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ICT and intercultural philosophy --

an African exploration (English version)

Wim van Binsbergen

© 1999-2000 Wim van Binsbergen
Note: A shorter Dutch version is also available
a long new section on the enculturation of ICT in Africa has been added to this web page on 4 November 2000


Introduction: Two worlds?

Until well into the 1970s, when terminals were scarce and the microcomputer unknown, academic computer usage in The Netherlands mainly took place on main frames which today we would consider antiquated. Usually we ran our jobs at night, in our absence, for the computer was slow and the queues of rival jobs were virtually endless. The supreme moment came the next morning when we grabbed our batch of output from the counter assistant who administered the printer to which we had no direct access: endless quantities A3 fanfold paper full of barely legible printed lines of 80 characters in caps. Walking away from the counter, held the wide and hopefully heavy batch of output eye-high, and with pounding heart started to skip thorough the output in search of possible results.

        Many years later, when in the mangrove woods of the West African country Guinea-Bissau I did cultural anthropological research into the psychotherapeutic practices of local oracular priests, I was struck time and again by the similarity between our tense and hopeful scrutiny of the computer output in the 1970s, and the stance which these priests (often practising in groups of two or three at the time) adopted when administering the frequently resorted to chick oracle. In the local Manjak society sacrifices to spirits and ancestors were the order of the day. For each sacrifice its acceptance had to be ascertained by a one-bit decision device: in a swift movement the belle of a chick was cut open, and while the unexpectedly long, cream-coloured string of guts was held high in the sunlight, it was scrutinised for minutes during which the professional consultation between the priestly colleagues would comment on the presence of unnatural darker stains on the outside of the guts; the result would be black (unfavourable) or white (favourable). The priest would wear no outward signs of their professional status, but they stand out unmistakably as servants of the non-human -- privileged with extraordinary power and knowledge -- by the combination of their tense technical attention, their enravished deliberation on details absolutely invisible to lay outsiders, their relentless and triumphant final judgement which for the client could be of disastrous significance (for usually the client had made a sacrifice for which one had travelled for days and had spent all money), and the studied neglect with which the disfigured dead animal is cast away.

       The choice of these two opening vignettes, one Dutch and one African, purposely conjures up the compartmentalised world image from which I want to take a distance in this article. ‘Africa’, ‘Europe’, ‘the North Atlantic region’ -- these are not neutral descriptive categories and certainly no distinctions underpinned by scientific analysis, but merely geopolitical programmes, serving to designate the hegemonic relationships in the contemporary world:

     The North Atlantic region as characterised by material technology in which the interaction between man and machine (i.e. a conglomerate of material part objects, functioning on the basis of a rationally composed, immense complexity) entails, in addition to social effects, an interference with nature which is explicitly intended, effective, and which may be conducive to some social utilisation of natural forces

     Africa as characterised by socio-ritual technology (‘magic’) in which machines in the above sense do not feature, and in which man only produces a social effect by merely the illusion of an interference with nature, through interaction with objects which are either naturally given (the chick), or which may be produced with the aid of a simple technology (the priest’s knife slitting open the chick’s belly).


According to such a world image ICT (information and communication technology), as eminently characteristic of the technology of North Atlantic modernism and postmodernism, would be alien to Africa. In terms of this world view, it would merely do violence to African people if material technology were to occupy just as much of a central and taken-for-granted part of their lives as has come to be the case in the North. By such a development, the most beautiful, most essential contribution of Africans to the global achievements of mankind would be destroyed, still in terms of this world view. But this would also be very unlikely to happen, for from their own culture’ ‘African man’ would, in terms of this world view, be scarcely capable of developing the various specific skills necessary for contemporary computer use... In accordance with the essentialism characteristic of geopolitical constructions, the division of labour between North and South is conceived of as perennial and immutable: we the computer, they the chick oracle - as presumably it has been since the beginning of time, hasn’t it, or certainly since the late nineteenth century, when British colonial expansion in Africa took place to the tune of the following couple, which in its emphasis on the Northern monopolisation of the then technical achievements implies the essence of a not-yet-globalised world:

Whatever happens,
we have got
the Maxim gun
and they have not.

One of the principal tasks of intercultural philosophy is to explode precisely this world view, and to replace it by a model which is more in accordance with the contemporary global reality -- which is one both of diversity and of the interconnectedness of cultural orientations.


The problem as seen from the perspective of intercultural philosophy

Intercultural philosophy investigates as its central theme interculturality.[2] It does so by means of a theoretical reflection on such concepts as culture, cultural difference, cultural diversity, cultural relativism, identity, multiculturality. With the use of such concepts intercultural philosophy critically explores the conditions under which we might speak of interculturality. What are the units between which the interaction takes place which is presupposed in the concept of ‘inter’-culturality? On what grounds (and are these valid grounds)?) do we distinguish between such units, and what nature, permanence, boundedness vis-à-vis each other, internal structure, can we attribute to these units? Is it meaningful to speak of a plurality of cultures (in line with well established contemporary language use) in such a way that we attribute to each culture out of which that plurality consists, such features as internal integration, boundedness vis-à-vis other such cultures, association with a specific part set of humanity as a whole, and with a part of the earth’s surface as the historical habitat of that part set? Or it such a use of ‘culture; and ‘cultures’ too much of a reflection of the self-evidences such as have established themselves in the socio-political structure of contemporary society - self-evidences which the philosopher ought to critique rather than take for granted. Is it meaningful to speak of an African ‘culture’ or ‘cultures’, and to attribute distinctive features to it? The world of men appears to our experience as a complex of contradictions, foremost among which are inequalities in terms of power and resources. What is the relationship between (a) such underlying inequalities, and (b) thinking in terms of culture and cultural differences: is (b) simply the masked, oblique expression of (a)? is intercultural knowledge possible or will such knowledge always remain invalid, to the extent to which it is incapable of escaping from the distorting effects produced by the hegemonic subjugation of one subset of humanity to another such set? is it possible for cultural mobilisation initiated by the local actors themselves, and by philosophical reflection by intercultural philosophers, to rise above these limitations? Can such mobilisation and reflection even be a means to redress inequalities and to enhance the validity of intercultural knowledge? These are some of the themes of intercultural philosophy.

       With specific application to ICT this yields two central questions:

Is ICT to be viewed as the specific and characteristic achievement of only a subset of humanity (notably the North Atlantic part), and is ICT therefore not really at home in Africa?

I will answer this question in largely a negative sense. This allows us to situate Africa within a globalising world, and to admit that in that context Africa has unmistakably and self-evidently access to essential metalocal elements such as ICT; next we can pose the more empirical question as to how this participation takes shape in concrete terms, in other words, how the enculturation of ICT in Africa manifests itself by means of a transformative localisation -- oftentimes a virtualisation -- of whatever is available world-wide as far as ICT is concerned.

In the present argument we shall limit ourselves to the first, philosophical question and ignore the second question for the time being.


ICT as North Atlantic and therefore as not really at home in Africa?

Several African philosophers have occupied themselves with the question of the retention or the loss of cultural identity under conditions of contemporary information and communication technology. Does electronic ICT in Africa lead to creative and liberating cultural appropriation by Africans? Does it lead to the annihilation of the African cultural heritage? Or both? Is the computer in Africa to be taken for granted or does it remain an alien element? Already quite early[3] the prominent political philosopher Ali Mazrui (hailing from Kenya, now at State University of New York, USA) regarded the computer as a ‘cultural transplant’ from the North, alien to the societies and cultures of Africa and only capable of having a devastating or subjugating effect in the African context. Jules-Rosette summarises Mazrui’s view in the following terms:

‘[ the] imported nature [ of the computer ] might badly fit the tasks and orientation of non-western workers, and as a result it may form a source of socio-cultural disruption, increasing economic dependency and introducing modes of thought which are alien to the working environment in which the computer is being used.’[4]  


Mazrui was recently supported in this point of view by the Ghanaian philosopher Kwame Gyekye.[5] But by contrast Paulin Hountondji from Ivory Coast take a relativising distance from any attempt at claiming an absolute distinct African identity and culture, including an African philosophy. He is in favour of the recognition of the fact of linking up with a global cultural, philosophical and technological tradition, within which Africans -- provided the intercontinental inequalities attending the material conditions for the production of knowledge are lifted -- from the African historical background of what Hountondji calls ‘endogenous knowledge production’ may very well prove able to make a contribution, which then is to converge with, rather than deviate from, world-wide accepted formats and achievements.[6] For Hountondji ICT is the answer to Africa’s lagging behind in academic knowledge production, and the African Institute for Advanced Study which is now in the process of creating in Benin after Princeton’s (and Wassenaar’s, The Netherlands) model, will hinge on electronic ICT, and not on the talking drum or the palaver.

