As I See It: Homo Digitalis
March 12, 2018 Victor Rozek
The African continent, perhaps more than any other, has been blessed with abundant resources and cursed by relentless exploitation. From ivory to slavery, oil to diamonds, foreign powers rushed in to strip the continent of its wealth. Over the last three centuries, arguably not a single African nation escaped some form of colonialism.
The first wave of exploitation was decidedly European. Germany, England, France, Spain, Belgium, Portugal, and Italy carved up the continent. America was the central buyer in the slave trade, and remained to become the principal seller in the arms trade. Today, the United States maintains a military presence in 50 of the continent’s 54 nations.
China dominates the current invasive wave under the guise of its Silk Road initiative. It has invested tens of billions of dollars to improve infrastructure across the continent, not from any altruistic motivation, but from the desire to dominate African trade and resource extraction; to feed what has become a monstrous appetite for raw materials.
Small wonder that many Africans are suspicious of foreigners who come to “help” them. So when American tech giants arrived with promises of Internet connectivity, hyping the dubious joys of texting and being liked on Facebook, muscle memory took over and some saw this digital encroachment as just another form of colonialism.
The concept of Digital Colonialism is based in the fear that the next wave of imperialism will not be fueled by military conquest or economic exploitation, but will aim to control minds by feeding them a steady diet of Western corporate content. Critics in developing nations see the Internet as a tool of cultural appropriation stretching across the globe to form what Winston Churchill foresaw more than a half-century ago. Namely that “the empires of the future will be the Empires of the Mind.”
If unwanted influence is of concern it may be because Africa possesses the youngest demographic on earth, which makes its population eager for all things technical and, simultaneously, easy to manipulate.
Monique Maddy, writing for TechCrunch, notes that: “only 31 percent of the total [African] population has access to the Internet, which represents a penetration that is well below the rest of the world at 52 percent.” But if the market potential is huge, so is the continent, and remote populations, coupled with poverty and a lack of infrastructure, create unique connectivity challenges.
Google and Facebook have taken to the skies to try and solve these problems. Google’s solution has the unfortunate name of Project Loon, which is essentially a network of very large balloons blown about by wind currents in the stratosphere. Signals are beamed from earth stations to the circling balloons, which then retransmit them to remote regions where they can be picked up by a simple antenna. Ultimately, Google hopes to extend Internet connectivity to people in rural and remote areas across the entire globe.
While Project Loon has experienced some success, there have been notable difficulties. People in remote, rural communities often lack technical skills. Nor do they have disposable income for purchasing first-world toys such as computers, cell phones, and trendy apps. People struggling to feed their children have more urgent priorities than connecting to the Internet.
Then there is the problem of balloon retrieval. To date, the longest lifespan of a Loon balloon is about six months. Ideally, they can be steered safely back to earth and collected by a recovery team. Less ideally, they crash. Last year there were seven such crashes, the last one colliding with a farm in Kenya. The locals, meant to be served by the balloon, reported getting severe headaches when they gathered to examine the wreckage.
But let Google play with flaccid balloons, thought Mark Zuckerberg, I’ll get a rocket and launch a satellite! And thus began Facebook’s ill-fated Internet.org connectivity program. Ever optimistic, Zuckerberg announced his intention to provide Internet access to no fewer than 100 million mostly-poor Africans. The advantage of satellites over balloons, of course, is positioning and comparative permanence. The disadvantage is delivery and cost. Alas, Facebook’s ambitious plans were dealt a harsh reality check when the SpaceX rocket bearing the very first satellite blew up on the launch pad.
But Zuckerberg genuinely believes that expanding global Internet access is the seminal undertaking of our time – the linchpin for solving the world’s more serious and persistent problems. He apparently still thinks that the egalitarian nature of Internet communication will magically facilitate the redistribution of global power. That remains to be seen. Social media certainly made a mess of our presidential election, and whatever power it redistributed went directly to Russia. But it is human nature to attribute great possibilities to new inventions. Television was once going to save the world as well.
Undeterred by launchus interruptus, Zuckerberg has moved on to develop new methods of delivering his dream of global power redistribution, otherwise known as Facebook. A number of methods, or combination of methods show promise including lasers, drones, and AI-enhanced software. As an enticement to those who might not otherwise rush toward global connectivity, Facebook negotiated deals with local phone carriers to supply a package of stripped-down web services for free.
It is not possible to know anyone’s intention, only the results they create. It is absurd to think that Google and Facebook’s global aspirations are totally benign, but it is equally absurd to dismiss the opportunities inherent in Internet connectivity for fear of Digital Colonialism.
Still, not all countries are enamored of Western culture. Some see it as threatening. Others see it as corrupting and evil. The fear of seemingly helpful initiatives is that they require yielding enormous power to those who control the content. Applications available to third-world peoples are not developed with their cooperation, and may not reflect their values or aspirations.
Increasingly, it is the Internet that defines the meaning and importance of all things. It dictates the significance of events, and promotes a narrow range of consumer values. It makes careers of breaking reputations. It celebrates scandal and base behaviors. Algorithms identify and reinforce prejudices, and the most harmful and outrageous lies can be spread with the ease of soft butter. In a region already struggling with poverty, armed conflicts, and persistent drought, what else could possibly go wrong?
The reality is that Americans have no real understanding of tribal cultures and no patience for societies still tethered to medieval beliefs. Before the dream of global connectivity can become a reality; before the Internet can be universally embraced without misgiving, at the very least, non-digital, on the ground, face-to-face, old-fashioned, human peer-to-peer communication will have to be nurtured.
To paraphrase Stephen Covey: Seek first to understand, then to digitize.