Martin Hall (by way of t byfield) on Mon, 22 Feb 1999 20:23:41 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Virtual University/Segregated Highway? [1 of 2]

     [forwarded and de-HTMLified by t byfield with permission
      (errors are his); endnotes are in part 2]


Virtual University/Segregated Highway?
The Politics of Connectivity

Education and Technology in the Commonwealth: Making the

Parallel Convention, 13th Commonwealth Conference of
Education Ministers, Gaborone, Botswana.

[part 1 of 2]

This paper is about the possibilities of information and
communication technology in higher education at the far end
of the Internet, where the web of connectivity has only
tenuous links [1]. But I will start with one of those
beguiling hypertext links, casually made and pursued through
labyrinth of the World Wide Web, that illustrates some of
the paradoxes of the "information revolution".

Kenji Kawakami, the designer of the Tokyo Bicycle Museum, is
well known in Japan as the originator of the art of
Chindogu, the almost-useless object, literally the "weird
tool". As an archaeologist [2], I have a certain affection
for such perversions of the material world, and Kawakami's
book, 101 Un-Useless Japanese Inventions, is the sort of
gift that archaeologists give one another, along with
Flattened Fauna and Bluff your Way in Archaeology. And
Kawakami does not disappoint his reader. Over 150 or so
pages he provides colour illustrations and straight-faced
descriptions of material marginalia that include the
Telephone Dumbbell ("increases fitness and reduces phone
bills"), the Full Body Umbrella ("for day-long all-over
dryness") and the Ice Stopper ("protects the drinker's nose
and lip from floating ice"). 101 Un-Useless Japanese
Inventions is the sort of book that could be expected to
bring its publishers a small profit and its author a trickle
of royalties, catching the eye of bookshop browsers looking
for low-priced humour [3].

But there is more to Chindogu than a modest print run for
the novelty trade. A search of the Internet reveals more
than 50 Web sites. Kawakami sees Chindogu as "man-made
objects that have broken free from the chains of usefulness
... the freedom to challenge the suffocating historical
dominance of conservative utility ... the spirit of anarchy".
His credo has been taken to heart by, among others, the
International Chindogu Society and its President, Dan Papia,
whose colour portrait ("as seen on TV!!!") launches the
Society's Home Page. Papia, a one-time financial journalist
and translator of Kawakami's book from Japanese to English,
now runs a video distribution business. He greets his
virtual visitors with a rousing "Hey, buccarroos!", warns
that chin should not be mistranslated as "penis", and offers
membership at $10 and "real-live pictures and descriptions
of chindogu into your home".

One of Kawakami's "Ten Tenets" is that "Chindogu are not
tradable commodities ... if you accept money for one you
surrender your purity ... they must not even be sold as a
joke". Papia remains true to this principle; as with the
book, all that can be acquired through the Home Page are
virtual images. However, the International Chindogu Society
is in partnership with Orangutan Records and offers links
here, and to Oriental Computing and a page titled "Chon
Wolson". Orangutan Records currently features Bag of Cows
(Boy on drums, Jungo on guitar and vocals by Pigrot, tracks
"Tie me Up" and "Reign of Terror", recorded in Tokyo)
offered, somewhat archaically, on a 7 inch 45 RMP record
directly by e-mail. Oriental Computing provides Japanese and
Chinese language shareware links, while clicking on Chon
Wilson profiles the Japanese soprano, "the only singer to
perform on both sides of the 38th parallel" who performed
the title role in Carmen at Seoul's Palace of the Arts,
uniting North and South Korea and Japan before an audience
of 1300 to mark the 50th anniversary of the end of World War
II. Chon Wolson's new CD can be purchased directly from
Orangutan Records "for the low low price of $10 including
shipping and handling".

The International Chindogu Society, Orangutan Records,
Oriental Computing and the Chon Wolson page have more in
common than their http links; they are all originate in a
personal page belonging to Christopher Titus North of
Pocussett Street, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Fluent in
Japanese, North is a graduate of Sophia University, Tokyo,
where he wrote a Masters thesis on North Korean politics. He
now works as a translator for a Japanese international
financial corporation and doubles up as a PhD student in the
Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the
University of Pittsburgh. His page, which features
photographs of his son Shunchan, resides on the University
of Pittsburgh's server at, and suggests a visit
to the East Asian library, where other interesting
information may be found [4].