       The debate on these questions is severely impeded by politicising. Many philosophical positions on the issue of the transcontinental reception of ICT are possible, and among them are socially privileged geopolitical points of view, entrenched by the effects of societal power distribution, ideology, and media coverage; the later points of view may have become installed in the collective representations of large sets of people in such a way that these viewpoints can hardly be explicitly discussed and confronted any more without prejudice or without inviting bitter controversy. These collective representations also tend to invade the philosophical discourse, to the extent to which philosophers too are children of their time and of their wider society.[7] The naive geopolitics of everyday North Atlantic parlance, e.g. the evocation of a particular negative othering of African conditions and people, is often replicated in what are otherwise sophisticated philosophical specialist arguments.

       Let us seek to sketch, by means of a few rough distinctions, the fields of tension which are encountered here.

       In the times of mercantilism, imperialism and colonialism, ‘the African’ was constructed, in North Atlantic thought, as the other par excellence, -- an other to whom such philosophical insights in the human conditions, and such human rights as derived from such insights, scarcely applied - however much dominant Europeans claims these insights and rights for themselves. The second half of the twentieth century CE has witnessed two almost opposite movements seeking to redress -- with the mobilisation of a good deal of emotion -- this racialist African exclusion:

     On the one hand, and largely along the lines of development thinking, there is the attempt to reclaims things African for the benefit of allegedly universally applicable, and originally North Atlantic categories (world religion, democratic constitutional arrangements, modern health care, formal education, in general the formal organisation as the dominant format for the social and economic life, and moreover modern technology, economic planning, literature, philosophy, art, love; and genocide)

     on the other hand the ethnicisation process in which (under postmodern conditions such as the erosion of the modernist world view of the Enlightenment, of the centralist nation state, and of the illusion of the autonomous subject) the contemporary world as a whole is involved; it consists in the fact that politics is no longer primarily experienced as a struggle for scarce material resources, but for recognition of the group identity, after which recognition claiming and attribution of the resources can be taken for granted.

From the perspective of the former movement, things African dissolve as a slight ruffle amidst so many others within the great flow of world culture and world history. The latter movement however battles against such a blurring of distinctions and stresses the construction and the presentation of an identity of one’s own, at the local, regional, national and continental level. The tension between these two movements produces a torsion which lends the confusion double binds to much of the contemporary thinking about Africa, North Atlantic hegemony, and universality. From the ethnicising perspective African identity appears as the emphatic politicised condition for participation in intercontinental processes of communication, knowledge production, co-operation, intervention. From the development perspective African specificity used to be underplayed in favour of universalism in science, economics, and in societal and constitutional matters. These two simultaneous movements lead each to a different appreciation of such cultural programming as structures everyday life, political organisation, forms of production, world views and religious practices. According to the first movement each cultural ordering (even if recognised to be unmistakable, comprehensive and difficult to escape from) is yet a more or less ephemeral, superficial orientation under which more fundamental communalities are claimed to lurk - commonalties which are claimed to be universal but which in fact are thought primarily after North Atlantic models. This view implies the possibility that culture does not produce a total experience encompassing an individual’s entire life, and therefore also implies the probability that each individual is simultaneously involved in a plurality of different cultural orderings; hence it would not be meaningful to speak of ‘a culture’ or of ‘cultures;’ in the sense of absolutely integrated, bounded, distinct human modes of being, which encompass life as a whole and which are shared by large sets of people.[8] By contrast, the ethnicisation movement invites us the let the many concrete cultural orderings coincide more unequivocally with the identities which we construct for ourselves within contemporary political arenas, and to attribute to these orderings, in this context, a permanence and a discrete, distinctive nature which are commensurate to the severity of the contradiction and to the seriousness of the struggle within these arenas. Now since the greatest, most conspicuous inequality in our time is that between North and South on a global level, from the ethnicisation perspective taking a relative view of any Southern, African identity would amount to a treacherous attack on the most important resources available for improving the conditions and enhancing the empowerment of people in the South.

       This goes some way towards sketching the context in which we may explore, from intercultural perspective, the strained relationship between on the one hand ‘Africa’ (i.e. African identity) on the one hand, and contemporary ICT on the other. We have to admit that ‘Africa’ is not a fixed and firm reality. When Mazrui and Gyekye see Africa as being penetrated by the computer as a body-alien object, as a ‘cultural transplant’, then their concern is not so much a land mass which extends between certain latitudes and longitudes, on one which hundreds of millions of people move in a gaudy confusion of cultural and social structuration -- partially rural and in accordance with historically specific local patterns, partially urban and increasingly in accordance with patterns which are either recent local innovations, or transformed borrowings from elsewhere in the contemporary world. In the debate around ICT Africa is primarily an identity construct: the issue is ‘African culture’ or ‘African cultures’, which are alleged to be negatively influences by the allegedly alien computer and the latter’s capabilities of communication and information.

       To what might such a possibly negative influence be attributed? Here at least three answers would be possible:

(1)      (a) ICT is Northern culture, and hence (b) ICT is irreconcilably opposed to African culture

(2)      (a) ICT is metalocal world culture, without local specificity and local validity, and hence (b) ICT is in principle devastating for any localising cultural identity like the African one

(3)      (a) ICT is inimical to culture, and hence (b) ICT is inimical to the African culture or cultures

At first glance something could be said in favour of each of these three theses, but none can entirely pass the test of closer scrutiny. This is partially due to the dual nature of each of these theses: each starts with a global cultural appraisal of ICT, followed by a claimed effect on the African situation. Even if either of the two parts would be true, their combination might still be false.


ICT inimical to any culture?

Only in the case of thesis (3) the derivation of (b) from (a) is evident: whatever is inimical to culture, is inevitably inimical to African culture or cultures. Technological pessimism has been part of the recent continental philosophical tradition; its principal exponent has been Heidegger[9] who moreover claimed that technology is by its essence perpendicular to any culture, does not constitute an integrated part of it. But even so thesis (3) can hardly be defended. Whatever definition we proffer of culture, in continuity with widespread established language usage we are likely to prefer to call culture that which has a collective nature, i.e. which is the attribute of a set of people, a subset of total humanity. Moreover our definition is likely to include an aspect of spatial extension, since even the smallest set of people inevitably occupies a certain space. In time our concept of culture is likely to include a certain permanence, supported by interpersonal learning processes; in other words culture is likely to be considered as being subjected to processes of regulated transfer between people whose cultural competence was initially unequal: people belonging to different generations, classes, genders, linguistic groups, local outsiders versus local insiders, etc. And our definition of culture is also likely to include an aspect of recognisable ordering, which allows culture both to be recognised as a transferable collective attribute, and to be actually transferred to those who adopt it as their collective attribute. Information and communication are implied in most of these aspects of our definition of culture. Information and communication are thus essential aspects of culture, and they always take place via a specific medium -- a specific technology. The face-to-face communication by which culture is predominantly transferred in family settings (although even here the role of non-spoken representations -- in sacred emblems, images, writing, photographs, videos, e-mail, telephone conversations etc. -- must not be underestimated nor be restricted to the most recent times) represents a technology of speech and rhetorics, just as much as -- ever since the earliest imperial times of the Assyrians, Persians, Chinese and Romans -- the technologies of the mail road with its shunting points where horses and couriers were replaced etc., or in the last twelve hundred years (if we go by the Chinese invention of block printing, rather than by the West European variety of detached type) technology of printing, and in the most recent times the technology of movies, radio, television, video, and Internet, by which the information and communication constitutes culture. Instead of being inimical to culture, ICT constitutes a central element in everything we would prefer to call culture. There seems to be little reason to exclude present-day, electronic ICT from this high dignity. On the other hand we must point out the tension between (i) on the one hand the ethnicisation vision of culture (according to which culture is bounded, specific, integrated, and comprises and defines specific part sets of humanity), and on the other hand (ii) communication as a fundamental aspect of any culture. The former is conducive to demarcation (i), the latter is conducive to extension which in principle may be unlimited, may comprise the entire world of man (ii). In other words: the communication which is constitutive of culture, may spill over beyond that one culture and thus deny the specificity of that culture. The fact that language is one of the principal means of communication for constituting culture, works to the advantage of demarcation: language is highly structured and specific, in terms of its lexicon, phonology and syntax, there is a great variety of languages, languages are in principle not mutually intelligible, and therefore each specific language effectively limits the part set of humanity and (to the -- presently rapidly decreasing -- extent to which languages are neatly distributed across the globe in the way of language areas, each of which is tied to a specific section of the earth’s surface) the spatial radius within which communication takes places and culture consolidates itself. Not for nothing is language the main stable indicator of ethnic identity. But even language is acquired by a learning process (at least largely), many (probably most) people in the world are multilingual to a greater or lesser extent, and therefore it is very well possible to step out of the limitations imposed by merely one language. Moreover, language is by no means the only means of communication, and by no means the only constituting communication factor in culture. Whoever makes a transcontinental trip across Africa in an old motorcar will everywhere in that continent meet people with whom one can barely speak if at all, but who are certainly able to repair one’s car; obviously the application of that type of technological knowledge (and any other types -- is language-dependent to only a very limited extent. By communication processes culture is continually spread also outside the space which was initially defined as that culture’s proper domain, and by communication processes a culture is continually invaded from outside within the proper domain it has initially claimed for itself; as a result the localisation of culture, and the close link between culture and identity, such as are aimed at by ethnicisation, tend to be continually threatened and destroyed. On these grounds one might argue that ICT is inimical to culture, but on the same ground one might argue that the very conception of culture as localised, bounded, identitary, is inimical to culture! Exit thesis (3).


