Africa’s Digital Revolution: Learning from Global Cultures of Innovation
Take Three: Global Perspectives
This is a companion blog to my recent FutureTalk on African digital makers and users; you can watch the video of this talk below. Although I’m jumping off from this specific research topic, really, it’s a talk about the relationship of human diversity to digital innovation: to the power we have to harness design thinking to make alternative futures.
Right now, the African digital revolution is unfolding in really exciting ways. So much of this is because Africa has shown its capacity to recognize and resource innovation at every step, with engineers adapting technology to suit the specific needs and dynamics of the continent instead of the other way around.
We are hopeful in the possibility that digital globalization will be a democratizing, equalizing revolution. This dream is what industry forces like Facebook, Microsoft, and a series of global telecom companies are tapping into as they finish laying 500 miles of cable throughout West Africa. In fact, the United Nations has prioritized the availability of Broadband throughout the Global South as it anticipates how important digital equality will be to the emerging world economy.
But in addition to the great possibilities it carries, we also know that digital globalization has given rise to all kinds of digital divides, which is a way of talking about how the global village we like to envision has really become an uneven landscape.
These are issues with:
*uneven access to software, hardware, training and infrastructure,
*Digital depictions of African people as powerless, or even living in a different era through social media, like Kony 2012. In these scenarios, they are the objects of social media, but we do not get to see their agency—instead, we want to foster spaces where African people can represent themselves—and write themselves into the global digital landscape, and
*And in the ways Western corporations mine conflict minerals for mobile phones from the Congo, or these growing digital dumping grounds throughout the Global South (like the millions of tons of electronic waste littered throughout rural Ghana).
But if this is what the digital divide looks like from the outside, I want to show that African digital futures look very different from within: emergent, experimental, saturated with sensory experience, attuned to the social worlds of those often ignored by the big developers.
One way Africa’s digital future is emerging is in the form of tech entrepreneurship and social problem-solving. I’ve been lucky enough to collaborate a bit with NGO programs like Intel’s SheWillConnect, which is training African women to make digital platforms that can transform their local economies.
We talk a lot about training women and girls and marginalized global populations to code, and as we know, it is extremely important that that communities have access to the nuts and bolts of Digital making! The stories of the women and girls involved with SheWillConnect show us that, rather than orienting our work to teaching young people to code what the tech industry ALREADY wants, we can teach African girls, for instance, to code things African girls want and need.
To that end, I want to highlight how important African hackers are to the global digital landscape. They are thinking up new ways to engineer digital solutions in response to emerging problems, from famine to political upheaval. African hackers take advantage of the continent’s remarkably open telecom infrastructure…where protocols and hierarchies are not consolidated or cemented in place, there are seams for creativity. In fact, the continent has always been at the cutting edge of mobile technologies.
I really like the way Ethan Zuckerman describes African hacking in his essay on the topic in Wired:
One of my favorite projects in the history of African hacking is, “VPN from Uganda,” a really brilliant conglomeration of chutes and ladders by which citizens learned to work around the government’s prohibition of most news and social media sites.
And then there is a third example I want to talk about tonight; it has to do with the high value many African cultures place on the arts, and aesthetics as critical tools of communication. The digital landscape is a highly visual and highly auditory space; it’s exciting to see how young people have harnessed the power of sight, sound, and the senses to influence digital production.
Nollywood is the biggest and earliest of the contemporary African film industries. Its mark is the use of low-budget CGI technology to really spectacular ends. And it is a meme goldmine.
I think of Nollywood as a really important example of the creative mis-use of digital design platforms—something I call off-label engagement—to make digital art that is influencing the world. There is this notion that CGI is meant to make the virtual look real, but Nollywood uses it to heighten the textures of the surreal. Make no mistake: these are intentional choices that have helped to make Nollywood a global phenomenon.
So we have low-budget movies like African Batman, and then we have higher-budget Nigerian cinema that holds those same production values—the surreal, the possible, the experimental—but with a higher budget. Take a look at this film on Yemoja, the African mermaid goddess, by Nigerian-British filmmaker Nosa Igbinedio.
This willingness to think differently about digital design captivates filmmakers in the west. Witness the parallels between this CGI experimentation and Beyonce’s video album for Lemonade, for instance.
Nedi Okortafor, the African writer, says of her work, "My science fiction has different ancestors -- African ones.” In turn, I want to consider the possibility that the life of African Digital creativity also has ancestors of its own. This “off-label” use of digital technology is at the heart of African digital futurism, or Afrofuturism: a field that bridges the creative and tech industries—science fiction writers teaming up with game developers, for instance. Afrofuturism is really exciting because it offers an alternate vision for the ways humanity can unfold in the digital age.
I want to give you a sense of how I got into this field of digital anthropology about a decade ago, and to take a beat to suggest what the tech world at large can learn from African creativity.
When many of us think of anthropology, we think of the past. One branch of the field, archaeology, is literally about unearthing objects that can tell us how people used to live. My field, cultural anthropology, is often misunderstood as being concerned with “lost” ways of life, or communities thought to be somehow pre-modern. But ever since anthropologist and novelist Zora Neale Hurston showed us how Black popular music like the blues could spread to influence the world of music, anthropology has turned its attention to the ways global and marginalized communities navigate and innovate in contemporary times.