This brief and arbitrarily chosen excursion along the
super-highway illustrates rather nicely some of the
implications and contradictions of information technology
that I will dwell on in this paper. On the one hand there is
a breathtaking globalization; from the London of
HarperCollins's paperback to Kawakami's Tokyo and then to a
direct-mail outlet in Pittsburgh, all with little
discernable concession to the constraints of time and space.
The apparent democracy of connectivity and the generosity of
free Chindogu images carries the subtle persuasiveness of
online advertising and the international music industry,
seeming to confirm the grim suspicions of critics of
international capitalism.

But at the same time there is an anarchic individualism in
the spirit of Kawakami's madcap inventions taken up by a
part-time graduate student in Pittsburgh who has hijacked
space on his university's server (surely the administration
doesn't know what is going on?) and appeals to emigre
sensibilities for Japanese punk rock and Chon Wolson's
operatic Korean songs. This sort of cultural material is
surely the fabric of the myriad ethnic identities and
nationalism that counterbalance the forces of globalization,
and make the late-twentieth century world a confusion of
competing images, claims and contestations.

There is a further paradox. On the one hand, the individual
merges into the anonymity of the mass media. The
International Chindogu Society claims thousands of members
with links throughout the world, and presents Dan Papia as a
NBC Dateline celebrity. Other Web links take the Internet
surfer to New Zealand, Australia or the United Kingdom. But
against this is the prominence of the personal -- Christopher
North's "biodata" and the suite of ever larger pictures of
Shunchan's face, presenting his Asian-American identity as
the badge of his father's authority on matters Japanese and

In comparison with the bizarre and esoteric diversions en
route, the ultimate destination in this electronic journey
through cyberspace is rather tame. The University of
Pittsburgh's Web presence is conventional: a tour of the
campus, an overview of resources and faculty, and listings
of courses and requirements. Despite Christopher North's
approving nod in the direction of the East Asian Library,
one is reminded of Superman, fresh from circling the globe
and descended into Clark Kent's drab clothes and scholarly
spectacles. What can the bricks and mortar of a conventional
university campus, or the bound volumes on the library's
shelf, offer in comparison to the unbounded spaces of
hypertext links or the opportunities of a Web page?

In a way, Christopher North is rather like Superman. His
homely image -- his house in Pocussett Street and snapshots
of his endearing son at play -- are assembled from electronic
fragments scattered throughout cyberspace, and then directed
outwards again at incredible speed in defence of Korean
dreams of world peace. Stuart Hall wrote about this
"fragmentation of the modern individual", and the new
identities that are its consequence, five years ago --
prehistory in the life of the Web:

A distinctive type of structural change is transforming
modern societies in the late twentieth century. This is
fragmenting the cultural landscapes of class, gender,
sexuality, ethnicity, race and nationality which gave us
firm locations as social individuals[5].

Such processes are the essence of politics. Information
technology, whether in the service of multinational
corporations, governments, ethnic groups or individuals,
sustains a domain in which power is exercised and resistance
organized. And, given that knowledge is information, there
is an inescapable connection between information technology
and the university -- now, and increasingly in the future.

There are a myriad ways of looking at this relationship.
Here, I am concerned with the implications of information
technology for the politics of knowledge in Africa, seen
from within a university in South Africa. In some respects
South Africa can stand as a case study for the continent,
and in many other respects it cannot. The problems faced by
"historically disadvantaged" universities are very similar
to the challenges to universities in other countries in
sub-Saharan Africa. But other educational institutions in
South Africa have been privileged as the beneficiaries of
decades of segregation, and now face crises of a different
nature. Whatever the complexities of these similarities and
differences, there can be no doubt that South Africa's role
in the politics of Africa's connectivity to the electronic
world is now central; since the 1994 elections opened new
political possibilities, South Africa has emerged
unambiguously as the hub of the continent's

In an unlikely conversation, but one that is its quite
permissible to engineer in our virtual world, we can imagine
Noam Chomsky and James D. Wolfensohn in debate about the
consequences of this situation. Wolfensohn, President of the
World Bank, argues from Toronto that information technology
can power development, overcome the gap between rich and
poor and dissolve gender inequities. Chomsky, perpetual
critic of capitalism, counters from Cape Town that
globalization is a chimera -- a conspiracy to enrich the
North at the expense of the South [6]. While I am drawn to
Chomsky's suspicions and other discontented critics of the
"new" economic order, I also believe that matters are
complicated -- that there are new possibilities and fresh

I would want to use the democracy of the Internet to butt in
and insist on an archaeologist's view. This would be that
that the material and social worlds are inexorably
interconnected. From the beginning of the Stone Age, when
the first implements were hesitantly fashioned, technology,
society and the material signification of identity have been
intertwined. The same will apply to the "Information Age".
Technology -- including Information Technology -- can never be
neutral. It is always implicated in some form of power,
whether over the environment or in relation to other people,
and therefore always has a politics.