ICT as Northern culture

Thesis (1) is considered to be true by the early Mazrui, and by Gyekye. Our example of African car repairs is doubly instructive, for it also shows that many forms of cultural programming (such as knowledge of the transport technology of the internal combustion engine), which we would be initially inclined to situate in a specific part of the contemporary world, in fact have not confined themselves to that part, and have in fact gained world-wide distribution. Not only the hopeless clichés of globalisation such as the jeans trousers, the Coca Cola and the McDonald hamburger, but in general specific styles of clothing, cosmetics and bodily hygiene, means of transport, organisational forms, world religions, and specific forms of time reckoning, of music and its reproduction, of dance, recreation, sports and sexuality, have gained an absolutely metalocal distribution. Africa takes part in this distribution, not so much in he extent to which it can afford actual consumption out of this global supply (it cannot), but to the extent to which representations of this metalocal culture, via TV, video, radio, the printed press, and people’s own observation across class boundaries, have reached contemporary Africans and informs their desires.[10] All this amounts to the cultural aspects of globalisation, by which we means in general the process through which local contexts in the world more and more dissolve in a world-wide network of interaction, under the influence of technological innovation which in processes of communication and information have reduced to virtually zero the casts (in terms of time and money) of spatial distance. Globalisation was in the first instance observed with regard to transnational movements of capital along electronic media, but in the meantime turns out to have important cultural dimensions.[11]

       In this situation, to appeal to such concepts as ‘African culture’ or ‘African cultures’ implies the risk that we dissimulate the problematic, constructed, virtual nature of these concepts. One of the main themes of the contemporary African experience has been the revival, often even the militant reconstruction, of the ‘authentically African’ despite, and often with the aid of, prominently installed metalocal contemporary technologies. There is no empirical support for the claim that historical African culture may still be captured, intact and self-evident, anywhere on the African continent today. Whatever passes for African culture today has become highly virtual, which means that in name it harks back to historical cultural material (world views, norms and values, religious symbols, institutions) but that in fact it appears in contemporary representations as fragmented and as having lost its coherence with a more integrated and persistent local cultural framework: it has become redefined and hangs up in the air.[12]

       In this context, to speak of ICT as a cultural transplant is misleading to the highest degree. For such a claim denies the continuity between North Atlantic and African manifestations of globalised metalocal culture, and suggests instead -- in a nostalgic re-enactment of the redeeming mysticism of things African - a geopolitical separateness between continents in the cultural domain, and in general a purity and authenticity of cultural domains, which in our time and age is certainly not the case -- and then I reserve for another argument the question whether such purity and separateness an any moment in the past would have been adequate terms to describe the actual situation within Africa and between Africa and the North Atlantic. The fact that Mazrui and Gyekye pursue cosmopolitan forms of knowledge production (philosophy, political science), in an originally European language (English), and that they do so effectively and with great success and appeal especially outside their African country of origin, is in itself sufficient proof of the point I wish to make here with regard to the present lack of separation and lack of purity.

       Would it even be anachronistic to claim, in our time and age, a specific local or regional origin and identity (e.g. ‘North Atlantic’, ‘American’, European’) for technologies which at present have a metalocal distribution, including electronic ICT?

       It is characteristic for modern times that technological innovation has expressly become an industry, a collective, explicit and organised endeavour. Technology has loosened itself from more comprehensive socio-cultural frameworks which have produced it, and already for a long time has largely ceased to be an expression of the local socio-cultural forms which such frameworks have assumed. In other words, apart from minor and immaterial embellishments there is nothing remarkably Dutch any more about Philips CD equipment, nothing remarkably American about Macintosh computers, nothing remarkably Japanese about Fuji cameras. Patent law regulates the appropriation of such forms of technology as generate so much productivity and on which products for such lucrative markets are based, that restrictions on the circulation of that type of knowledge are worth enforcing, at least for the immediate future. Of course, these restrictions on the circulation of knowledge only serve to ensure the greatest possible circulation, with the greatest possible profit, of the products made on the basis of that knowledge -- in line with the general trend of globalisation. For the Dutch farmer who has taken to monitoring his cattle by computer this is a ‘town’ technology )but his very appropriation of this technology, as of so many others, have already rendered relative the entire contradiction between town and country); for the Dutch academic who in the last fifteen years has totally transformed her style of writing, research and teaching for the sake of the microcomputer and Internet, the latter may have appeared as an ‘American’ technology (but again this very appropriation renders relative the distinction between the European home and the no-longer-far-away USA). Some readers may know that Internet was in fact originally a specifically American military innovation, in the 1960s, long before the advent of the microcomputer. The computer in general undoubtedly originated in specific accumulative cultural achievements of North Atlantic culture. The computer testifies to this state of affairs in many ways: its internal design; its external design and aesthetics; in the principles according to which the user interface has been conceived to readily appeal to the most likely, North Atlantic users; in the iconography and syntax informing the communication between computer and user, and between users; in the illusion of an absolutely individual autonomy in ownership, access, financial and legal responsibility of the owner -- whereas in reality that user tend to be blindly dependent on systems which are inaccessible as black boxes and which owe no accountability to anyone (the Microsoft empire and the negative stereotyping it generations among the ore conscious users is a case in point.) Even the built-in conflicts, ironies and humour in the computer domain may probably be relegated to the specific types of cultural programming attending the scientific, technological, military and entrepreneurial milieus -- strongly North Atlantic, predominantly USA -- in which this technology has realised its rapid development. The language aspects of the computer are in the first instance American English. And without the inventive mathematics of Von Neumann, Turing and the members of their generation from the North Atlantic region, there would have been no computer.

       Does this mean that the computer and ICT in general are eminently at home in the North Atlantic world? That is admittedly where they have been received for years with great rapidity in all kinds of successive phases of their innovation. But the fact of this reception in itself already shows that even in the North Atlantic world computers are not in the first place at home -- the environment in which they originated is scarcely the standard North Atlantic environment, but something far more limited and specific. The most adequate description of this process of reception is one in terms of globalisation: in the technologies of the computer and ICT in general the local specificity of a cultural orientation has transcended itself by creating a medium which by its very nature is communicative and informative, but this to a far greater extent than the communication and information technology (from the foot path and the talking drum to writing, the mail coach and the sailing ship) by which older formations of culture were made possible and at the same time were breached by communication spilling over outside the localising frames of identity. Electronic ICT is perhaps on the one hand a produce of Northern culture, but on the other hand it puts paid to this very type of localised culture; it is capable of supporting historical cultural identity constructions and is admittedly used for that purpose,[13] but of far greater significance is its capability of breaching through identitary boundaries through communication and information, and to render thinkable, and to support, new forms of identity (like communities of e-mailers, electronic discussion groups etc.) which are exclusively based on ICT.

