Africa Connected by Martin Hall
First Monday
Read related articles on Africa and Internet communities

Africa Connected by Martin Hall

This paper explores an apparent paradox and what this implies in Africa. What are the politics of digital technology when, on the one hand, it is used to mark exclusive status and, on the other hand, is argued to be a democratizing form of mass communication? It is argued that new digital technologies do indeed allow new forms of privilege, and also - simultaneously - new forms of individual power and mass participation. While digital communications are clearly part of the ways in which new elites are being marked out in Africa, developments within the same technology are simultaneously supporting the opposite trend. Telecommunications prices are falling, and there is considerable political and economic pressure on national regulatory authorities to allow free competition. At the same time, technical innovations will bring connectivity to marginalised communities. This same antinomy seems evident in the content of the Internet - in differing forms of intervention, and in the uses to which digital communication is put. Previously, time and space were major barriers in the defence of privilege and position. But digital information is infinitely mutable, transferable from machine to machine without change in its quality. This collapse of space and time can be seen most clearly in the new conjunctions of the local and the global, and the individual and the community, in the new politics of identity.

Being one of the Connected is more than receiving and sending digital signals. It involves marks of status and conspicuous consumption, government policy and private enterprise, bureaucratic regulation and commercial interest. It is, in short, a matter of participating in a Digital Culture. In this paper, I will explore an apparent paradox and what this implies in Africa, one of Digital Culture's last frontiers. What are the politics of digital technology when, on the one hand, it is used to mark exclusive status and, on the other hand, is argued to be a democratizing form of mass communication that will bypass years of conventional economic development?

The antinomies of Digital Culture are best revealed through the Internet, because here the cultural politics of connectivity are coupled with representation. In some respects, the Internet is a virtual street of infinite length, where anyone with a modem and an account with a service provider is free to project their sense of themselves within the world. It is to be expected, then, that the paradox will surface again. Is the Internet simultaneously a place where exclusivity is claimed and maintained, and a vehicle for mass participation and individual idiosyncrasy?

My argument is that the new digital technologies do indeed allow new forms of privilege, and also - simultaneously - new forms of individual power and mass participation. This is because the distinctive characteristic of Digital Culture is the dissolution of barriers of time and distance. In contrast to the broadcast technologies that were the mark of modernism - newspapers, radio and television - digital technology allows anyone who is connected to send a signal, and to choose which signal to receive. The message is free from the definition of the medium, and the consequences are profound.

Because the conquest of time and distance are central to Digital Culture, its exploration requires a new geographical frame. Rather than being different registers, the dimensions of "local" and "global" continually collapse into one another [1]. This has a disconcerting effect within an epistemology where we are still accustomed to looking at either the particular or the general, and where we are familiar with a Cartesian geography in which a space called "Africa" can be set within a space called "the World". This sort of framing tends not to work so well with Digital Culture, because the experience of being connected is to be here and everywhere at the same time.

A first question: just how connected is Africa? In 1995, Shahid Akhtar and Luc Laviolette briefed the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, and their assessment remains relevant today:

"Africa's information infrastructure is by far the least developed in the world. Technical statistics consistently show that Africans have the smallest number of telephone lines per capita, the most restricted access to computer equipment, the most primitive information networks, and the most inaccessible media systems." [2]

This continental assessment is qualified by regional nuances. South Africa is currently ranked seventeenth in the world in terms of absolute numbers of hosts recognized by national domains, and has an information technology infrastructure in the finance and retail sectors that is comparable to Europe, in terms of advanced cellular communications and a substantial community of Internet subscribers [3]. This places it in a category with Spain, Denmark, Austria and New Zealand, and clearly distinct from countries which would be described as "developing". The contrast with the rest of Africa is stark. As Table 1 shows, in 1998 South Africa has 95% of the continent's hosts and Egypt a further 2%. Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe (one of the fastest growing sectors on the continent) share a further 1% of hosts, while the remaining 2% is shared between nineteen countries, all with less than 500 hosts each. Other countries have no recorded connectivity (although this does not necessarily mean that there is no local access to the Internet).

Table 1: Internet hosts in Africa, 1998
(Source: Internet Domain Survey, Network Wizards)
country number of hosts
South Africa 122,025
Egypt 2,013
Namibia 640
Zimbabwe 599
Botswana 550
Kenya 458
Morocco 431
Swaziland 330
Cote d'Ivoire 253
Ghana 252
Zambia 181
Senegal 117
Tunisia 69
Mozambique 69
Nigeria 49
Burkina Faso 45
Togo 37
Uganda 30
Tanzania 25
Algeria 16
Benin 13
Angola 4
Democratic Republic of the Congo 4
Niger 2

Within South Africa, there are additional variations in connectivity. It is even more difficult to measure Internet activity than it is to count hosts on the Web, but it has been estimated that there were 420,000 users in South Africa in mid-1996, growing to 500,000 users in January 1997, and continuing to increase steeply through 1998 [4]. There is no doubt that the majority of those with access are from privileged minority sectors of the population, and the extent of this privilege can be illustrated by looking at the more traditional aspect of the telecommunications infrastructure. South Africa has more than ten main telephone lines per hundred people, giving a teledensity twenty times higher than the rest of sub-Saharan Africa. The growth of this network is higher than population growth. In addition, there are more than two million cellular subscribers - well over 80% of the total in the continent. Along with Kenya and Morocco, South Africa is the principal hub for telecommunications in the continent, and is likely to play the major role in the future expansion of the Internet, and the realization of its possibilities [5].

