but a universal tendency which occurs
everywhere. "The Third World is Everywhere", only Africa seems to have an
awful lot of it. If L.A. tells us about the future, even more so does
Zaire. Unfortunately, however, in Zaire there are no media left to tell
this gripping story. Africa is not even a story anymore. What is happening
there is no longer being analysed, neither there nor over here.

The traditional relationship between technology and development was one of
almost fully fledged equivalence, so much so that an increase in
development was measured up with an increase in technical means: the more
roads, post offices, telephone connections, the more modern. In this view
technology equalled improving the general infrastructure, from which all
benefited. In improving health care, education, media, public
administration and civil service the peoples were to grow towards the
standard of industrialised societies. That turned out to be a mistake. In
Western awareness the development model as an ideal got stuck. "Something
went terribly wrong in Africa, but what?"

Let's leave the monetary aspects aside. After twenty years of independence,
at the beginning of the 1980s the local elites were faced with a choice.
Either they could continue the broad infrastructural maintenance and
improvement, an unexciting scenario in which these countries would always
lag a few models, generations and standards behind. Or they could join
modernity, which entailed a dissociation from the slow pace of development
of their own peoples. The elites may have always been in charge, but in the
1960s there was a development euphoria. People had to get ahead together,
the whole nation on the road of progress. This included an ideology which
recharged and mobilised the masses. This was expressed in a number of
variations on "African Socialism". Global Reagonomoics and Thatcherism have
done away with these national development models. The world market became
"the place to be", which had no room for the moaning uprooted masses who
still needed one or more generations in order to become mature consumers.
There is simply no time for development. Then the idea arises to skip a few
phases. There is a pull towards the future and a bad conscience or vague
suspicion arises that the rest will probably not keep up.

Here we enter the world of perverse techno, the latest avatar of the
phenomenon of "adapted technology". Previously that term indicated making
accessible knowledge and techniques that can be maintained in their own
environment without any help from outside. The focus is not on whether it
is new and modern, but instead on whether it is accessible and affordable
and whether it keeps functioning. Perverse techno, on the other hand,
expresses the withdrawal of the elite away from its own people. The
development model did not fail, but has been abandoned and now erodes
quickly. Perverse techno has been disconnected from its former necessity of
being widely applicable, both economically and technically. People unlink
and like in the West they talk about simulation and virtualisation, but
more succinct. "Technology for us" instead of "XS4ALL".

One can observe this derailment most acutely in transport and (tele-)
communications. Big cities like Lagos, Dakar, and Nairobi lose their public
transport companies in favour of private mini-bus operators, racing in the
latest Japanese or Korean models on the pockmarked roads. There has been a
ten-fold tariff increase, and as big a decrease in transport demand. In
Kinshasa there no longer exists a public phone service. Those who want to
be connected have to turn to cellular telephones, managed by a few
businessmen. Costs: $500 a month. Result: In Kinshasa there are 5000
handies on a population of 5 million. In Zaire the roads are not
maintained either, and riverboats rust away. The only way to transport
freight is by air. One can imagine the cost and volume involved in this
method of transportation. In many African countries health care only
exists on a symbolic level. The rich have themselves flown to New York or
Johannesburg for treatment.

The rich have the best of the latest, the rest of the population enjoys
the blessings of the sub no-tech. There is nothing left, you see. People
walk, live off their natural environs, and stop reading. The top layer of
this society still has access to the waste that reminds one vaguely of the
world economy. They are lucky to survive. The majority of the people,
written off, no longer fit in the western poverty category. They have
disappeared from view and can no longer present themselves as a group.

It could be a lot worse. Some elites are no longer satisfied within the
sheer economical model and turn to the ultimate form of social interaction:
war. In the many armed conflicts ravaging the African continent, technology
takes a prominent place. There are warlords with satellite dishes,
renovated 4 WD pick-up trucks, as well as the latest in uzi models. It is
no coincidence that this armoury is operated by soldiers who keep getting
younger, for youngsters love technology. The funding of these "primitive"
"tribal wars" occurs through conspicuously sophisticated channels, both to
and from the warzones: drugs, weapons, and lots of (virtual as well as
black) money. It is the coming out of the jungle brothers and other
extremely consistent neo-liberal entrepreneurs. The population is used
alternately to feed the canons or to feed the cameras when there is
deliberate starvation, after which it is easier to plunder the foreign
emergency aid than any natural resource.