       Even if it were only for this metalocal nature inherent in electronic ICT the computer in Africa cannot justifiably be called a North Atlantic cultural transplant -- for its North Atlantic nature has been too much transcended to make this a fitting characterisation any longer. Moreover, as we have seen the globalising metalocal domain extends to include contemporary Africa, where the ‘authentically African culture/ cultures’ have at best survived, if at all, in the form of carefully maintained virtual enclaves, geared to the annual production of a harvest festival, a chief’s ceremony, a dancing performance, all of which have been partially reshaped in accordance to global model of media production, and thus have been virtualised.[14] Whoever takes an overview of contemporary socio-cultural life in Africa, cannot escape the conclusion that in most places globalised elements are present and are even taken for granted, to such an extent that often[15] they are even no longer dissimulated by localising identity construction: the jeans trousers, the bra, the motorcar, caned food, pick-locks and other popular metal tools, formal organisations in education, health services, religion, do nowhere give rise to surprise anymore -- they demonstrate that in many respects life in Africa has become not ‘African’ but - just like life in Western Europe -- metalocal, not to say global. This non-authentic Africa, however inefficient and unpredictable in its details, is a much more tangible reality than the mythical ‘authentic Africa’, also for Africans. And in this tangible non-authentic Africa ICT is not an alien transplant, but an increasingly important aspect -- taken for granted and no longer dispensable -- of a socio-cultural milieu which, while geographically situated in Africa, has from the nineteenth century closely followed North Atlantic technological developments and has participated in these developments as a matter of course.


ICT as metalocal global culture

What remains is thesis (2):

‘(2)    (a) ICT is metalocal world culture, without local specificity and local validity, and hence (b) ICT is in principle devastating for any localising cultural identity like the African one.’

       The above argument contains sufficient elements to render plausible the first part (a) of this thesis, but what abut the second part (2)? Localising cultural identities, in Africa as elsewhere, exist in tension to the globalising elements (including electronic ICT) which have spread so abundantly all over Africa. This tension is in principle not necessarily destructive, because as argued above, the new technologies may also serve to support historical identities; the apparently alien transplant may turn out to further in unexpected ways that which is local and identitary, pace Mazrui and Gyekye. But in order to be able to serve that purpose, these technology must be available in the first place, and must also have undergone some degree of local acclimatisation. In Africa, these conditions are by now met for such communication techniques as the written press, radio, television, cassette recorders and video, and in many places these demonstrably support and inform identity constructions. However, in most place of Africa this is not yet the case by far with regard to Internet: there are far too few user computers and providers, the electronic network connections are unreliable. Most importantly the local population has as yet scarcely access to this medium so that it is not available as an expression of identity. Whatever manages to present itself , and to maintain itself, under such conditions of scarcity, does so usually by virtue of non-local inputs in terms of interests, means and formats, and therefore would produce only the most misleading representations of what may yet pose as a local situation.

This state of affairs was particularly driven home to my with regard to the rural district of Kaoma, in the very heart of western Zambia. Here I have conducted anthropological and historical research since 1972. Only in 1994 could I for the first time make an international telephone call from this district; and only a year later could I have my first e-mail contact with someone from the capital of this district.

              Whoever searches Internet for ‘Kaoma’ with any of the usual search machines, does admittedly find a number of hits which unmistakably apply to this district.[1] But whoever tries to construct an image of Kaoma district on the basis on these hits gets absolutely lost in the fog — the kind of fog that hangs over North Atlantic polders or prairies, not the kind that in the early morning hangs over Kaoma’s dambos — wetlands — at the bottom of its shallow, wooded valleys, where duiker antelopes and wild pigs, and until the 1970s even buffaloes and elephants, are started by local hunters; some of these hunters are in the employ of local princes, and some still wield Portuguese muzzle-loader guns from the nineteenth century... Kaoma’s representation on Internet is a misleading travesty of the actual local situation, not a form of valid knowledge but a form of ignorance. The Kaoma district which speaks to us via Internet is merely a reflection of the intercontinental presence in the district, including: a Dutch development project parading, on its website, an exceptionally successful local woman farmer (but one belonging to the locally hated, non-local immigrant group of the Lozi); the USA-controlled evangelical parent body of the Evangelical Church of Zambia operates a major hospital in the district, and its matron shares her unmistakably Southern States spirituality with the visitors of her website. And finally we spot, on Internet, an NGO [2]in the field of local fauna management, directed — with the assistance of a North American scholar who is otherwise unknown to me — by my enterprising adoptive cousin Mr Reginald Libupe:[3] Mr Libupe is the most conspicuous and typical Nkoya post-urban broker: retired managing director of Zambia Lake Fisheries (a major parastatal controlling, with its dried fish, much of the protein intake of Zambia’s lower-class urban population); a political adventurer in various political parties in succession; sometime member of the Kaoma Rural Council; owner of a ramshackle bar-motel at Nkeyema; owner of a thriving farm at the same agricultural scheme; once an exploiter of the lucrative hardwood reserves of the region wielding a power saw; leading member of the Kazanga executive; cousin to Chief Kahare and unsuccessful contender to the throne at the 1994 succession; and eminently lucrative entrepreneur who during several seasons in the 1990s has managed to convert the local small farmers’ hard-earned cash into nothing but the sheer promises of fertiliser to be delivered at the right moment — but which never materialised. Internet allows us — albeit only on context-less attendance lists — a glimpse of Mr Libupe’s participation in international, donor-sponsored conferences, even all the way to Dakar, where his fauna management NGO, since it is carried by the very people themselves, turns out be eligible for subsidy, qualifying under that other magical category of the development parlance of the 1990s: as a ‘rotating credit association’...


7. ICT between the local and the global in an African context

The specific case of Kaoma suggests a situation around African ICT which I would deem eminently capable of generalisation: Internet only renders to the outside world, what that outside world has put into Internet in the first place. In this light there would seem to be little reason for the euphoria which generally attends the discussion of ICT in the circles of African intellectuals.[4] For the time being, we should look anywhere except on Internet for valid and representative knowledge production on Kaoma district and its inhabitants.[5] And Kaoma district is representative for very many areas in Africa as a region where despite the virtualisation and globalisation of life the traces of older historical socio-cultural forms can still be discerned so clearly that people may yet entertain the illusion — although it is an illusion and nothing else — that these forms have braved the decades or even the centuries.[6]

                        Meanwhile a new field of tension arises here: that between medium-specific format (in which inevitably the North Atlantic cultural origin of ICT shimmers through) and the contents, which in principle may be derived from all knowledge systems of all times and from all over the world. To the extent to which ICT is metalocal, it is valid to say that this medium — irrespective of its North Atlantic origin — may display a great flexibility as far as its specific cultural context of use is concerned. Sharing the cultural orientation, the mathematical rationality, the iconographic and aesthetic principles of the makers of ICT, is by no means a condition for the effective appropriation of this medium, and for the subsequent use of this medium for purposes and from the perspective of a world view which in itself would be rejected by that very same mathematical rationality: divination, New Age, African magic, Chinese Taoism, etc. Many divination systems, ‘voodoo’ (which has now become a globalised term without any meaningful referent to any specific ritual practice in any specific time and place, but which originally referred to the West African indigenous concept of vodun), recently invented or reinvented traditions such as the wicca witch cult, forms of oriental systems of thought such as Taoism — all of these are well represented on Internet. But when they appear there, it is almost invariably in a format (that of short written texts in a North Atlantic language, supported by visual material largely conceived in accordance North Atlantic modernist or postmodernist aesthetic conventions as mediated by popular graphics computer programmes) which implies a subjugation, domestication, of these non-western forms of knowledge to North Atlantic models, at least at the formal level. What is more, they often appear in the form of irritatingly gratuitous pseudo-knowledge, without critical apparatus — as sub-intellectual instant food, as a globalised and virtualised product (usually with a strong New Age element) which has only its name in common with the original knowledge system which is claimed to be thus represented.

                        It appears as if ICT strikingly manifests the themes of unity and diversity, localisation and globalisation in the modern world. It forces us to discard the illusion of sharp distinctions, between cultures and between continent, in the context of a geopolitical, ideological mind-set concerning the structure of the modern world. Instead it advocates a view based on a plurality of fields of tension and a plurality of kaleidoscopically superimposed and counteracting contradictions, between which the intercultural philosopher has to pick her way, just as prudently and flatteringly as does the contemporary world citizen at large.

                        Let us now assess how the enculturation of ICT takes place in Africa itself as an aspect of globalisation.

