John Perry Barlow made a grand claim in 1998 upon his maiden visit to Africa where he visited Mali, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Kenya and Uganda. His mission was to evangelize the Internet connectivity to some of the remotest of places on the continent.
His optimism about the future of Africa from a diseased, destitute, agricultural epoch to an information economy free of the dreary indignities and social pathologies of industrialization greatly influenced his decision to travel from the U.S to Africa; from where he’d attempt to email dispatches of his travelogue to his editors at Wired magazine as proof that Africa was indeed on the journey to a digital renaissance.
What particularly stood out for me were his observations about the role of women in the usage and development of digital technology.
Role of women in technology
Barlow’s first belief was that women would assume a more central role in the information age. Like cyberspace, information is made up entirely of relationships, a subject women, in most places, study far more deeply than men.
He recounts that when he made a brief stop in Mbarara town, southwest of Uganda, he was welcomed by two enthusiastic ladies at the Starcom offices, a local ISP, who helped him with such finesse to seamlessly tuck into the information grid. As he scoured for a satellite link to wire an e-mail, he was pleased to learn that the providers had a 64kbps link: faster than the links he’d used back home in the USA.
As he proceeded to trek mountain gorillas at Virunga; the border of Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Uganda, one thing stood out for him: the economy was run by village women. As they broke their backs doing grunt work, their drunken husbands were probably careening away in ditches and taking rendezvous naps in nearby forests.
It’s been 20 years since John Perry Barlow penned a blindly optimistic essay about ‘Africa rising’. He framed the narrative even before The Economist would ever think of penning their version, a seeming mea culpa to their disjointed position on Africa. However, as the old adage goes, plus ça change, plus c’est la meme chose: the more things change, the more they remain the same.
Africa has certainly seen tremendous change in the last two decades; the growth of the telecommunications industry and its central role in pushing mobile connectivity both socially, economically and politically in all corners of the continent has been unprecedented. However, rural women are still hustling away, probably harder.
The digital divide is widening by the day; the average Ugandan probably enjoys an average slow-motion 256kbps Internet speed (for the optimistic; a four fold increase of the 64kbps John Perry experienced in 1998), despite existence of ultrafast 4G connections in select (urban) areas. The knowledge and skills gap could even be worse, while the ladies Barlow encountered in Mbarara were the ultimate techno-savvy nerds, now the story is perhaps different.
Most remarkably, the Internet now grabs the headlines in Africa, but the truth is HIV is spreading even faster.
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