But, as with all aspects of South Africa's economy and public services, there are huge disparities within this infrastructure, rendering the majority of its population as marginalized as communities elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa. Thus almost 90% of whites have telephones in their homes but only about 12% of Africans, reflecting a parallel distinction between urban and rural communities, while close to 50% of Africans in all areas have no access to any phone, compared to less than 10% of whites. Well over half of people living in rural areas have to travel more than a kilometer to use the telephone, and few main lines are payphones, further restricting access by marginal communities [6]. There can be no doubt that there are similar segregations in access to the Internet within South Africa, particularly as the provision of connections is still closely tied to the availability of fixed lines.

There are, then, two dimensions to Africa's connectivity. At the larger scale there are major disparities between South Africa and the rest of the continent, with 98% of Internet connectivity at the extreme south or north. Within South Africa, there are huge contrasts between the urban, largely white and increasingly commercial users of information and communications technology, and rural, overwhelmingly African, communities who have only partial access to basic telecommunications.

This profile serves to outline one aspect of the new, digital geography of the continent. Affluent elites are able to join the world Superhighway and connect with equivalent enclaves of privilege across the continent. This is epitomised in the cybercafe; by logging in at the Cafè de Net in dusty Uppington, deep in the Northern Cape, and visiting Les Lilas, a cybercafe on the outskirts of Niamey in Mali, where Ousmane Diallo welcomes virtual visitors with the image of a steaming expresso, fresh pastries and take-aways [7].

In contrast, those outside the Net are similarly excluded whether they are in Niamey, Nairobi, Johannesburg or Cape Town. But, while digital communications are clearly part of the ways in which new elites are being marked out, developments within the same technology are simultaneously supporting the opposite trend. Telecommunications prices are falling, and there is considerable political and economic pressure on national regulatory authorities to allow free competition [8]. Although almost all countries in Africa (including South Africa) still have state-controlled telecommunications authorities with effective monopolies, it seems likely that the communications market will soon be opened up across the continent, not least because of pressure from international organizations such as the World Bank and the IMF, and from donor agencies. The price of connectivity will fall in relative terms, allowing the possibility of far wider participation in Digital Culture.

At the same time, technical innovations will bring connectivity to marginalised communities. For example, Phone Shops consist of up to ten telephone booths built into a refurbished freight container and connected to the cellular network via a digital telephone interface. Phone Shops can be transported to any rural or urban location where there is cellular reception and avoid the expense and delay of fixed line installations. There is every expectation that Phone Shops will be able to provide cellular connections to the Internet, and will also be able to make use of satellite connections once these are generally available. A variant of this approach is the Community Information Development System (CiDS), which aims to provide on-line access for communities with no fixed-line infrastructure by means of a low-cost, high speed wireless network. A central node, connected to the Internet through a fixed line, can support a web of base stations by means of wireless point-to-point links. In their turn, the base stations serve schools, community centres, health clinics and other facilities within a radius of about 10 kilometers, again using wireless connections. A pilot project in Mamelodi, outside Pretoria, has demonstrated the potential of this system to support distance learning programmes [9]. In Zimbabwe, a solar energy project is planned to bring electricity and the Internet to rural areas at the same time. Themba Ndiweni, coordinator of the project, says that the "Internet will attract young people to the rural centres and will run for 24 hours. We will teach the people to form clubs where they can learn to access the world wide web and link them to other communities in Asia and Latin America." [10].

This, then, is the apparent paradox of digital media. To be one of the Connected is a mark of status - to be part of the largely-urban world of cellular phones, smartcards, ATMs, e-mail and the Internet. But the same technology is rapidly becoming accessible to any elite's defining opposites: township and poor rural communities. The old laws of economics, in which the prices of luxury goods would be driven up in accordance with their status, seem to be working in the opposite direction.

This same antinomy seems evident in the content of the Internet - in differing forms of intervention, and in the uses to which digital communication is put. One of the most explicit manifestos for a new Digital Culture is in Howard Rheingold's writing: the influential Virtual Reality (1991) and The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier (1993). For Rheingold, the "virtual habitat" is transformative, "a kind of new contract between humans and computers, an arrangement that could grant us great power, and perhaps change us irrevocably in the process" [11]. Rheingold's vision is exemplified in the Whole Earth Lectronic Link (WELL), which grew from the Whole Earth Catalog in the 1980s, and the generations of on-line discussion groups that followed.