In this turbulent state of affairs the subject of "Internet in Africa"
appears. Conveniently it is forgotten that in the South quite a number of
enthusiasts and their clubs have been on the electronic network for over
ten years, when the average hacker in the west was still in his
programming infancy. Only five years ago they were totally ignorant in the
field of Internet; now the brains at the World bank and the development aid
organisations worry justifiably about the challenges and dangers of the Net
in the Third World. They feel that Africa is really not ready, yet they
would like to reach everyone through e-mail, if only to get rid of the
towering phone- and fax bills. Commerce obviously has a different view of
the matter. AT&T, for instance, has plans to surround the African continent
with Broadway Fiberoptics, forked off to "havens" and -possibly- further
inland. Nobody seems to be bothered by the fact that this is a digital remak
e of the colonial railway-and steamship system, and the neo-compradors are
all ready. 90% of e-mail communication in the third world is between North
and South anyway.

The morality of political correctness, which neither promotes nor rejects
Internet for Africa, essentially has little to do with reality. A large
portion of citizens from the "Trikont" has been "wired" already, but no
longer live there, which does not mean that they don't keep in touch with
their homeland or have interests there: while the real granates keep
falling on Jafna or Mogadishu, in cyberspace equally grim "cyber quarrels"
are fought in discussion groups. The Western "experts" are either on the
sidelines or totally absent. The white stains on the maps in 19th century
atlases, the ones that in reality have started their glorious come-back
according to Jean Claude Rufin, already create spots in cyberspace as well.
The message these new terrae incognitae convey is exactly the same as
before: lots of things are happening, only you don't know about them and
you can't get a grip on them either.

"Internet in the Third World", therefore is mainly a problem of the North.
It is not so much a matter of technological underdevelopment, as it is of
"perverse" processes that we are barely able to follow, and which are
prominently on the assistance-circuit's mind, adrift by the advance of the
international neo-liberale. What to do? Making the Net in Africa visible
is not sufficient in order to get out of the deadlock. For one, its use is
differently from ours. In the South the computer is a group instrument, a
collective commodity, whereas over here it is individual property. One can
still imagine this, perhaps even romanticise it. A further complication,
however, would be when, even more than in the North, regularity of time
and space is messed with. For example in the Horn of Africa: the whole
intelligentsia of Somalia has left for American universities to enter into
the debate, taking know-how and know-who with them. Physically present and
scattered over North America, they fight a war in the virtual shadow of the
street fights. Occasionally television adds actual, yet rather arbitrary
images to it. The clash between the slow time of Africa and the absent time
of the Net couldn't be more acute, and it is impossible to interpret the

Because the North still suffers from help-syndrome, they can only make
plans in terms of heavy bureaucratic and/or technocratic organisations;
people with big heads preaching decentralisation from the top down. In
practice this entails a call for regulation and orderly net-development,
which has long been superseded. The (random) growth should be stopped! Well
now, this will fail, just like the earlier development strategies, or
establishing peace and normality in Nigeria, Liberia, or the Sudan. The
South, Africa head-first, has resolutely embarked on the road of

For a long time in "Tiermondic" circles there has been talk of "separate
development", also known as "delinking". There were no results. Now,
however, the North is an observer on the sidelines, and watches this
paradoxical, rampantly growing and out of control process beyond good and
evil techno taking place. The question remains, though, who runs in front
and who is behind the times. While we concentrate too much on quantitative
data (number of hosts, telephone connections), the underlying logic of what
is really happening in the world-wide South goes beyond one's
comprehension. In "The Republic of Bihar" Arvin Das postulated that this
backward state will be India's future. Every day again he seems to be
proven more right. Could Zaire be our future, after all? Or do we believe
that we can still control "development" ?

Geert Lovink & Patrice Riemens
May 13 1996

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Eric Kluitenberg
P.O. Box 1448
9701 BK Groningen - NL
Tel. ++ 31.50.3144 818
Fax. ++31.50.3138 242

Do I dare.....?
(to eat a peach)


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