8. How does the enculturation of ICT in Africa take place?

8.1. The expansion of ICT in Africa

From the 1960s the computer has seen a consistent expansion, not only in the North Atlantic region but also in Africa. Also in that continent the first move was the rise of in-house computing by the transition from the main frame to the microcomputer, and the transition from input by means of punched tape or punch card to input via the computer screen. In government institutions, universities and in successful, capital-intensive sectors of commercial life, a total transformation of the administrative workplace occurred; until then the workplace was characterised by forms which hailed from the colonial era: authoritarian relationships, over-staffing, defective competence, and ritualisation. New forms of management, co-operation (or, due to the fixation on one’s own computer screen, the absence of co-operation!), personal exercise of power, and career mobility, came within reach due to the micro computer. Computer specialists took the place of accountants and other administrative personnel with an intermediate-level training. Women gradually gained their own place in this new set-up. Professional organisations were formed in order to guard over the new power and privileges to which computer skills gave access. Wherever the microcomputer was introduced, it tended to lead to an marked increase of responsibilities and competencies of first-line administrative personnel. This led to fundamental changes in the labour relations within bureaucracies and enterprises; moreover, vis-à-vis the public the individual administrative officer, now armed with a computer screen, could even more convincingly than before conjure up and exploit the image of the omnipotent state answerable to none — one of the most intransigent heritages of the colonial state in postcolonial Africa. Private training institutions began to exploit the new market generated by such expectations of professional upward mobility, steep rises in income, consumptive opportunities and security as were associated with computer-training certificates. Thus the collective technological utopia which was noticeable in the affected sectors of African urban life, was mirrored by a personal utopia.

                        One of the few researchers who have carried out richly-conceptualised empirical research on ICT in Africa had been the prominent African American anthropologist Benetta Jules-Rosette, in her book Terminal signs.[7] Although the flight of her analysis is somewhat hampered by a social-contract view of national societies in Africa, and by here somewhat humourless unconditional loyalty vis-à-vis the African computer workers featuring in her research, she offers nice examples of the kind of contradiction which one may encounter in the field of African ICT:

‘A senior programmer at a Kenya wholesale outlet attempts to manage the transition from a labor-intensive NCR keypunch computer to a new electronic multi-user system while increasing the number of employees for whom he is responsible. If he increases the number of employees, although their individual work tasks have diminished, he will obtain the title of data processing manager and double his salary. Government administrators in Ivory Coast strive to develop a computer policy that will limit the activities of multinational computer vendors such as IBM, BULL, and UNISYS, while simultaneously encouraging these companies to invest in the country. The Kenyan government organizes the computerization of key government ministries but imposes stringent restrictions on public access to computers. These cases are not merely management conundrums. They share a common theme. Each case illustrates an effort to manipulate the narratives of public discourse in order to delimit everyday practices that constitute the adoption of new technologies. Computer policies project a specific representation of development and change.’ (Jules-Rosette 1990: 10f).

                        The pattern of expanding ICT differs greatly between African counties. Government policy (as enshrined, among other documents, in national five-year development plans and in import tax legislation) varies between consistent furthering of ICT as a recognised precondition for post-industrialisation in Ivory Coast, via a restrictive and contradictory government policy in Kenya which yet slowly but surely achieves automatisation, and via countries with a slow and vague take-off in ICT like Mali and Sudan, to countries which because of their absolutely stagnant economy or their civil wars were scarcely ready for ICT, like Niger and Angola. Until recently South Africa formed a case apart,. This country has for one and a half  century boasted an advanced industrial and scientific infrastructure, which however in the second half of the twentieth century had become tributary to the apartheid state. Hence ICT imports until 1990 were prohibited by an international boycott. This boycott however was only consistently observed by the Scandinavian countries, and as a result South Africa has been, and remains, by far the most computerised African country. (Slob 1990). South Africa is also the only African country which scores high (20th place) in the international list of Internet implementation and Internet use.

                        Not only international enterprises but also continental African institutions, research bodies, the UNESCO (cf. UNESCO 1980), North Atlantic governments and development agencies are active in the field of enhancing ICT in African countries. For instance, the proceedings of the Second African Colloquium on Information Research, held in 1994 in Ouagadougou (the capital of the West African country Burkina Faso), were made into a prestigious book  (Tankoano 1994) of close to a 1000 pages, filled to the brim with  formulas, diagrams, tables, bibliographies. Publication was made possible by an eloquent combination of national and international organisations: the University of  Ouagadougou, the Burkinabé Ministry of Development, the University of the United Nations, the National Institute for Research in Information and Automation of Burkina Faso, ORSTOM (the French Institute for Scientific Research in the field of Development and Development Co-operation), PII-IIP (the intergovernmental information programme of UNESCO), CIMPA (the International Centre for Applied Mathematics), and the Association of African Universities. About half of the scores of authors contributing to the book are non-African working either in Africa or in French ICT institutions; but the other half consists of African researchers. The entire world is involved in Africa’s ICT, and ICT demonstrates that Africa is indeed part of the wider world — as an unmistakable aspect of the globalisation process in which the countries and societies of the African continent are increasingly drawn. Despite the abundance of ferrous dust (the African continent is one large table land whose surface is coloured red by ferrous minerals), power failures, the constant threat of ritualisation, the constant threat of burglary and theft of hard ware, and the unmistakable class formation and poverty which means that for the time being only the happy few can effectively participate in ICT in Africa — despite these handicaps ICT is, in principle, just as much at home in Africa as elsewhere in the modern world.

8.2. The tension between ICT euphoria on the one hand, and the negative assessment of African globalisation on the other

Meanwhile there is no lack of lengthy arguments which sing the praise of the potential, for Africa, of today’s ICT especially Internet. These arguments discuss technical limitations (defective infrastructure e.g. the telephone network, the number of ICT connections, the low quality of the servers available), economic aspects (poverty, and the fact that many African operate economically outside the formal sector of the government and commerce and hence have no access to Internet use), the transformation of the bureaucracy as discussed above, and the possibilities of generating, in the rural areas of Africa, an innovating flow of information via Internet.

                        The euphoric thought that ICT will mean a bright future for Africa is widespread, not only among intellectuals (cf. Nkwi  1995, Nyamnyoh 1998, OAU 1995, Ras-Work 1998) but also among politicians. In this connection it is significant that Thabo Mbeki, Nelson Mandela’s successor as president of South Africa, has attributed a decisive role to the ICT revolution in his blueprint of an African Renaissance (Mbeki 1999).

                        The euphoria is surprising. No doubt we must situate the spread of ICT in Africa in a context of globalisation, but where Africa is concerned globalisation is in general not a reason for euphoria but for profound concern. For Africa economic globalisation has been synonymous with an ever increasing marginalisation: the intercontinental proceeds from Africa’s products has declined even despite increasing productivity, today Africa is involved in no more than 1% of transactions in the world economy. Under postcolonial governments the continent’s national economies have been disrupted due to mismanagement and the erosion of bureaucracies. These national economies have moreover been plundered by national elites which have appropriated the state. In most African countries the citizens have since long learned not to count on  essential government apparatuses such as the police, the judicial powers, health services, educational services and public works. Because of the hideous debt burden more money goes out of the African continent in the form of interest, than it receives in the form of development aid including balance-of-payments aid. Such Structural Adjustment Programmes as have been intercontinentally imposed upon African countries, have brought neither political stability nor economic rationalisation, but they did produce increasing impoverishment of large sections of the African population. Yet at the same time the increased communicative aspects of the globalisation process have led, in the most frustrating way, to the installation of new consumptive targets and new desires among the same population. Incapable to effectively as protect (let alone actively take care of) their citizens, during the last few decades many the African postcolonial states have been the scene of violent struggles involving regional and ethnic groups and political adventurers. Under the heading ‘development co-operation’, prolonged and many-faceted interventions from the North Atlantic region has yielded incidental local successes. This has contributed to the formation of a comfortable local point of address in the form of a NGO-based, servile, loyal and affluent local sub-elite which has great organisational and technical skills (including ICT). But all this has not been able to redress the overall miserable situation.