This utopian vision implies that such forms of computer-mediated communication make the old distinction between individual and community redundant because of the capacity of meeting individual and the community needs simultaneously. All will have access to nirvana, which will be the "spirit of community" - "the subjective criterion of togetherness, a feeling of connectedness that confers a sense of belonging" [12]. This is a postmodern culture that realizes the transcendental fantasy of freedom from the constraints of body [13]. But such visions of digital prosperity ignore a rather obvious problem in their logic. For if a "second media age" is to become the future of the human species, how are the mass of impoverished, undereducated people to gain access to, and learn how to use, the advanced and complex communication technologies upon which the Connected will depend [14]?

This is taken up in digital utopia's inevitable opposite, the shadow world of cyberpunk writing, and a stygian space in which the Connected are in continual conflict with the Unconnected, defending privilege against the pressing weight of those outside the Net. An image here is Neal Stephenson's Street (in his 1992 novel Snowcrash). In this metaphor, which perceptively anticipated the full development of the Internet, the inhabitants of virtual reality put up their digital shopfronts, billboards or personal profiles along an infinite strip through which digital travelers cruise. But there is none of Rheingold's Internet socialism in Stephenson's world. The Black Sun, for instance, is a very exclusive virtual space:

"When Hiro cuts through the crowd, headed for the entrance, he really is cutting through the crowd. When things get this jammed together, the computer simplifies things by drawing all of the avatars ghostly and translucent so you can see where you're going. Hiro appears solid to himself, but everyone else looks like a ghost. He walks through the crowd as if it's a fogbank, clearly seeing The Black Sun in front of him. He steps over the property line, and he's in the doorway. And in that instant he becomes solid and visible to all the avatars milling outside. As one they all begin screaming. Not that they have any idea who the hell he is - Hiro is just a starving CIC stringer who lives in a U-Stor-It by the airport. But in the entire world there are only a couple of thousand people who can step over the line into The Black Sun." [15]

Stephenson's Black Sun is a far more apposite metaphor than Rheingold's WELL. And there is good evidence that aspects of Snowcrash's future are already our present. Cyberpunk writing reflects what has been termed "Brazilianisation" - new cultural syncretisms born in the radical rezoning of cities and new juxtapositions between the rich and poor. Current demographic trends are resulting in a large scale movement of poor people to the cities, which are developing into huge, sprawling megalopolises beyond rational governance [16]. In this archetypal city, best represented in Mike Davis' vision of Los Angeles, deprived communities are fenced off by electronic control and surveillance, and consigned to ghettos dominated by drug warlords and their economy [17]. In contrast, the Connected live in privatized, gated communities: "data-rich zones, gated off from the real world but emphatically engaged with the virtual world of cyberspace" [18].

Seen from this perspective, cyberspace seems to provide not so much the promise of a world free from constraints, but quite the opposite. Studies of the use of the Internet, and of "virtual communities", show how they tend to be characterized by monolingualism and homogeneity, reversing trends towards multiculturalism and desegregation: "virtual anonymity does not necessarily lead to relational diversity - two virtual places may be 'separated' by only a keystroke, but their inhabitants will never meet" [19]. Michele Tepper's close study of one Usenet newsgroup - alt.folklore.urban - has shown how this homogeneity develops. Complex textual jokes serve to distinguish insiders from outsiders, important in open sites that can be joined by anyone with Internet access [20]. Other groups tend towards closed membership. The diffuse, decentred character of the Internet is an ideal environment for far-right "frontier foundations" and the advocacy of racial and ethnic superiority [21] - a manifestation of the rediscovery, or invention, of numerous ethnic identities which is one of the consequences of globalization [22]. Rather than transcending barriers, then, elite Digital Culture seems to reinforce them. Rather than an open world of unconstrained access, the Internet facilitates "lifestyle enclaves" [23] - cyberpunk's gated communities, shopping in the virtual mall and engaging only with their own kind, while fighting back the teeming masses beyond the barricades.

In this world, Cartesian spaces have been superseded by digital flows of information, in which the global collapses into a local "point of presence", and in which locally-generated signals are replicated and distributed endlessly and simultaneously. Consequently, digital representations of Africa are a seamless part of a world culture, and earlier modes have been reconstituted and incorporated in this new way of things.

An influential tradition of writing about Africa has as its hallmark an emphasis on difference, inferiority and primordiality, and thus reinforcing the image of western culture as superior and homogenous. Such writing started with pre-colonial images of monsters and semi-humans, deserts and wonders, and continued through the high colonial fantasies of Rider Haggard and his contemporaries. Hollywood has always been fascinated by the idea of the primordial continent. In one of very many instances, Bernardo Bertolucci's film The Sheltering Sky (1990) had its world-weary American couple seeking release from repression in Africa but finding instead death and unrepressed sexuality in the empty landscape. William Gibson's Neuromancer is another example in this tradition. The plot moves between Tokyo and the Sprawl (a megalopolis covering North America's East Coast) and a virtual paradise somewhere in space, dominated by the Villa Straylight. There is no imaging of Africa as a space - the geography of the continent has become irrelevant. But representations of Africans remain true to age-old racial stereotypes. A small cast of drifts in and out of the story, never playing a role. There is "a tall African whose cheekbones were ridged with precise rows of tribal scars" and "a thin black child with wooden beads and antique resistors woven tightly into her hair" [24]. Later, Case encounters "two slender Africans - the men had shaven heads and wore orange coveralls. One was singing softly to himself in a language Case had never heard, the tones and melody alien and haunting - they'd taken on a sort of imaginary life; he pictured them gliding gently through the halls of Straylight, their smooth dark skulls gleaming, nodding, while the one still sang his tired little song" [25].

