Date: Sun, 1 Sep 1996 17:37:39 +0200 (MET DST)

From: Geert Lovink <>


On the dialectics of technology and development

Geert Lovink/Patrice Riemens

What was formerly referred to as "The Third World" has gradually become restricted to only Africa. The U.S. will expand in the direction of Central and South America (NAFTA and Mercure), 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 entire continent at a fast pace. The land of post-apartheid again belongs to us. The remainder of 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 situation resembling the stone age's 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 and common public phone booths.

A clue about where this development is headed is given in Mike Davis' City of Quartz, which deals with Los Angeles. This is no science fiction but a universal tendency which occurs everywhere. "The Third World is Everywhere", only Africa seems to have an awful lot of it. If LA tells us about the future, Zaire does so even more. 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 here nor there.

The traditional relationship between technology and development was one of almost fully fledged equivalence, so much so that an increase in development was measured by an increase in technical means: the more roads, post offices and telephone connections, the more modern. In this view technology equalled improvment to the general infrastructure from which all benefited. In improving health care, education, media, public administration and civil service the peoples were expected to grow towards the standard of industrialised societies. That turned out to be a mistake. Within Western awareness the development model got stuck as an ideal. "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. But why not skip a few phases. A novel idea: move towards the future despite a bad conscience or vague suspicion 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, the 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 quickly erodes. 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 succinctly. "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 pock-marked roads. There has been a ten-fold tariff increase, and an equal 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, afforded by only 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 while 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 to alternately feeding the canons in the case of war or feeding the cameras in the case of 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 remake of the colonial railway and steamship system, and the neo-compradors are already poised. 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. However, this 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 in 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 different 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, the regularity of time and space is disturbed. 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 result.

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 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 modernity-beyond-repair.

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 the backward state will be India's future. Every day, again and again, he seems to be proved correct. Could Zaire be our future, after all? Or do we believe that we can still control "development"?