                        It would appear as if the expansion of ICT in Africa coincides with the disintegration of African societies. Does that mean that Jules-Rosette’s title Terminal signs has (despite the optimistic positioning of its author) a double entente: does the title not just refer to the social and semiotic interpretation, by Africans, of the signs which appear on computer terminals? Do these very sign testify to the destructive contradictions, the almost terminal situation, in which Africa finds itself today? Does this terminal situation consist in the combination of modernity and postmodernity; the combination of effective impact, thorough ICT, on the empirical world and the mere illusory manipulation of symbols; the combination of both a state-sponsored project of national enhancement, and sub-national class formation? the combination of utopia and image of terror? Would Mazrui (1977, 1978) be right after all and does ICT, as an unmistakable aspect of globalisation in Africa, install the conditions for further economic subjugation of the continent? Do we have to add to this economic subjugation, a cultural subjugation, in this sense that African ways of interacting between fellow-humans and between man and world (way whose praises have been sung so frequently in African ethnographies and African philosophies) are — as argued by Gyekye — miles apart from those social and cosmological models which are necessary for successful use of computers. and may be even fundamentally incompatible with computer use? In order to answer this question we must assess the cultural dynamics which surrounds ICT in Africa.

8.3. An empirical context of ICT enculturation: the Francistown cybercafé

Now if in principle,. as argued above, ICT is just as much at home in Africa as elsewhere in the world, then let us go and visit her in Africa. In Southern Africa (not only in South Africa as mentioned above, but also in Botswana, Swaziland, Lesotho, Zimbabwe) the expansion of ICT proceeds faster than elsewhere on the African continent. In these countries cybercafés have proliferated in recent years, as a sign of the increasing accessibility for a substantial proportion of the population. But before we base too optimistic conclusions on this phenomenon, let us take a closer look at one such a café as a place of ICT enculturation in Africa.

In April 1999 I spent a week in a cybercafé in Francistown, North-eastern district, Botswana. Francistown was founded a hundred years ago as a result of European capitalist interests. In the course of decades Africans came to constitute an increasing part of the population, and in the 1980s the town underwent rapid demographic and economic growth. Seen from the North Atlantic, Francistown (the second town of Botswana boasting over 70,000 inhabitants in 1999) is an inconspicuous small town: an ugly agglomeration of endless rows of identical small houses grouped around two veritable shopping streets with traffic lights and modern buildings (shopping malls, banks) of up to two floors, flashing the logos of world brands: Adidas, Nashua, Texaco, Toyota, IBM, British Airways, etc. Seen from the villages which are still housing half the population of the African continent, Francistown is an baffling world city. This is where, in the late 1980s, I made my acquaintance with the fax machine which until then did not play a role in my Dutch academic life. Hence I had high expectations of the cybercafé which was situated on the top floor of one of the newest malls.

              I was disappointed. The cybercafé’s hardware consisted of five customer-operated computers and one reasonably fast professional computer used as server for a few hundred Internet subscribers in the region. The front part of the shop was furnished for the sale of the most current hardware and software; computer books can be found in an amazing abundance in the adjacent general news shop and bookshop, which has no links with the cybercafé. Francistown is an important centre of commerce and industry, and the vast majority of Internet subscribers are to be found in these sectors on the economy — as turns out when we search the Internet for ‘Francistown’ with one of the current search machines. In the week I was there, the designing of a website for a local bridal fashion shop took much of the attention of the cybercafé’s staff of four: the tawny-coloured manageress who was equally fluent in Southern African English, and Setswana; the Black assistant with a fair basic knowledge of Internet; the white graphical designer; and finally the Black cleaner woman, a mature slightly corpulent lady whom the manageress and her other colleagues treated so much as if she were an elderly family member that sometimes the impression was given of a tightly-knit family enterprise headed by the cleaner. With one or two exceptions, the Internet café’s clients use only a minimal selection from the range of facilities offered: in a daily or weekly routine they hastily read and send a few e-mails (they are anxious not to overstep the cybercafé’s minimum fee of about one dollar per 15 minutes). Some ask for help when searching for the many Web sites which offer free e-mail accounts. Occasionally a young Black woman would enter for advice as to how to open, at the instigation of her absent South African white boyfriend, an e-mail account so as to stay in touch regularly and cheaply. Only very few people look on Internet for a specific site, or prudently surfs between sites, but after visiting a few sites even these vacate their bar stools with an eloquent look at the clock. All bodily and verbal contact between clients is shun as if they catch each other in socially discouraged behaviour. Staff-client contact is limited to a minimum, and nothing of the richly textured personal relationship between the staff is shared with the clients. Interaction in a public toilet could not be more impersonal. This lack of social exchanges contrasts markedly with Francistown public culture, in whose turbulent recreational setting the word ‘café’ has certainly connotations of sociability, exchange, self presentation, status seeking through conspicuous consumption, the experience of identity by associating oneself with a fixed social and physical location in the recreational space. Most of the time I am the only customer in the cybercafé. Even in a town as developed and dynamic as Francistown, obviously the target group of the cybercafé is only small: people who (to judge by their clothing and general appearance) could not afford a state-of-the-art computer (including the subscription to the electricity mains network, the telephone network, and the Internet), and who have no access to such hardware in their place of employment, but who nonetheless come to hesitantly explore the new information and communication technology. Enculturation, appropriation towards a local cultural programming is only very partially the case. On the contrary, for the customers Internet would appear to form a secluded domain which one may appropriate instrumentally (at considerable costs of money, effort and frustration), but whose contents are not in line with the socio-cultural programming of one’s own life as a Francistonian. The game of social relations grinds to a halt in the intimidating nearness of the computer. However, the cybercafé’s staff has already regained its natural pose and thus manages to incorporate ICT in their everyday life in a much more natural manner. Preliminary conclusions after a week in the Francistown Internet café: if Internet is to be the hope of Africa, the realisation of that hope will take a while yet in large parts of Africa.

8.4. Backgrounds of ICT enculturation

How is ICT appropriated and localised in African environments, in the sense that here practices occur which amount to an original creative elaboration upon this new technology, in the course of which it local symbols and meanings — both old and new — are conferred upon that technology?

                        Above I sketched a field of tension, one of whose poles was that ICT might be primarily thought of as eminently North Atlantic. In this respect ICT fits in with an ideal of the appropriation of European symbols of power, prestige and success. During the colonial period (which incidentally lasted considerably less than a century in most part of Africa) this ideal spread widely over the African continent. It was expressed in styles of clothing, coiffure, housing and interior decoration, family life, choice of mode of transport, recreation, religion — not only among the elite but also among a much larger urban middle class, and to some extent even right up to the remotest corners of urban slums and of the rural areas.

                        We should not read too much in the element of ‘imitation of the North’ Here, as always when it comes to the adoption of cultural elements across considerable distances in space and/or time, a considerable ‘transformative localisation’ occurs:[8] that which was initially alien is encapsulated by more or less altering its form, meaning, use, or a combination of these aspects, according to principles which already exist locally. Nowadays, decades after the African states gained their independence, the structure of African elites has changes considerably. They have become more slavishly orientated towards the former European motherland, and more inclusively cosmopolitan, global. But the elites continue to search for prestigious life styles and symbols of domination; this is simply what they have in common with socio-political elites wherever in the world. The exercise of power in contemporary Africa increasingly takes place with the framework of formal organisations (such as the state, the army, the party, the enterprise, the church, the trade union, the university), but this framework tends to be much more loose and non-compelling than in the North Atlantic, far more subject to personal and particularistic manipulation. Often these formal organisations in Africa do not work properly, and if they do work to some extent this is less due to effective bureaucratic and legal rationality, but due to patronage, ethnic manipulation and informal social networks behind the facade of the formal structure. Here virtualised models of social and political power are being mediated which to not root in the North Atlantic heritage but instead in precolonial forms of leadership and initiative within kinship groups and precolonial states. For several centuries before the effective European colonisation of Africa, in many -parts of Africa, trade goods hailing from afar were both the symbols of an unrivalled power of life, death and the supernatural (fire arms, and imported liquor — e.g. Dutch gin — which came to constitute the preferred libation liquids at local African shrines), and the attributes of an incomparable prestige (textiles, Chinese glazed ware, Ancient Egyptian artefacts, European clothing etc.). Among other perspectives, the appropriation of ICT as a means of power must be seen in this light: not as the imitation of the power and life-style of Europeans, but as a localised means of prestige which at the same time constitutes a real means for the exercise of power in the African social environment. It appears to be a common trait in any system of power, no matter where it occurs in space and time, inside and outside Africa, that the effective exercise of power by means of physical violence, by force, goes hand in had with an ensemble of representations which draw this exercise of power into the domain of the numinous and the speculative, which project it into a magic of power.[9] In Africa this magic has of old taken the form of a discourse on sorcery — of evil which is perpetrated by humans in an extrasensory way, and which forms one of the major indigenous explanations of misfortune. In many African societies connotations of sorcery have of old surrounded those occupying high statuses who specialise in the communication with a human, extra-human or supra-human outside worlds at the boundary of local society: the king, the headman, the diviner-priest-healer, the blacksmith, the bard, the trader. Although the roots of this complex of representations lie in a local kinship order which goes back at least to Neolithic agricultural communities, during the last few decades Africa has seen an intensification of sorcery as an idiom par excellence  for the articulation of the contradictions of modernity — the tension between consumptive desires, and (as a condition to fulfil those desires) the breaking up of historic forms of social organisation, solidarity, morals and ethics (Geschiere, 1995; van Binsbergen, 1998, 1997).