Such images and descriptions of the "outer rim" of Europe's eurocentric world have always had trade value. From the earliest years of colonial explorations of Africa, there has been a brisk and lucrative sale of original and recycled traveler's tales. This trade value continues to grow with the global entertainment and leisure industry that thrives on the ease with which images can be distributed, and with world-wide travel for the affluent. For example, in South Africa, Sun International's Lost City recycled some of the oldest myths of Africa as an international tourist resort [26]. Today the Lost City is on the Web:

"Conjured out of the myths and legends of Africa, The Lost City and Valley of Waves are fabled to be the ruins of a glorious ancient civilisation. Internationally applauded for its imaginative theme and remarkable landscaping, The Lost City spreads over 25 hectares of jungle threaded by adventure paths that wind between tumbling streams, waterfalls and small lakes to the Valley of Waves." [27]

This sort of marketing is hardly unsurprising. In the global flows of Internet commerce, any African sector must emphasise its particularly local characteristics if it is to gain any competitive edge. South Africa's nascent on-line commodity marketing showsthis trend. Web sites emphasise the ethnic and the exotic. "SA Arts and Crafts", for example, is promoted as "a place for you to make all your ethnic and hand-created purchases via the Internet"; ethnic silk-screening by Brian and Gretchen of Cape Town, romantic Zimbabwe landscapes by Wendy (now living in Durban), Brendon's paintings, "a unique style that blends the surreal with African scenery", and African montages by Martin, "3D art form using artifacts and wooden animals carved from various tribes as far as Tanzania, Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe." "The Great African Emporium" takes a similar line, inviting the digital shopper to "step inside our oasis, and discover the wonders of Africa. Here you can sample and buy some of the exotic goods on offer. Hang up your pith helmet and step up to the counter". Merchants include "African Legacies", offering fabrics, wooden key racks and wooden puzzles "to bring a touch of Africa to your mantelpiece and coffee table", and "South African Bears", featuring a golliwog and a range of teddy bears [28].

An Internet safari offered by Mala Mala, an exclusive private game reserve deep in the eastern lowveld, well captures the circle of representation that links the oldest images of the continent with their repetition via the latest media. This site offers a series of sepia-tinted maps, recalling the explorer discovering the untamed wilderness. First, a click with the mouse brings a map of Africa in the style of the seventeenth century - "Discover the untamed soul of Africa". A further keystroke takes the explorer closer in, with a map of southern Africa that places Mala Mala close to the fifteenth century empire of the Monomatapa while (in the style of the Internet's collapse of time and space) also showing the present-day cities of Pretoria and Johannesburg. The next screen - Mala Mala itself - is accompanied by a quote from Sir Thomas Browne: "we carry within us the wonders we seek without us: there is all Africa and her prodigies in us". Finally, the Web site provides details of how to make a reservation and offers the download of a free screen saver: "why settle for any old screen saver when you can go wild with the sights and sounds of the African bush?" [29].

Early modern explorers of Africa provided images that were exotic because they were fantastic, playing to the imagination of consumers in Europe who could not see for themselves. The Internet provides the Connected with images that are exotic because they are hyper-real, playing to a sense of wonder that time and space can be conquered. The novel Neuromancer offered racialised representations of Africans free from spatial ties to Africa, while Mala Mala offers the Internet tourist Africa's wilderness free from sequential time. Wild Africa, free from history, is a long established trope; elite Digital Culture extends it into unbounded space and time [30]. Representations of Africa such as these, and the commodities that they present, are stalls in the virtual mall. In the redistribution of consumption that is enabled by the Internet, the credit-worthy shopper can be located in New York, Nairobi or New Delhi. This global, electronic economy carries with it the social relations of computer-mediated communication, building the "lifestyle enclaves" of unilingual, homogenous interests, whether through the cultural jokes of newsgroups, the conferences of the WELL, distance education, on-line games, or virtual sex.

Again, though, this is not the whole story. Other visions for Digital Culture stress a new, participatory democracy, often conceptualized as a modification of Habermas's "public sphere" - "a realm of our social life in which something approaching public opinion can be formed", and where "access is guaranteed to all citizens - a portion of the public sphere comes into being in every conversation in which private individuals assemble to form a public body" [31]. Recent media theory sees this as a limitless public space made up heterogeneous and contested subject positions [32]. There are new possibilities for governance, with fundamental changes in relations of power with the opening up of computer-mediated communication as a medium of emancipation and empowerment, particularly for those marginalised by existing power structures [33].

