OK. This is my second response paper. I took a different approach this time, following an intriguing tangent. So does it still qualify as a response paper? I don’t know.
Edward J. Crowder
Dr. Alex Halavais
September 12, 2006
“The world has arrived at an age of cheap complex devices of great reliability, and something is bound to come of it.”
— Vannevar Bush, “As We May Think”
If technology is the engine of change in society, then Africa is on the brink of becoming the newest, the biggest, and by far the most spectacular frontier in the information revolution. New, inexpensive, mobile communications devices, seen as conveniences or even mere novelties in the developed world, are potential godsends in developing nations, with the potential to disrupt, alter, or (one dares to hope) even to preserve long-established traditions and ways of life.
This explosive transformation is already underway. The number of cell phones in use on the continent has risen from less than 10 million at the beginning of the decade to 152 million this year, or roughly one mobile phone for every six Africans, according to research cited by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Entrepreneurial Programming and Research on Mobiles project. This is staggering given the deplorable lack of development found even in relatively stable African nations. In Kenya, for example, there are 5.6 million mobile phone users but only 200,000 homes with electricity, according to the MIT study. The study projects the mobile phone boom will foster entrepreneurship, create hundreds of thousands of jobs and lead to concrete growth in the nation’s gross national product. But the changes this revolution brings about will almost certainly dwarf those laudable achievements.
The reason for this is, specifically, that Africa is as undeveloped as it is. The growth is fed, rather than hampered, by the continent’s relative poverty and lack of infrastructure.
In “Community: From Neighborhood to Network,” (warning: PDF file) Barry Wellman argues that in the developed world during the last century, electronic communications have spurred a shift in the dominant model of community from the static and physically bounded village or neighborhood to loosely defined social networks that are independent of location. A second phase, Wellman maintains, marked by the advent of affordable mobile communication technologies, accelerated that shift, liberating consumers from fixed telephone lines and home computers, allowing the user to “become the portal, with each person operating a unique personal community network” (55).
Many parts of Africa have yet to undergo even the first phase of the information revolution, and therefore have not experienced the corresponding shift in social structures away from bounded villages. In Kenya, for example, a population of 33.8 million shares 328,400 fixed telephone lines, according to the 2006 World Almanac and Book of Facts. This paucity of fixed telephones reflects not a lack of desire or social need among Africans, but rather the relatively high cost to provide the infrastructure required to bring land-line telephones to remote areas — a problem not shared by mobile telephony.
The researchers at MIT and others noted the economic benefits mobile telephones have already started to bring to parts of Africa. But there will be other, potentially more far-reaching, consequences in addition to jump-starting long-languishing African economies. Mobile telephones, and particularly those that can access the Internet, offer a window to the outside world. For hundreds of millions of Africans, community — the system that is their primary source of social support, information and social identity — still lies largely within the confines of the village. But the mobile telephone could soon provide villages with a conduit to remote educational institutions, access to medical information in areas with few doctors, and even provide banking and other services for entrepreneurs.
No one would suggest that mobile telephones are a panacea for Africa’s profound economic and political woes. However, they can provide a new, state-of-the-art, and potentially limitless information infrastructure in areas that had none. And furthermore, because they require little physical infrastructure, these innovations can bear fruit economically and socially within the villages themselves. This could ease the tendency toward urban migration, which erodes traditional cultures.
That, however, might be wishful thinking.
In his 2002 book, “Smart Mobs: The Next Revolution,” Howard Rheingold documents how the new mobile technologies are altering social constructs: changing users’ behaviors and creating new models of relationships. He notes that distinct user cultures have sprung up among technology-savvy youths in several developed countries, including Finland and Japan. He cited research that suggests that these subcultures have unique ways of relating to each other and even distinct sets of norms, which are different from those of the larger culture (5).
It’s difficult to imagine that rural Africans, who by and large have yet to undergo the first phase of the information revolution, would emerge from the second phase with their traditions and social structures intact. What’s more, the consequences of new technologies — and the mobile telephone is both new and radical in the remotest parts of the developing world — are unpredictable. Mobile telephones and the information they can tap into could be a catalyst for revolution, democratic or otherwise. Or they could simply be employed as battlefield tools, leading to ever-bloodier wars.
These are not reasons to shy away from new technologies. However, policy makers and corporate leaders need to be aware that the landscape in Africa is changing, and there are certain to be major consequences. There is an opportunity here to help Africans rise out of poverty, and it’s neatly aligned with free-market interests in nurturing future trading partners. The developed world can, and should, offer incentives and expertise.
Bush, Vannevar. “As We May Think.” Atlantic Monthly. July 1945.
Rheingold, Howard. “Shibuya Epiphany.” Smart Mobs: The Next Revolution. Cambridge, Mass.: Basic Books, 2002. 1-29
Rice, Xan. “Phone Revolution Makes Africa Upwardly Mobile.” The Times (London) Online.
Wellman, Barry. “Community: From Neighborhood to Network.” Communications of the ACM. October 205. 53-55
“Why Africa?” Entrepreneurial Programming and Research on Mobiles. 2006.