                        In this cultural framework the individualised microcomputer fits very well. In the first place as a new prestige object of elitist power, and as an instrument for the effective exercise of power in the management of social, politician commercial information, processes, and contacts. But also, and particularly, because ICT conjures up the numinous magic of power so strikingly, with its flashing, uncannily real images, its high speed and instantaneous access which give the impression that space and time appear to submit to the to the user/owner of the microcomputer. Thus, especially in the eyes of uninitiated onlookers, old magical dreams such as bilocation, omnipresence and omnipotence appear to finally come true. For instance, in Benin today the Internet is known as grigri yovo: ‘ the magico-religious object[10] of the whites’, and Internet is explicitly equated with voodoo (a cult system based on ecstasy and initiation which, next to and in collusion with the postcolonial state, constitutes the major form of social organisation in this African country).[11]

                        The microcomputer and especially the Internet has therefore inserted itself, not only in the recreational practices of African elite children and in the scientific data collection of African intellectuals, but also in the power strategies of prominent African politicians and entrepreneurs, and of those aspiring to join their ranks. In the practice of these politicians and entrepreneurs this state—of-the-art form of ICT is often linked, with equal ease and self-evidence,


     to modern natural science and business economics,

     to more traditional magical practices (diviner-priests are frequently consulted for political and economic success and for protection in that connection), and

     to esoteric world-views (theosophy, Rosicrucianism) which from an Oriental and/or pseudo-scientific periphery of North Atlantic rational thought are in the process of conquering Africa just as much as they spread in the North Atlantic, in the context of New Age.


                        That the African enculturatioon of ICT is triggered not only by specific technological and career advantages but also by the desire to explore and appropriate a comprehensive new life style, and even new idioms of social and cosmic power,  is suggested by a remarkable research finding from Francistown, Botswana.

My research on the urban culture of Francistown as a window on both local rural traditions and on the process of cultural globalisation in Africa  brought me in close contact with the three highest-ranking local leaders of the cult of the High God Mwali. This cult is a precolonial organisation which meanwhile has superficially re-organised itself, turning to the state the appearance of an effective modern formal organisation (a professional association of traditional healers, and an African Independent Church) which is more in accordance with Botswana civil law. The three priests combine their high office with flourishing therapeutic and herbalist practices, and besides operate — in line with a widespread Southern African pattern — a bar, a bottle store, a butchery, a transport company, a dancing troupe. Their modern, detached houses, designed and appointed according to cosmopolitan standards, centre on the television set crowned with plastic flowers and surrounded by a circle of heavy armchairs with embroidered head covers. Apparently Africa’s consumptive modernity (whose aesthetics appear to be somewhat dated and second-rate from a North Atlantic perspective) can be very well combined with religious leadership of an originally precolonial type. The point is now that around 1990 each of these three cult leaders has a young adult daughter which was remotely active in her father’s cult, but which primarily pursued introductory computer training  — these daughter were thus among the few Francistonian women who at that moment could mobilise the financial means and the kinship support for their personal venture into ICT.

Of course, the perception of ICT as magical and as kindred to sorcery, in the eyes of political and economic leaders and of those — almost all of them devoid of computers — over whom they hold sway, is only one aspect of the localisation of ICT in Africa. I already mentioned its use in offices and by intellectuals. Also among office workers and intellectuals  we see a combination of, on the one hand, purposeful rational behaviour characterised by universalist procedures and assumptions (bureaucratic management, information processing), and on the other hand not so much dreams of computer-underpinned power as among the political and economic elite, but certainly utopian pondering on personal career success and on the redress of Africa’s ICT backwardness as compared to the North Atlantic region.  This utopian aspect constitutes an additional incentive to acquire computer skills, and lowers the thresholds towards ICT reception.

                        All this means that also within contemporary African societies an extensive and many-sided discourse about computers has developed, which facilitates the further personal and collective appropriation of ICT. Again the situation is not fundamentally different from that in the North Atlantic: one does not need to command, or even to emulate, the mathematical and micro-electronic rationality of the designers, in order to effectively use the computer as a black box — and the methods of such use are learned, formally or informally, in a circle of equals (secondary and university students, friends, colleagues, system managers in training), and in a way in which ordinary everyday spoken language turns out to play a remarkably great role — even if spiced for the occasion with intercontinental computer terms which are preferably left untranslated. Here again we see the tension between local and global, intracultural and metacultural, which makes ICT such an interesting test case of interculturality.

                        The appropriation (in a colonial, precolonial and postcolonial context) of alien artefacts within more or less elitist frameworks of power, magic and utopia; and the fact that culturally the computer is a user-friendly black box which is serviceable anywhere, globally, meta-locally. These two factors together furnish us with the beginning of an answer to the obvious question as to why the reception of ICT in Africa display such remarkably low thresholds — as if cultures do not exist.

8.5. From book to web in the African context

I suspect that in answer to this last question, additional factors might be adduced in addition to the two factors mentioned. These additional factors refer to the structure of communicative and procedural connections in ICT such as it has developed globally, in the form of hypertext, hyperlinks, and the nested and layers, criss-crossing structures engendered in that context. Before that time information management and information transmission was largely modelled after the book. This implied the model of a large, unique, self-contained, and clearly demarcated quantity of information, highly organised and internally consistent, almost exclusively verbal (i.e. not visual, auditive, motoric etc.), and as such linearised from beginning to end, in such a way that in principle the medium cogently prescribed one particular path through this information. Such a book has been the unit of knowledge production for five millennia, in the Ancient Near East,[12] Graeco-Roman Antiquity, China, India, the world of Islam, and finally Europe. After the  book model also the idea of the human person was modelled.[13] The same model also informed the idea of the formal organisation with its legal (text-based) authority; and probably its was also the book model which informed the idea of the distinct culture, each culture being a specific item in a range of a plurality of cultures, and codified by means of a certain genre of books, notably ethnographies. The world’s subjugation of North Atlantic hegemony between in eighteenth and the twentieth century of the North Atlantic era meant: subjugation to the book (including the Bible, in so far as this subjugation took the form of the spread of Christianity) — and likewise the subjugation to Islam, from the Departure (hijra) from Mecca which marks the beginning of the Islamic era, amounted to a subjugation to the Book, notably the Qur’an. Within this context not only the colonial subject’s subjugation, but also their subsequent assimilation and final emancipation (by appropriation of North Atlantic models of equal rights, socialism, trade-unionism, formal education, franchise etc.) meant: internalisation of the book model. In Africa this disciplining in terms of the book model has taken root only partially, even though many millions of Africans today are perfectly comparable with the readers and the writer of the present book, in terms of formal education and employment within formal organisations. However, African societies have never quite turned into ‘book’ in the same way as this process has advanced progressively in the North Atlantic region and especially in the latter’s urban centres. In West African English, the expression You know book has become a standard expression for the person who has a formal education, praising him and setting him apart as a relative exception at the same time. Over the last century the domain of globalisation and virtualisation has certainly been an expanding aspect of African societies, but the size of that domain in proportion to the totality of African life has always remained limited. A considerable part of African live continued to take place outside formal organisations, and whatever was created in terms of formal organisation functioned mainly informally if at all. The linearity and consistency of the book model did fit a North Atlantic modern world characterised by social and political relations which have largely taken on an instrumental nature, have lost much of their former ritual and symbolic aspects, and therefore have lost much of their meaning. The individuals involved in these relations are increasingly atomised, autonomous and competence; they life in great political and economic security. Most African in the colonial and post colonial setting have always lacked such security, and this is one explanation among several others, why the book model, the individuality, the viable and smoothly functioning formal organisation, the linear path thorough social, political and symbolic relationships, and the almost total disenchantment of the world, have never occurred in Africa to an extent anywhere comparable to the North Atlantic. In modern Africa one has always needed to compensate the insecurities of the modern, urban, state-based aspects of social life, by maintaining (to the extent possible) old systems of kin-based and ethnic solidarity — orientated toward the village with its centuries-old practices  and systems of representation encompassing many domains of life, and with its concomitant, endlessly proliferating and branching networks of social relations. For excellent reasons the relational network has proved to be a very fertile concept in the study of African towns, where informal networks turned out to practically form the principle format of social structuring (Mitchell 1969). In this African context it is normal to think in web-like structures, which would be dismissed as inconsistent, incompetent and insufficiently bounded from the point of view of the book model. In this connection it remains a point for further research what is the consequence is of this web-like of rhizomatic,[14] typically African social structure, for people’s orientation in space and time, and for the local definition (as porous? as ambiguous?) of the person within such a ramifying environment — the social and physical space, and how this orientation might facilitate, in its turn, modern use of computers. It is not necessary to appeal in this connection (as Afrocentrist are bound to do)[15] to a special vitality of African cultures,  to some special innate talent of Africans, or to some special type of ‘savage thought[16] which allegedly might characterise informal situations inside and outside Africa. For an explanation of the continued survival in Africa of non-formal, non-book-like practices and concepts which in North Atlantic societies have been largely supplanted by the state and by other formal organisation with their enormous influence on daily life and the everyday experience, we need only refer to the extent of colonial and postcolonial insecurities in the formal situations which from the North Atlantic region have been created in Africa.