These possibilities have proved particularly popular in Africa, where there is an increasingly vocal argument that new information and communication technology can reform the geography of underdevelopment and dependence - a quantum leap comparable with the invention of the first stone tools, agriculture and industrial production. Dr. K. Y. Amoako, Executive Secretary of the Economic Commission for Africa, told his audience at an information technology congress in May 1996 that "eons from now, archaeologists will look back at meetings like this one as they search for the foundations of their fully live information societies". By taking advantage of the lag in infrastructure development to learn from the mistakes of others, Africa can "leapfrog over several generations of intermediate technologies still in use in the industrial world", providing cost-effective and appropriate technologies [34].

This view is firmly rooted in aspects of economic policy. The United Nations' Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) has collaborated with the International Telecommunications Union, the International Development Research Center and UNESCO to formulate the African Information Society Initiative, launched at the Information Society and Development Conference in South Africa in 1996. This policy framework places the development of the continent's "Information Society" at the centre of the United Nation's economic strategy for the region, and presents cabinet-level proposals for national policies. Goals include the creation of effective information and decision support systems, open access to information, private sector leadership, the empowerment of all sectors of society and, by the year 2110, a situation where "every man and woman, school child, village, government office, and business can access information through computers and telecommunications." The ECA sees its role as working with national governments to develop information and communication infrastructure plans, and promoting partnerships between governments, and between governments and the private sector [35].

Digital Culture encompasses still further forms of agency, different to both the virtual shopping mall and new policies from democracy and economic development. As Arjun Appadurai has pointed out:

"There is growing evidence that the consumption of the mass media throughout the world often provokes resistance, irony, selectivity, and, in general, agency. Terrorists modeling themselves on Rambo-like figures (who have themselves generated a host of non-Western counterparts); housewives reading romances and soap operas as part of their efforts to construct their own lives; Muslim family gatherings listening to speeches by Islamic leaders on cassette tapes; domestic servants in South India taking packaged tours to Kashmir: these are all examples of the active way in which media are appropriated by people throughout the world." [36]

The Internet is a site for anarchical opposition that is not subject to the restraints of physical resources, the need for mass support or the requirements of bureaucratic facilitation. As such, it is an ideal environment for extreme political positions, and the advocacy of racial and ethnic superiority [37]. In March 1998, the Internet watchdog HateWatch listed details of 34 major white supremacist Web sites, predominantly in the U.S., but including Canada, Australia, Sweden and South Africa. A taste of their style comes from the "CyberKlaven" of the Knights of the White Kammilia, rejecting the accusation that they were associated with a racial killing in the town of Jasper, Texas, in June 1998: "the scumbag, child killing, church burning, jack booted Zionist Occupational Government is using this opportunity to further their course of genocide against the White Race by attempting to link White Christian Patriot organizations to a heinous crime that none of us in the movement would orchestrate, condone, or even permit within our ranks". Alternatively, there is Aryan Nation, which sets out its manifesto and policy on a Web page titled "the Aryan Warrior". Pastor Richard G. Butler gives a Nazi salute beneath a swastika, and the site is illustrated from the archive of Nazi propaganda graphics [38].

South Africa's contribution to HateWatch's list is - predictably - the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (AWB), whose site is dedicated to "the furtherance of realization amongst Afrikaner - Boers of their ethnic white descent and inheritance, the blood relationship and nationalist importance of being a pure bred supreme race". To the tune of the old South African anthem, the site offers commentary on the former South African president, Frederick Willem de Klerk. In a similar vein, the Boerestaat Party Web page offers support for white supremacists.

Part of the effect of such sites lies in the difficulty of measuring their true support - a particular characteristic of the culture of digital anarchy. The far right is certainly a major political factor in the United States today. The Southern Poverty Law Center lists 523 Patriot groups and over 200 different Klan, neo-Nazi, Skinhead, Christian Identity and Black Separatist organizations known to be active through marches, rallies, publications or criminal prosecutions. Yet when the Knights of the White Kamillia rallied at the Jasper courthouse to claim that they were a peace-loving movement, only eighteen robed Klansmen turned up with their Confederate flags. Far-right racism will long be a political concern in South Africa, but the Boerestaat Party, as prominent on the Web as many other political movements, only mustered a few supporters for a rally on leader Robert van Tonder's farm to mark the anniversary of the defeat of the British at Majuba, auctioning two bottles of mampoer wrapped in the vierkleur to raise money for AWB leader Eugene Terre'Blanche to defend himself on a charge of attacking a farm labourer with an iron pipe [39].

Other fringe sites are politically progressive, idiosyncratic or just plain crazy: Earthlife Africa (pollution, the protection of ecologically sensitive areas and connections with international Green issues), the Alternative Information and Development Centre ("campaigning and lobbying on the macro issues affecting the development process in South Africa"), the Anti-Ignorance Movement (for those "who do not wish to be easily deceived, who expect proper proof when claims refute well-known scientific knowledge, who do not conceive of supernatural beings influencing reality"), or the National Society of Microsoft Haters - "a response to the current bid for World Takeover being waged by Microsoft Corp.".

