IF YOU HAPPENED to drop into one of the internet cafes that sprung up around Ghana’s capital of Accra in the early 2000s, the scene may not have seemed particularly noteworthy. The young, predominately male customers, busy typing away on an assortment of ramshackle PCs might have seemed to mirror the experience of such venues from Latin America to China. Differences, one could assume, would be marginal; perhaps more backpackers in Costa Rica and a bewildering scale in Shanghai, but the overall practice would be essentially the same. After all, that was the heyday of globalization boosterism, and this is exactly the type of networked connectivity that was flattening the earth.
Or so we were told. The reality, as richly documented by Jenna Burrell in her new Invisible Users, is that those Ghanaian youth were experiencing their newfound connectivity in distinctly different ways than their peers elsewhere. Her carefully argued book illuminates these differences, and in the process suggests that the dominant approaches to studying information and communication technologies could use a refresh.
Its manifold problems are so deeply entrenched in the Western imaginary, that it is difficult to discuss Africa without resorting to considerations of ‘development.’ It is no surprise, then, that the internet has attracted the aid industry as a potential means to overcome disease, poverty, and warfare in Africa. And, indeed, Burrell shows that non-elite Ghanaians were attracted to the internet cafes as “a key resource for enacting a more cosmopolitan self.”
Unfortunately, simply getting connected and learning the right skills was not enough to improve their lot in most cases. By the time Ghanaians were logging on in the early 2000s, the “etiquette and ethos” of the chat rooms to which they flocked had been set by Euro-American norms to which Ghanaians were not privy. Time and again, the same stereotypes and images of Africa as a backwater that animates well-meaning but misguided advocacy efforts — like Kony 2012 — stymied Ghanaian internet users. From understandable miscommunication to more questionable ignorance (the idea of Africans “living in trees” was particularly baffling), Ghana’s experience with the internet was significantly influenced by legacies of colonialism and ongoing inequality.
Of course, not all usage was predetermined, and Burrell found genuine cases of internet-mediated success. But the most enduring trend may be the scammers who began utilizing Western misconceptions about Africa for fraudulent activity. Although more associated with Nigeria, these 419 scams, as they have come to be known, were conducted in the internet cafes of Ghana as well. The classic structure — in which the scammer claims to be a wealthy royal who needs to transfer money out of a war torn country — fits well with the dominant Western discourse about Africa as “passive, poor and strange.” That 419 scams have been successful puts an ironic emphasis on Said’s argument that Orientalism tells us more about the Occident than the East.
Burrell attended the UN World Summit on the Information Society that was held in Accra in early 2005. There, she found most of the discussion focused on issues such as the economic impact of internet diffusion. However, despite both physical proximity and supposedly world-flattening connectivity, she finds a “profound disconnect” between the conference discussions and t...read more