the techno-arrogant & techno-ignorant
Welcome speech at Highway Africa 2000
by Guy Berger, September 2000
We're here because we're interested in the technology story. This is probably the biggest trend and the biggest story of our time, yet it is also one of the least reported.The point is that never in humanity's millions of years of existence has there been such quantum progress in technological power with such enormous effects on people's lives.
Computers have conquered all fields of human endeavour and progress - from genetics and biology, to nanotechnology, medical science and media. And this is just the beginning. For us in Africa, however, there are two pressing problems with the tech story: techno-arrogance and techno-ignorance.
The first is the over-estimation of what technology can do for us.
The technically-arrogant under-estimate the human factor, which is what makes technology either a solution, or a problem. Humans are what make technology into either a means of sustainable and equitable production, or into a means of exploitation - and even destruction - of people, cultures, nature.
The technically-arrogant forget that in Africa, what the global elite would call "old media" i.e.newspapers, radio, television and telephony, is still very new - and at best, very scarce - for the majority of people.
On the other hand, we also face the other extreme to techno-arrogance. This is techno-ignorance. The majority of our continent's people, including sadly, our governments as well, remain unaware of the full potential of new technologies: that is, both the positive potential, and the negative potential.
While the techno-arrogant constituency uncritically embraces the latest gadgetry, the techno-ignorant continue life as always, blind to the profound changes taking place on a global scale.
What's needed is a coming-down-to-earth of the Techno-arrogant, and a building-up of the Techno-ignorant. That is: Bringing the arrogant down a peg or two; and upgrading the ignorant and recognising that ignorance in one realm is a very different thing from backwardness across the board.
Who can do this? Who can counter the arrogant and the ignorant? I'm looking at you, the media. How do you do this? How do you deal with these two problems of the digital divide?
How do you make the Information Rich aware of their poverty of knowledge about the Information Poor? How do you help the Information Poor realise their riches? Part of the answer lies in learning from our past.
Africa's earliest journalists were victims of globalisation: indeed colonial genocide claimed the lives of San (or Bushmen) of South Africa - a people who were rendered extinct in this country. All that remains today are the click sounds in IsiXhosa and IsiZulu languages, and our national motto: unity in diversity.
To its eternal credit, the SABC has recently set up a San radio station in the Northern Cape. In so doing, it is helping to save the languages spoken by some of the scatterlings of the San genocide. This is helping people who, were abused as trackers by the SADF during its occupation of Namibia and invasion of Angola, have settled in the northern Cape, a place where once their forefathers hunted and their foremothers gathered.
As a tribute to their forbears, i.e. the original indigenous inhabitants of South Africa, we can learn from the San approach to technology, especially media technology.
What remains of South African San civilisation today is a world-unique record of visual and oral story telling. Bushmen and Bushwomen, probably even Bushchildren, got busy with the available technologies of the day: stone implements, animal hides, animal blood, plant juices and clay colours.
Their resulting prolific communication was multi-media - combining art, dance, song and music. It was also multi-platform, using the human body and voice in movement, amplified by drums, rock engravings and rock paintings. The messages of the San have not only endured on the walls of caves and rock faces around southern Africa. These images are today highly respected, valued and appreciated around the world.
Today, too, Africa continues to have universally compelling content - information in various forms, which we can contribute to the world. Our values, our heroism, our tragedies, our cultural and natural diversity - all these should inform global agendas and touch the hearts and minds in every country. As Steve Biko said: "At the present moment we have a culture here (in South Africa) which is a European culture. The Black contribution will change our joint culture to accommodate the African experience. Sure, it will have European experience, because we have Whites here who are descended from Europe. We don't dispute that. But for God's sake, it must have African experience as well."
Out of necessity, Africa today also displays not just rich content, but also in-built conditions for creativity as regards the use of technology. It shows in world-leading systems like South Africa's pay-as-you-go cellphone cards to expand access and markets. It shows too in cases like Zambia's independent Post newspaper, which has managed - somehow - to still produce a daily newspaper when their offices were gutted by fire last week.
Thanks to such creativity, the day may yet dawn when Internet received via computers is itself called "old media", and when it is Africa's people who have taken the first steps into what will then become the next "new media".
In the West, the phrase "killer app" (application) is used to refer to the invention of new technologies that render preceding technologies redundant. The talk amongst the techno-literate is with sexist and feudal metaphors like "content is king".
In the West, the techno buzzwords include the term "convergence" - most recently to refer to the direct integration, indeed the fusion, of content and commerce which is made possible by the transactional capacity of online media.
In Africa, the word "killer" is too literal and "king" too loaded. We'd prefer gentler, more democratic and less-sexist language. In Africa, the word "convergence" needs to refer in the first instance to the meeting of imported technology and local minds, at the local level. In the second instance, our focus should be on the meeting of African content with consumers and citizens on the continent and abroad.
I have confidence in the creativity of this continent. I believe in Africa's New Media Century.