Sites such as these demonstrate the particular power of Internet alternatives - anyone, anywhere, with a standard computer and an account with an Internet Service Provider can put up a Web site that can be accessed from anywhere in the world, and which can have as much prominence as an official government site or a large corporate organization. Along with electronic mail, this allows political action that can defy almost any attempt at information control. For instance, virtual conferencing has provided varied and up-to-the-minute perspectives on political events; NuAfrica's conversations about the civil war and collapse of Zaire, going much deeper that the superficialities of commercial news coverage, or the use of lists to report pillaging of museums by military forces. There has been opposition to the Nigerian government by the Association of Nigerians Abroad. Ibe Ibeike-Jonah (Cornell University) and Ali Mazrui (State University of New York) distributed a petition on the African Higher Education Network and other lists that called on the Organization of African Unity to establish a Pan-African Senate consisting of former heads of state who relinquished power in democratic circumstances to "address the sore emanating from the problem of political succession in Africa", and counter "the mirage of staying in power indefinitely".

In the wider cultural sphere, digital media offer new avenues for experimental art and writing. Ibis, an interactive gallery, studio and art centre in Nieu-Bethesda, deep in the desert of the Karoo, presents woodcuts, paintings and other works by contemporary South African artists. The prohibitive costs of printing is making even the best poetry impossible to publish, and several Web sites circumvent this restraint; the UCT Poetry Web, concentrating on the work of poets in the Western Cape and Cape Town, and Barefoot Press, "home of free poetry", featuring Madame Pedmont, "resident automatic poet", interactive poetry writing, work of "South Africa's finest new and used poets" and links to other poetry sites. Fringe literature can thrive in a medium where distribution costs are negligible; Sidelines, "the virtually real edition" of a quarterly publishing articles on topics such as pornography, Joe Slovo, politics, bicycle theft, South African English and urban life, and Bliksem, "a South African electric pamphlet", "the electronic version of the real thing".

In both its technology and in the Internet's content, then, Digital Culture appears to embrace an internal contradiction. In many respects, it supports and extends elite enclaves - affluent communities that mark status through possession of the latest technology, and that purchase and consume products on the Internet, whether these be books, news, financial services or African safaris. But at the same time, technological innovations and the falling costs of telecommunications are widening access and making global connectivity available to individuals and communities who, in other aspects of their lives, have no claim to elite status. Everyone can be whom they wish in a Chat Room, and there is no doorman to stop you entering a virtual store.

This contradiction is resolved by taking into account the Internet's most evident quality, and the source of its unending fascination. A keystroke takes the surfer to Australia and forward ten hours in time. Another keystoke, and you're in California, visiting a bookstore while everyone is still sleeping. Digital Culture is unconstrained by time and space which have themselves become commodities, sold as bandwidth. Previously, such time travel was the domain of physicists, communicating in the language of mathematics. Now, the algorithms are common property.

Self-evident as this quality of digital communication may be, it has significant consequences for cultural life. Previously, time and space were major barriers in the defence of privilege and position: the cost of travel, distance from the workplace, penthouse apartments, exclusive shops and clubs. Digital technology is the Trojan Horse of such privileged spaces and their cultural markers, and digital information is infinitely mutable, transferable from machine to machine without change in its quality [40]. Marshall McLuhan's era is over - the medium is no longer synonymous with the message.

This collapse of space and time can be seen most clearly in the new conjunctions of the local and the global, and the individual and the community, in the new politics of identity. In India, for example, political conflicts are played out simultaneously in intense local conflicts, and across the Internet by a global Hindu diaspora. The war in Kosovo is fought by hand-to-hand conflict, and by means of contesting claims on Serbia and Albania's Web sites. Such forms of political and cultural expression stand in striking contrast to Benedict Anderson's (1991) "imagined communities" [41] - national identities created and reinforced through print media and broadcast communications [42].

The trajectory of development for digital media, then, is opposite to that of broadcast media. Where television and radio moved inexorably towards closure, whether this reflected the control of national governments or media corporations, digital media is moving inevitability towards openness - an inevitable consequence of personalised control over content and a global, competitive market that is driving down the cost of connectivity. Rather than being tied to its message, digital media tends towards transparency, defying control and available for anything from propaganda to pornography.

A naive interpretation of these qualities would stress one set of implications over others - the possibilities for profit, development, or democracy, according to inclination. But the point, of course, is that an open medium has no inherent quality of good or evil. The Internet may indeed bring economic prosperity to marginalized rural communities in Africa. But these words were written soon after the August, 1998 bomb attacks on the American embassies in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam; it took me five minutes with a standard Web search engine to learn how to make a pipe bomb using materials from the local hardware store, and with no metal parts that would alert standard protection devices. Digital media carry many - mixed - messages.

About the Author

Martin Hall is Director of the Multimedia Education Group, a project based at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, that is concerned with developing computer assisted approaches to learning and teaching. An archaeologist by training, he is interested in the meaning of material culture, and the implications of digital technology for theories of materiality. Recent work can be found at http://www.meg.uct.ac.za/martin
E -mail: martin@beattie.uct.ac.za

Notes

1. A. Appadurai, 1996. Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globilization. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

2. S. Akhtar and L. Laviolette, 1996. "Thirtieth session of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa," In: D. L. Cogburn (editor), Information and Communications for Development: Nationalism, Regionalism, and Globalism in Building the Global Information Society: GIIC report on the Global Information Society and Development Forum, Midrand, South Africa, 14 May 1996. Washington, D.C.: Center for Strategic and International Studies.

