Handset of darkness

There’s an op-ed in the NYtimes by Thomas Friedman, who after going on safari in the Botswanan bush, decided to extrapolate his entire experience to the rest of the continent. Friedman noted that he managed to find a spot where his Blackberry and other assorted electronic addictions failed to find a signal. His writing gets bizarre almost immediately:

Yes, Dorothy, somewhere over the rainbow, there is still a “Land of No Service” — where the only “webs” are made by spiders, where the only “net” is the one wrapped around your bed to keep out mosquitoes, where the only “ring tones” at dawn are the scream of African fish eagles and the bark of baboons, where the only GPS belongs to the lioness instinctively measuring the distance between herself and the antelope she hopes will be her next meal, and where “connectivity” refers only to the intricate food chain linking predators and prey that sustains this remarkable ecosystem.

As his technology withdrawal symptoms worsen (he must have composed this op-ed in the soil with a stick), he goes on to claim that without similar connectivity, Africans will remain trapped in poverty:

“No Service” is something travelers from the developed world now pay for in order to escape modernity, with its ball and chain of e-mail. For much of Africa, though, “No Service” is a curse — because without more connectivity, its people can’t escape poverty. Can there be a balance between the two?

Technological developments in the region, especially mobile phones, have been extremely beneficial to the everyday African, but are they really the panacea that Friedman imagines? The check-list of opportunities that connectivity brings small-scale in nature: micro transactions, informational dissemination, agricultural productivity and tourism (despite Friedman’s assertions, I still think most tourists prefer staying connected, even in the bush). These sort of things lead to tangible improvements in people’s lives – they must do – they has been no Africa-wide product that has been more successful than the mobile phone (except perhaps Coca-Cola).

When I lived in Malawi, the local provider “Celtel” was re-branded as their parent company “Zain.” This involved a change in the  colour scheme from red/yellow to purple. Within a month of the switch every billboard, car and house that had been sporting the Celtel look had been splashed in purple. Imagine if we could do the same with every intervention (perhaps by piggy-backing on the existing distribution network?)

Despite all this, connectivity can only augment, not create, a conducive environment for sustained development. The resulting impacts, on liquidity, smallholder farming, etc, are not the sort of improvements we’d imagine to bridge the micro-macro paradox. We still need to look at the success of the mobile phone industry more carefully, because their ability to respond to demand is not something we are inherently good at, but we need to be cautious not to put too much faith in interventions solely because they now seem  crucial to our own way of living.

Well, with that confused rant over, there’s time still for a story: the op-ed’s odd oscillation between safari marvels and a discussion of connectivity reminds me of my last safari in the South Luangwa National Park. Our group was amazed at how knowledgeable our driver had been – discussing the most minute details of the fauna. A friend of mine asked him how long it had taken him to learn so much about the wildlife.

“Not long,” he replied, “I look it all up on my mobile phone.” In his hand was a Nokia with a picture of a hyena on the display.

2 thoughts on “Handset of darkness

  1. Ranil Dissanayake

    August 18, 2009 at 9:38am

    Made me laugh…

    The idea that telecoms is what Africa lacks probably only comes from people who have only been there on holiday. If there’s one aspect of the economy that is booming across Africa, telecoms is it.

    I like the Rodrik article, too, read it a while back.

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