In considering the possibilities of information and
communication technology, higher education planners in
Africa have in front of them both strategic opportunities
and the dangers of wrong choices. Investment in information
technology could be liberatory, allowing accelerated
promotion along the developmental line. But it could also
buy a monumental Chindogu.


Just how connected is Africa? Shahid Akhtar and Luc
Laviolette briefed the United Nations Economic Commission
for Africa in 1995, and their assessment remains the
consensus 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 medias ystems[7].

But this is to exclude South Africa, to follow the mode of
the '80s when the political cordon sanitaire westwards from
the Limpopo constrained interaction, and to foster a strange
ambiguity. Thus in the politics of information flow South
Africa can be a representative of Akhtar and Laviolette's
marginalised continent, with Deputy President Thabo Mbeki
giving the keynote address on behalf of the "developing
world" at the G-7 Ministerial Conference on the Information
Society in Brussels in February 1995. Yet at the same time
South Africa has an IT infrastructure in the finance and
retail sectors that is comparable to Europe's, advanced
cellular communications and a substantial community of
Internet subscribers [8]. To consider the issue of
connectivity in Africa without taking South Africa's role
into account is like trying to understand a network while
ignoring the existence of its file-server.

Estimating the size of the Internet, either in whole or in
part, is notoriously difficult and likely to become more so,
with the increasing use of "virtual hosts" and the
geographical mobility of top-level domains. Nevertheless, a
widely accepted estimate for January 1997 was a total of
16.14 million hosts in the world; an increase of 3 million
hosts over the preceding six month period, continuing the
pattern of exponential growth [9]. South Africa was ranked
16th in the world in terms of absolute numbers of hosts
recognized by national domains. This placed it in a category
with Spain, Denmark, Austria and New Zealand, and clearly
distinct from countries which would be described as
"developing". South Africa would be still higher if a
correction for population size were to be made.

But the contrast with the rest of Africa is stark. As Table
One shows, South Africa has 96% of the continent's hosts and
Egypt a further 1.6%. The January 1997 survey listed an
additional 28 African countries with between 1 and 500 hosts
and more than 20 countries with no connectivity at all
(although this has certainly changed through the year).

The relationships between southern African Internet service
providers reveal the new highways of power. Four
international providers (BBN, Sprint, Global One, RGnet,
UUnet USA) provide connectivity to four "first-tier" South
African based providers (Internet Solution, Global One South
Africa, Internet Africa, and Telkom's South African Internet
Exchange). In turn, these first-tier providers sell
bandwidth to some 70 secondary agents, including services in
Namibia, Lesotho, Botswana, Tanzania, Mozambique, Swaziland,
and Zimbabwe [10]. With the important exception of Telkom's
SAIX, first-tier agencies collaborate as the Internet
Service Providers Association (ISPA) and own one of the
sub-continent's two peering points at the Johannesburg
offices of The Internet Solution. Uninet, the South African
universities' provider and the pioneer of the Internet in
the region, is now a second-tier subsidiary of The Internet
Solution with subsidized access to the ISPA peering point.
If information is money and bandwidth the financial conduit
of the twenty-first century, then it is striking how a small
number of large commercial organizations have come to
dominate the southern African information economy in the
space of a year, with transnational connections and
investments which mimic those of earlier corporations such
as Anglo-American and De Beers. First round to Chomsky.

South Africa     99284     Uganda          17
Egypt            1615      Mali            15
Morocco          477       Benin            9
Kenya            273       Central African Republic     6
Namibia          262       Togo             5
Swaziland        226       Niger            5
Ghana            203       Nigeria          4
Cote D'Ivoire    202       Tanzania         3
Zimbabwe         176       Guinea           2
Zambia           173       Angola           2
Senegal          69        Zaire            1
Tunisia          39        Rwanda           1
Mozambique       31        Lesotho          1
Algeria          28        Burundi          1
Botswana         24        Burkina Faso     1

Table One: Africa, Internet hosts, January 1997
(Internet Domain Survey, Network Wizards)