3. J. Hodge and J. Miller, 1996. "Information Technology in South Africa," In: The Information Revolution and Economic and Social Exclusion in Developing Countries. Maastricht.

4. András Salamon, 1997. "Internet Statistics", at http://www.dns.net/andras/stats.html

5. See Hodge and Miller 1996, op.cit.; International Telecommunications Union, 1996. African Telecommunication Indicators 1996. Geneva: ITU; and, Sunday Independent (Johannesburg), 2 August 1998.

6. Hodge and Miller, 1996, op.cit.

7. See http://www.gsi-niger.com and M. Hall, in press.

8. Hodge and Miller, 1996, op.cit.

9. Hodge and Miller, 1996, op.cit.

10. M. Hall, 1997. "Virtual university/segregated highway? The politics of connectivity," paper presented at the Education and Technology in the Twenty-First Century Parallel Convention, 13th Commonwealth Education Ministers Conference, Gaborone, Botswana.

11. H. Rheingold, 1991. Virtual Reality. N. Y.: Simon and Schuster, pp. 386-387

12. D. Foster, 1997. "Community and identity in the electronic village," In: D. Porter (editor), Internet Culture. London: Routledge: pp. 23-37.

13. D. Porter, 1997. "Introduction," In: D. Porter (editor), Internet Culture. London: Routledge: pp. xi-xiii.

14. D. Lyon, 1997. "Cyberspace sociality: controversies over computer-mediated relationships," In: B. D. Loader (editor), The Governance of Cyberspace: Politics, Technology and Global Restructuring. London, Routledge: pp. 23-37.

15. N. Stephenson, 1992. Snowcrash. N. Y.: Bantam Books, p. 40.

16. P. Kennedy, 1993. Preparing for the Twenty-first Century. London: HarperCollins.

17. M. Davis, 1990. City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles. N. Y.: Vintage Books.

18. R. Burrows, 1997. "Virtual culture, urban social polarisation and social science fiction," In: B. D. Loader (editor), The Governance of Cyberspace: Politics, Technology and Global Restructuring. London, Routledge: pp. 38-45.

19. D. Healy, 1997. "Cyberspace and place: the Internet as middle landscape on the electronic frontier," In: D. Porter (editor), Internet Culture. London: Routledge: p. 62.

20. M. Tepper, 1997. "Usenet communities and the cultural politics of information," In: D. Porter (editor), Internet Culture. London: Routledge: pp. 39-54.

21. M. Whine, 1997. "The far right on the Internet," In: B. D. Loader (editor), The Governance of Cyberspace: Politics, Technology and Global Restructuring. London, Routledge: pp. 209-227.

22. Appadurai, 1996, op.cit.

23. Healy, 1997, op.cit.

24. W. Gibson, 1984. Neuromancer. London: HarperCollins, pp. 9, 90.

25. Gibson, 1984, pp. 241, 247-48.

26. M. Hall, 1995. "The Legend of the Lost City; or, The Man with Golden Balls," Journal of Southern African Studies, volume 21, number 2, pp. 179-199.

27. "The Lost City at Sun City, South Africa," at http://www.suninternationa l.com/lostcity2.html

28. "The Great African Emporium," at http://www.emporium.co.za and M. Hall, in press.

29. "Discover the Untamed Soul of Africa," at http://www.malamala.com

30. M. Hall, in press.

31. J. Habermas, 1989. "The public sphere: an encyclopedia article," In: S. E. Brunner and D. M. Kellner (editors), Critical Theory and Society: A Reader. N. Y.: Routledge, p. 136.

32. Foster, 1997, op. cit. and J. A. Knapp, 1997. "Essayistic messages: Internet newsgroups as an electronic public sphere," In: D. Porter (editor), Internet Culture. London: Routledge: pp. 181-197.

33. B. D. Loader, 1997. "The Governance of cyberspace; politics, technology and global restructuring," In: B. D. Loader (editor), The Governance of Cyberspace: Politics, Technology and Global Restructuring. London, Routledge: pp. 1-19.

34. K. Y. Amoako, 1996. "Africa's Information Society Initiative: An Action Framework to Build Africa's Information and Communication Infrastructure," In: D. L. Cogburn (editor), Information and Communications for Development: Nationalism, Regionalism, and Globalism in Building the Global Information Society: GIIC report on the Global Information Society and Development Forum, Midrand, South Africa, 14 May 1996. Washington,D.C.: Center for Strategic and International Studies.

35. D. L. Cogburn (editor), 1996. Information and Communications for Development: Nationalism, Regionalism, and Globalism in Building the Global Information Society: GIIC report on the Global Information Society and Development Forum, Midrand, South Africa, 14 May 1996. Washington, Centre for Strategic and International Studies.

