Conference Field Notes: Emerging Technology and Africa
Posted on 18 June, 2012 by Ellie Brecunier
Yesterday I attended a conference at the University of Westminster in London. It was a day centred around discussing ‘ICT and Social Change in Africa.’
ICT standing for Information Communication Technology. Generally, the conference was a bit on the dry side, with a steady lineup of speakers cycled through each hour and a half session. I would have liked to see more depth on certain topics and a format which would allow for discussion and debate. But it wasn’t there, so I found myself doing a lot of listening.
As happens when you do a lot of listening, you also do a lot of thinking and musing. Throughout the day, some of the things I heard set my mind wandering for answers and jumping to find action steps in response the theoretical concepts and umbrella topics being presented. I think what set my wheels churning might do the same for you. So I’m going to just throw some of them to you in this post. They’re not answers and they’re not shiny new ideas. But they’re starting points that I think that those of us working in any African context can sink our teeth into. Just to be clear, the following are not my statements, but rather things I heard at the conference. I will jot any of my personal thoughts/notes in italics.
Let’s dive in! Here they are…
- Many African nations were well on the pursuit of democracy in the 1980′s, but have since slid back. it was stated that ICT could not have changed this or stopped the reversion.
- New media is a “strength amplifier” but not a “game changer.”
I like this statement, and think it is a realistic and practical one. What do you think?
- Most viral pictures and SMS messages are negative, reflecting the corruption, religious opposition, and crime of the continent.
I must say I had never thought about this, but it saddens me deeply if true. As a Christ follower, hearing that brokeness is perpetuated in this manner breaks my heart. We in media need to break cycles like this one.
- ICT leads to Strategy leads to Practical Solutions
- There is a false conception that people are struggling for social change (i.e.: Arab Spring), but they are actually fighting for regime change that is more sympathetic to their interests. Thus, cycles merely repeat themselves.
An interesting supposition. Probably a true one. Look at humanity in general: selfish interest drives fallen man. How does emerging technology apply to this cycle?
- Looking at Africa as exceptional is wrong. We must look at it as it connects to the global picture.
True! Especially with the globalised and connected pattern of the world today. Isolating any people or place is a mistake. Yes, there are cultural, geographic, and other differences that need to be taken into account, but there are also umbrella practises and concepts which supersede or negate these.
- The impact of technology reaches far wider in Africa than it does in the West. Even though the actual hardware and accessibility may be limited, the scope of content is shockingly extensive.
Case in point: internet cafes and community-oriented culture!
- ICT doesn’t change things, but it does introduce ideas.
If we look at things from the beginning and not just as the solution, where would we find ourselves?
- “Infotainment” is a major problem. Hard news is not as important as entertainment. Realities of the masses being able to post online (citizen journalism) means that things are presented as half-truths and are low quality.
This was brought up by many of the speakers. One of the greatest concerns I hear (and share) about new media is the question of whether it actually makes a difference in people’s lives. Because people can be whoever they want to be, post whatever they want, and subjectively take and leave information and ideologies at will, what value is there in the digital realm for evangelism? None. Unless we change the paradigm and assume a stark mindset of the realities and pitfalls of the medium. Prayer, purpose, and relationship must be central to any of our work.
- All problems stem from poverty. Get to the root of the problem, addressing education, infrastructure, and so on.
- In Namibia, a mobile platform utilising the mobile banking platform, was developed to track HIV/AIDS and assist people diagnosed with the disease.
- Corruption stems from people and not tools.
- Concept of telecenters in conjunction with community radio. Telecenters complement radio as facilities for people to learn computer skills.
My organisation aims to be the voice and hands of Jesus, merging community media with community health and betterment. On paper this is a great and natural synergy. In reality…hard! What can we do, today, to meet the needs of Africans.
- There is a capacity issue within new media.
Although new ICT has flooded into Africa and been heartily embraced, its quick entrance has left many people with a lack of understanding in exactly what it is, how it works, and most importantly, how to use it. How does this knowledge apply to us as new media practitioners? Imagine if new media was properly understood and harnessed by the citizen journalists, community leaders, and educators of Africa!
This is one of the biggest issues, if not the key one, for us to tackle in my mind. As an equipper and trainer in new media practice, I have a particular desire to see this issue of capacity crossed off of the list. Let’s train, let’s teach, let’s see quality leading where it current takes a backseat.
- Youth are more pliable than adults when it comes to shaping and changing behaviour. How does this apply to technology usage and progress?
New media and emerging generations go hand in hand. This comment really struck me. What is our responsibility to a continent which is so heavily populated by people under the age of 18 who are enthusiastic digital technology and pop culture consumers and participants?
- New media communication should look like the needs of the audience.
A powerful thought. What does our R&D need to look like if we step back and approach needs from the angle of this statement?
- Communication is powerful, and therefore should be controlled.
Hmmm. A sentiment shared by a few of the speakers. What do you think?
- If you set communities up with the ability to respond via SMS with news, wants, and other relevant topics, will they?
There was a PhD student running a project in Kenya to see if a slum community would embrace an SMS service created for them and propagated by them via open source. I’ve given her my information and hope to hear the results as the project progresses. Have you run into any similar endeavours?
- Compatibility and design hinder ICT effectiveness.
Even the best applications and services fall if these two things are not done right. Also, what works well in our context, may not in an African one.
- Context is King
You read it right; context, not content. Of course content is important, but how technology is presented and used is even more so. After all, what good is the best piece of content in the world if it can’t be loaded, found, or understood by the end user? Or what good is a service if the audience doesn’t need it. You get the point.
- SMS is by far the most effective and relevant technology across Africa. On average, people read an SMS within 15 minutes of receiving it. SMS is immediate and influential, a powerful combination!
Tha the the the the that’s all folks! If any of these seeds of thought tripped your fancy and you’d like to continue the discussion, please email me or comment. We at OneSheep are always eager to charge into discussions and issues of this nature in an attempt to further international ministry in digital media! (and I have a feeling a few of you probably are already itching to have your say about some of the statements made here!)