The Political Geography of Information in Southern Africa

(G Massel 1997. Reproduced with permission)

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 500000 users in January 1997 [11]. 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

South Africa has 9.5 main telephone lines per hundred people
giving a teledensity twenty times higher than the rest of
sub-Saharan Africa (Table Two). The growth of this network
is higher than population growth. In addition, there are
more than 500 000 cellular subscribers -- 84% of the total in
the continent [12]. 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

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
marginalised as communities elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa
(Table Three). Thus 87.4% of whites have telephones in their
homes but only 11.6% of Africans, reflecting a parallel
distinction between urban and rural communities, while 47.6%
of Africans in all areas have no access to any phone,
compared to only 6.4% of whites. Well over half of people
living in rural areas have to travel more than a kilometer
to use the telephone [13], and less than 2% of main lines
are payphones, further restricting access by marginal
communities [14]. There can be no doubt that there are
similar segregations in access to the Internet within South
Africa, particularly as the provision of connections to the
Internet is still closely tied to the availability of fixed

South Africa     Rest of Sub-Saharan
Africa           North Africa

Main lines      (millions)     3.8
(32.5%)         2.6
(22.2%)         5.3

Teledensity (main lines per 100
people)     9.5     0.5     4.2

Cellular Subscribers     520000
(83.9%)     63554
(10.3%)     36000

Table Two: Telecommunications Infrastructure, 1995

(Hodge and Miller 1996, and ITU World Telecommunications

Urban   Rural     Total for Country

Telephone at home           50.8%     5.2%      31.1%
Communal telephone          14.5%     10.1%     12.6%
Telephone at neighbour       7.3%     8.5%       7.8%
Telephone at shop            6.9%     20.7%     12.9%
No access to telephone      20.4%     55.4%     35.6%

Table Three:
South African Household Telecommunications Access, 1994

(Hodge and Miller 1996)

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 99% 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

Policies for the use of information technology in higher
education will need to take account of these multiple
segregations. However, these disparities are compounded by a
general crisis in African universities. One perspective on
this crisis has been developed over the last decade by the
World Bank, which published a major study in 1988 and
followed this with a report by the Technical department of
its Africa Region in 1992. The Bank highlights the rapid
growth in the sub-Saharan university system between 1960 and
the early 1990s and argues that this initial period of
development has ended with enrollments beyond capacity,
unsustainable expenditure, declining educational quality,
graduate unemployment, weak management, and ineffective
working relationships with government. The Bank argues that
the universities should themselves take the initiative in
reform and should diversify their financial bases through
cost-recovery, student fees and "a calculated expansion of
income-generating activities" [15].

The Association of African Universities has reached a
similar conclusion, albeit from a different perspective.
J.F. Ade Ajayi, Lameck Goma and G. Ampah Johnson, former
vice-chancellors of the universities of Lagos, Zambia and
Benin, also describe a steady decline through the 1980s and
into the 1990s and attribute this to political uncertainty
and inadequate financial support, with an increasing demand
for student places that has not been matched by state

For concerned Africans anywhere and the most senior
academics in the older African universities, there is indeed
an unmistaken sense of loss, amounting almost to grief, as
they compare the present state of their universities with
the vigor, optimism and pride which these same institutions
displayed twenty or thirty years ago[16].

Lack of funding, and the flight of expertise, has resulted
in an ability to expand in fields such as technology and
scientific research, which has left African universities
unable to respond to development needs. Ajayi, Goma and
Johnson see these conditions as symptomatic of an unfair
global economic order -- the continuing international
exploitation of Africa -- and are suspicious of a "new
colonization" by international organizations such as the
World Bank:

Many in Africa feel that the policies of the World Bank as
applied in the past, or even now, do not favour the
development of African universities... It cannot be
over-emphasized that only Africans can really understand the
problems confronting them, and that any real solution must
be developed from within. External support helps; but what
Africa needs most urgently is the right African
capacities... any attempt to undermine the development and
progress of African universities, through negative influence
by outsiders, should be seen as dangerous and quite