36. Appadurai, 1996, op. cit., p. 7.

37. Whine, 1997, op. cit.

38. See http://www.nidlink.com and M. Hall, 1998. Blackbirds and Black Butterflies. Refiguring the Archive, Graduate School for the Humanities and Social Sciences, University of the Witwatersrand.

39. Hall, 1998, op. cit. and Hall, in press.

40. N. Negroponte, 1995. Being Digital. N. Y.: Vintage Books.

41. B. Anderson, 1991. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso.

42. Appadurai, 1996, op. cit. and, Hall, 1998, op. cit.

References

S. Akhtar and L. Laviolette, 1996. "Thirtieth session of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa," In: D. L. Cogburn (editor), Information and Communications for Development: Nationalism, Regionalism, and Globalism in Building the Global Information Society: GIIC report on the Global Information Society and Development Forum, Midrand, South Africa, 14 May 1996. Washington, D.C.: Center for Strategic and International Studies.

K. Y. Amoako, 1996. "Africa's Information Society Initiative: An Action Framework to Build Africa's Information and Communication Infrastructure," In: D. L. Cogburn (editor), Information and Communications for Development: Nationalism, Regionalism, and Globalism in Building the Global Information Society: GIIC report on the Global Information Society and Development Forum, Midrand, South Africa, 14 May 1996. Washington, D.C.: Center for Strategic and International Studies.

B. Anderson, 1991. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso.

A. Appadurai, 1996. Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globilization. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

R. Burrows, 1997. "Virtual culture, urban social polarisation and social science fiction," In: B. D. Loader (editor), The Governance of Cyberspace: Politics, Technology and Global Restructuring. London, Routledge: pp. 38-45.

D. L. Cogburn (editor), 1996. Information and Communications for Development: Nationalism, Regionalism, and Globalism in Building the Global Information Society: GIIC report on the Global Information Society and Development Forum, Midrand, South Africa, 14 May 1996. Washington, Centre for Strategic and International Studies.

M. Davis, 1990. City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles. N. Y.: Vintage Books.

D. Foster, 1997. Community and identity in the electronic village, In: D. Porter (editor), Internet Culture. London: Routledge: pp. 23-37.

W. Gibson, 1984. Neuromancer. London: HarperCollins.

J. Habermas, 1989. "The public sphere: an encyclopedia article," In: S. E. Brunner and D. M. Kellner (editors), Critical Theory and Society: A Reader. N. Y.: Routledge.

M. Hall, 1998. Blackbirds and Black Butterflies. Refiguring the Archive, Graduate School for the Humanities and Social Sciences, University of the Witwatersrand.

M. Hall, 1997. "Virtual university/segregated highway? The politics of connectivity," paper presented at the Education and Technology in the Twenty-First Century Parallel Convention, 13th Commonwealth Education Ministers Conference, Gaborone, Botswana.

M. Hall, 1995. "The Legend of the Lost City; or, The Man with Golden Balls," Journal of Southern African Studies, volume 21, number 2, pp. 179-199.

D. Healy, 1997. "Cyberspace and place: the Internet as middle landscape on the electronic frontier," In: D. Porter (editor), Internet Culture. London: Routledge: pp. 55-68.

J. Hodge and J. Miller, 1996. "Information Technology in South Africa," In: The Information Revolution and Economic and Social Exclusion in Developing Countries. Maastricht.

P. Kennedy, 1993. Preparing for the Twenty-first Century. London: HarperCollins.

J. A. Knapp, 1997. "Essayistic messages: Internet newsgroups as an electronic public sphere," In: D. Porter (editor), Internet Culture. London: Routledge: pp. 181-197.

B. D. Loader, 1997. "The Governance of cyberspace; politics, technology and global restructuring," In: B. D. Loader (editor), The Governance of Cyberspace: Politics, Technology and Global Restructuring. London, Routledge: pp. 1-19.

D. Lyon, 1997. "Cyberspace sociality: controversies over computer-mediated relationships," In: B. D. Loader (editor), The Governance of Cyberspace: Politics, Technology and Global Restructuring. London, Routledge: pp. 23-37.

N. Negroponte, 1995. Being Digital. N. Y.: Vintage Books.

D. Porter, 1997. "Introduction," In: D. Porter (editor), Internet Culture. London: Routledge: pp. xi-xiii.

H. Rheingold, 1991. Virtual Reality. N. Y.: Simon and Schuster.

N. Stephenson, 1992. Snowcrash. N. Y.: Bantam Books.

M. Tepper, 1997. "Usenet communities and the cultural politics of information," In: D. Porter (editor), Internet Culture. London: Routledge: pp. 39-54.

M. Whine, 1997. "The far right on the Internet," In: B. D. Loader (editor), The Governance of Cyberspace: Politics, Technology and Global Restructuring. London, Routledge: pp. 209-227.


Contents Index

Copyright © 1998, ƒ ¡ ® s † - m ¤ ñ d @ ¥





A Great Cities Initiative of the University of Illinois at Chicago University Library.

© First Monday, 1995-2014.