                        For as long as the book remained the norm, and for as long the forms of communication associated with the book predominated, Africa with its un-book-like response self-evidently lagged behind in ways which it would never be able to make up for. Not the computer in itself constitutes an assault on the formal and the linear in information, and means the end of the book as the golden standard. However, such a revolution is being prompted by the ramifying, rhizomatic forms in which information is being presented and may be managed on Internet and in the hypertextual structures within microcomputers. ‘The stone which the builders rejected, the same is become the head of the corner’.[17] Not of course because they are Africans, but because they are in a privileged position to bring out the problem and potentials of the South, of ‘the Third World’, in our times (grosso modo, to Asia and Latin America the same perspective applies), modern Africans have as a matter of course mastered the skills needed to survive with their families in an social context characterised by the tension between, on the one hand, the insecure, urban, formal environment, and on the other hand the manifestations — which also to Africans are often ambivalent — of a persisting but eroded system of kin-based and ethnic solidarity. In such a context one seldom puts all one’s eggs in one basket, but instead one tends to cultivate and operate simultaneously many contacts, many strategies, many obligations, many kin relations along a multitude of alternative genealogical paths, many compromises, many contradictions between these commitments. This structural feature permeates all aspects of African life especially in the increasingly insecure postcolonial situation. It is especially manifest in situations where public life is constantly at the verge of tot collapse, such as depicted in recent ethnographic studies by Renaat Devisch (1995, 1996) and Filip de Boeck (1996a, 1996b) on Congo (-Kinshasa). Freely translated towards computer practice, the art of living needed for such situations reminds one of practices for hypertext-based Internet use on the modern computer. This would mean that the modern African is someone who is at least as well equipped, if not better, for the mental requirements of state-of-the-art computer use, as the North Atlantic adult, whose main handicap in the computer era may very well proof to be his being wedded to the golden standard of the book.

                        But we have not yet reached that stage. The inhabitants of the North Atlantic region, and East-Asians, are very strongly represented in the world of ICT, and the African are merely newcomers there. In this connection, the northerners may continue to boast their skill in the handling and improvement of formal systems. For after all,. the rhizomatic structure of the actual application of ICT, however much tending towards the chaotic, requires to begin with a strictly formal, logical point of departure in the algorithms and technologies used. But also with regard to formal systems Africans have their own local traditions. It is not impossible that Africans training in ICT may derive some unexpected advantage from their begin acquainted with indigenously-African formal systems such as mathematical board-games[18] and divination methods[19]  such as are encountered all over the African continent. Hountondji, the African philosopher who has so strongly criticised the construction (in the hands of his African colleagues and their North Atlantic supporters) of an African mystique under the pretext of philosophy,[20]   considers the exploration of such historic local forms of science, mathematics and technology an important field of research  (Hountondji 1994). The purpose of such research is not so much because it helps to explode racial stereotypes and to gather points in favour of Afrocentrism. Its main purpose is to further, among Africans,  a proud and empirically underpinned vision of their own competence and their own birthright to engage with modern technology. Little wonder that it is Hountondji who is currently working out the plans for an African version of the North Atlantic Institutes for Advanced Study, where Africa’s only too obvious handicaps in their field of libraries and documentation will be compensated by effective computer technology: Internet and CD-ROMs.[21]

[1]              ‘Kaoma’ is only a very short word and is likely to exist in several other languages and contexts than that of western central Zambia, where it has been the name of a district since 1969 (previously called Mankoya district), and the name of a stream since time immemorial. It is likely that the word ‘Kaoma’ has also penetrated Internet from some of these other contexts; e.g. in Bemba, a major Zambian language which however is not a lingua franca anywhere near Kaoma district, ‘Kaoma’ is even one of the names of the High God.

[2]              NGO = non-governmental organisation, the refuge of the development industry in the 1990s.

[3]              A pseudonym.

[4]              Cf. Nkwi 1995; Nyamnjoh 1997, of which an earlier version was published as ‘Africa and the Information Superhighway: Silent majorities in search of a footpath’, Africa Media Review, 10, 2, 1996; Ras-Work 1998. Also cf. the central role which Thabo Mbeki, successor of Nelson Mandela as president of South Africa, attributes to ICT: Mbeki 1999.

[5]              My own texts, which often mention Kaoma district, have only been made available on Internet as from March, 1999, and do not carry the catchword ‘Kaoma’ among their metatags; cf.,and

[6]                Remarkably, one may also critique Internet not because it offers incorrect, but because it offer correct information in Africa and therefore disturbs utopian identity constructions; cf. Okigbo 1995.

[7]              Jules-Rosette 1990.

[8]              On this term, cf. Binsbergen 1997.

[9]              Cf. Taussig 1997. For an African application of similar ideas, cf. Binsbergen, 1992,1993, and for a theoretical elaboration applied to Ancient Mesopotamia, cf. Binsbergen &  Wiggermann 1999.

[10]            I avoid the word ‘fetish’ which without further discussion would create too much confusion.

[11]            Personal communications, Elly Reinierse and (via Elly Reinierse) Ulrike Sulikowski.

[12]                Particularly in Egypt, where from the New Kingdom onwards the many copies of the papyrus-leaf Book of Coming Forth by Day; cf. Budge, E.A.W.T, 1898, The Book of the Dead: The Chapters of Coming forth by Day, London; Allen, T.G., 1974, The Book of the Dead or Going Forth by Day. Ideas of the Ancient Egyptians Concerning the Hereafter as Expressed in their own Terms, Chicago. The Ancient Mesopotamian books formed conceptual units held together by titles and rubrics, but were physically distributed over a considerable number of clay tablets.

[13]            I owe this suggestion to my colleague Jos de Mul.

[14]            Cf. the concept of ‘rhizome’ with Deleuze & Guattari, with which they seek to contrastively pinpoint, for contemporary North Atlantic society, the transformation from the book model to a freer form of subjectivity, one which makes ‘it possible to let the individual and/or collective instances come to the fore as self-referential existential Territories, adjacent to, or functioning as boundary conditions for, an alterity which in itself is subjective’ (Guattari 1992) [ my translation ] .

[15]            On Afrocentrism, cf. Berlinerblau 1999; Howe 1999; Fauvelle-Aymar cs 2000.; and the discussion on Afrocentrism in Politique africaine, November 2000 (in the press), to which I contributed a critique of Howe, while I am also a contributor to Fauvelle c.s., and the author of a review of Berlinerblau in the Journal of African History.

[16]            Lévi-Strauss 1962.

[17]            Mt 21: 42.

[18]                 Zaslavsky 1990; Seidenberg 1960; Schmidl 1915; Binsbergen 1997.

[19]            Maupoil 1943; Bascom 1980; Abimbola 1975; Akiwowo 1983; Mákanjúolá 1991; Kassibo 1992; Traoré 1979; Aromolaran 1992.

[20]                Hountondji 1996. Incidentally, Hountondji’s position has been contested, not only by particularising and essentialising Africanist philosophers, but also by a cosmopolitan African philosopher like Appiah, 1992; cf. Irele 1996.

[21]            Personal communications, 1997-1998.


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