In many respects, the South African higher education system
is distinct from higher education in countries to the north,
and most studies acknowledge this by excluding South African
universities from overviews of sub-Saharan Africa. South
Africa's twenty-one universities are starkly divided between
the "historically advantaged institutions", intended
originally for white students and currently among the best
resourced in the continent, and the "historically
disadvantaged institutions", spawned by the segregationist
philosophy of "Bantu education". This now-familiar stigmata
of apartheid has been summarized by the National Commission
for Higher Education

the present system perpetuates an inequitable distribution
of access and opportunity for students and staff along axes
of race, gender, class and geographic discrimination. There
are gross discrepancies in the participation rates by
students from different population groups and indefensible
imbalances in the ratios of black and female staff compared
to whites and males. There are also vast disparities between
historically black and historically white institutions in
terms of facilities and capacities for teaching and

As a consequence of differences in their histories and
contemporary political circumstances, the historically
advantaged and historically disadvantaged universities in
South Africa are experiencing different forms of the general
crisis in higher education. The former face two sources of
pressure. There is the demand that they contribute to the
redistribution of resources in order to establish equity in
the South African higher education system as a whole. In the
words of the 1997 White Paper on Higher Education:

South Africa's transition from minority rule and apartheid
to a democratically elected government requires that all
existing practices, institutions and values are viewed anew
and rethought in terms of their fitness for the new era[19].

But at the same time they face the same general pressure on
resources that are being experienced by similarly-structured
institutions in Europe, North America and other parts of the
"developed world" -- the difficulty of maintaining an
acceptable standard of tertiary education in an environment
of spiraling costs and with the tradition of a subsidized
student fee structure.

The historically disadvantaged institutions, in contrast,
face the crisis of gaining access to resources that they
have never been granted. In the words of Njabulo Ndebele,
Vice-Chancellor of the University of the North, they have
"nothing to lose but their pasts" [20]. In many respects,
the crisis in South Africa's rural universities is similar
to the circumstances that are faced by universities in other
sub-Saharan African countries. George Subotzky has recently
summarized the results of the University of the Western
Cape's Education Policy Unit study of these institutions.
Rural, "historically black" universities in South Africa
tend to have little capacity for science, engineering or
technology, or for development-related areas of study in
general. There is a heavy emphasis on undergraduate teaching
and low research output, and academic staff are often less
qualified than those working in urban universities,
particularly those privileged by apartheid. Rural South
African universities share poor institutional capacity and
infrastructure, and receive differential, and often
discriminatory, funding [21].

There are good reasons for such similarities. Despite the
tendency in most scholarship to draw clear distinctions
between South Africa and the rest of the continent, Mahmood
Mamdani has argued that such "exceptionalism" can be
misleading. Mamdani argues that the distinction between the
rural and the urban, the principal tool of colonial
management, has continued throughout Africa after
independence. This argument can be applied to the narrower
domain of higher education, explaining how African countries
have been locked into a dependency on external expertise,
and why African universities have experienced a truncation
of the earlier vision of science, technology and
development-sustaining research. Mamdani sees apartheid as
"the generic form of the colonial state in Africa";
consequently, it can be argued that South Africa's rural
universities, intended for a racially-designated subservient
caste, were placed in a similar role of dependency in
relationship with the metropolitan centres [22].

These disparities in general resources are, quite naturally,
reflected in current access to information technology [23].
Although many universities in Africa outside South Africa
now have hosts on the Internet and some degree of e-mail
connection, this does not generally seem to extend to a
significant proportion of staff or to students, and there
seems rarely to be a substantial internal network. Inside
South Africa, the "historically advantaged" universities
generally have extensive facilities, including a Web
presence, an intranet consisting of a number of file
servers, and e-mail accounts for the majority of academic
staff and for varying numbers of students. The University of
Cape Town, for example, with some 2000 academic and research
staff and 16000 undergraduate and postgraduate students, has
almost 3000 computers active on its intranet of 50 servers
on a normal, term-time day. The University of the
Witwatersrand, with some 17500 students, also has an
intranet of some 50 file servers, and an estimated 11000
e-mail accounts, and the University of Pretoria reports
27000 students and 22000 e-mail accounts [24]. Within
comparatively small degrees of variation, the other seven
"historically advantaged" institutions seem to have broadly
similar facilities.

In contrast, the internal connectivity of the historically
disadvantaged institutions is very different. The University
of Zululand, for example, with over 300 academic staff and
almost 8000 students, has a Web page but only 250 e-mail
accounts. The University of Transkei also has a Web page and
has established e-mail accounts for all its 300 academic
staff and 3600 students. However, there are only some 620
computers on the campus, of which only 120 are available for
students. Other universities in this category now create
e-mail accounts for all their students as part of the
registration process, but have very few networked
workstations to allow students to make use of this facility

[continued in part 2]
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