SEPTEMBER 2, 2012
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 the experience in the internet cafes a few minutes away. On the one hand, this is hardly surprising: after all, the cultural divide between those two populations is understandably deep. In fact, the strength of Burrell’s discussion is its parallel to the more everyday divides and invisibilities that the internet has not been able to overcome.
And in some ways, she argues, it is doing the opposite. Largely in response to the 419 scams, a significant (if indeterminate) amount of websites now actively block computers from West Africa. For example, the dating site PlentyOfFish.com admits to blocking all traffic from Africa, Romania, Turkey, India, and Russia “like every other major site.” Unlike scholars who have blamed the logic of capitalism for excluding Africa from globalization, Burrell notes that website blocking is anything but impersonal logic; instead, it arises from “the decision-making role of real human actors with their own baggage of perceptions and prejudices.”
While Burrell is correct to point to these emerging forms of exclusion, her research was conducted before two of the most important changes in the way Africans connect today: the mobile revolution and the arrival of high-capacity international submarine cables. Both developments have lowered cost and increased accessibility, changing the dynamic of inclusion and exclusion. While it is too early to tell, the significant attention paid to African users by companies like Facebook and Google show that perceptions may be changing, if unevenly and slowly.
These complicated and evolving histories of internet use in Ghana suggest two broader benefits of Invisible Users and the type of scholarship it reflects. On the one hand, Burrell’s ethnographic approach shows the corrective value of long-term, qualitative research. The dominant technocratic and economic approaches to studying technology in Africa tend to iron out the myriad, nuanced ways in which it is perceived and used. (Nonetheless, given the time and care required to do studies like Invisible Users, it is unclear if they can ever be more than an ex post corrective. Moreover, as mountains of new quantitative data become available, promising near-instantaneous insights, the type of in situ research Burrell advocates may be even more difficult to advance.)
Additionally, Burrell’s book suggests what is perhaps a more fundamental weakness in both academic and lay discussions about the internet. Debates about the significance of the internet — from its role in the Arab Spring to political polarization — usually revolve around a few positions. The internet, it is held, is either (a) good or (b) bad for a set of values, such as democracy, but when this raises the specter of technological determinism (which it inevitably does), both sides tend to agree that the Internet is (c) a neutral tool, to be used for good or bad depending on the social context.
These positions take for granted a fixed internet, a predetermined and knowable entity, an artifact distinct from its social utilization. But the analytical divide between technology and society is misleading, and invocations of “the Internet” often serve symbolic or ideological goals rather than corresponding to any static reality.
This dominant reductionist approach defines certain values, practices and technologies as “the Internet”, and ignores many others, especially the concrete ways in which it is experienced everyday, such as by the youth in Ghana’s internet cafes. Of course, shorthand is useful, and endless precision is both tedious and implausible. But perhaps to really understand “the Internet” we need to forget it as a unified “it” altogether, something that exists within a context and can be used for good or bad. This instrumentalist conception too often prompts the wrong questions and obfuscates differences and changes. Indeed, the important and interesting questions related to “the Internet” are almost invariably the ones where it isn’t a unified whole, but rather messy and fractured, in ongoing relationship with people.
The case of Ghana demonstrates this well: an account of the internet that focused on the interactions in internet cafes would have been circumscribed. For many Ghanaians, the internet was solely experienced through secondhand rumors of get-rich-quick schemes or through sermons at the wildly popular Pentecostal churches. Even for the small population of direct users, larger narratives and practices such as the complex mix of Christianity, Islam and animism present in Ghana guided what “the Internet” was. For some, Christian brotherhood and prayer was a way to overcome the cultural barriers to internet communication, and these users eventually migrated to Christian chat rooms for their more cosmopolitan conversations. For others, failure to successfully defraud others was the impetus to seek religious guidance. One frustrated man, after failing to gain money from chat partners, followed the suggestions of a series of healers, curtailing relationships deemed negative, drinking and bathing in potions, and spraying concoctions on his hands before logging on.
It is these types of diverse and culturally situated practices that make “the Internet” in Ghana so dramatically different in meaning and import than Costa Rica or Shanghai. And it is to these distinctions in everyday practice, representational discourse, and multiple forms of power to which internet studies should turn.