At the core of this work is an interest in a group of digital users and makers I call Digital Undergrounds: subcultures, global communities and marginalized groups whose creativity offers so much to new movements in digital design. Many of these practitioners fall across an invisible “digital divide”—places where technology, training and connectivity are hard to come by. And I argue that what these digital undergrounds tend to do is to use digital hardware, software, platforms, and media in off-label ways…meaning that they bend it, mis-purpose it, combine it, or otherwise hack it to suit their unique needs.
The cultures we study are highly complex and attuned to surviving and thriving in changing global circumstances. Work in this field can span collaborations with digital makers like feminist emcee Toussa Senerap, whose feminist recording studio uses digital productions and social media in really groundbreaking ways. Finally, I did research on Sufi web design in West Africa, which experiments with really oversaturated digital design and sound production. In fact, I wanted to share with you all a slide from my research at a Sufi praise ceremony—this was the moment I realized that maybe even more than the music and sound, I was fascinated by the uniqueness and brilliance of the ways digital media circulate in Senegal.
In the give years since my dissertation research, I’ve turned this lens to other digital undergrounds: the Chicago indie hip-hop scene, which has used streaming technologies in really fascinating ways. I have also done work with tween girls whose job it seems to be to generate new uses of social networking sites, and with women coders and coders of color, and I’ve been doing User Experience research with populations who are socioeconomically marginalized. I’ve also been doing a lot of cultural work for tech firms, helping them to think through issues in diversity, equity and inclusion. Almost always, this entails understanding what the culture of the community is, and finding ways it can not only accommodate, but nourish cultural difference.
My work on African digital innovation is inspired by the thinking of one of my grad school mentors, Achille Mbembe, an eminent professor of philosophy at Wits in Johannesburg, who writes about digital Afropolitanism. He says:
Research on Africa’s digital revolution is really about the human capacity for innovation: our ability to essentially “make something from nothing” that can help us to survive and thrive in a world that is constantly in flux.
It’s about the idea of culture-responsive digital development that doesn’t assume a one-size-fits-all approach, that understands that truly universal design is about plasticity, experimentation, and the unknowable.
And it’s actually about the question of who counts as an engineer—I want to help open up the definition of engineering, beyond the kinds of credentials and training we’re used to seeing—to the heart of engineering: imagining and making original solutions to emerging problems. When it comes to learning fast, and to problem-solving quickly and effectively, the African digital revolution has so much to offer.
Given the incredible work that African users, makers, artists and engineers have done, I want to make some suggestions as to how we can recognize and resource their work. I take this from medical anthropologist Paul Farmer, whose work on development and human rights in Haiti has been so influential for our field. He says, that in order for marginalized communities to participate in the global economy they need three things: SPACE, STAFF and STUFF.
First, we need SPACE — some examples of really good spaces Africans have been able to cultivate include kLab, an open technology lab in Kigali, Rwanda; and places like RockTeamMuzik studios on the outskirts of Dakar, Senegal. We want to nourish labs and studios where people can experiment and collaborate. Another solution is to build out virtual space—online platforms and conferences and practices for collaborations between Africans and western digital makers.
Secondly, we can contribute STAFF. This can mean funding for hiring faculty, trainers, and coaches who can not only teach coding and programming skills, but also skills like entrepreneurship, human-computer interaction, and digital design.
And then there’s the STUFF. Machines and hard drives are expensive, for instance, in many African countries who have regulations against importing goods from the west. And not only is getting these things into people’s hands difficult; they also have to be maintained and repaired, which is often quite impossible. Most Africans still rely on mobile networks; how can we kern existing platforms to work in places without an established telecoms infrastructure, or with an unreliable power grid? Finally, we need to find alternative modes for funding startups and projects by using tailored platforms. PayPal, for instance, is inaccessible in many African countries, so money has to come in through Western union or cash.
What can we learn from African innovation? I’ll throw out a few general areas where we can begin to foster digital diversity, but I’m really interested in starting a conversation here—to hearing your thoughts as we think through where we’re headed.
1. First, we need to prize and foster mobility, contingency, experimentation, imagination—meaning that we have to find a way to nourish projects that may not have an immediate outcome or impact. We need more space to play in work lives, to collaborate across companies or silos, and to loosen up the practices of designing and programming. Pop culture like Hollywood and underground hip-hop can become incredibly inspiring for us design thinker types—better yet, we can hire representatives form these industries to consult with us as we imagine new interfaces and captivating design. We might even slow down out fast-paced/high-growth paradigm here and there to reevaluate and rethink our paradigms from a design thinking perspective.
2. We can begin to imagine what a global "Horizon 3" innovation strategy might look like in terms of the regional tech scene— this might mean doing exploratory fieldwork and collaborations with communities of global digital makers, or it might mean holding a virtual summit on digital futures. This is where imagination really comes in. We want to be anticipating the importance of diverse user groups and thinking critically about how to serve them!
I want to note that attending to the ways digital undergrounds approach innovation is not only inspiring and ethical: it’s good for business outcomes. Across the board, research shows that diversifying teams increases productivity and contributes to strong products and strong campaigns.
3) And finally, we can sort of trick back on the idea of “culture fit” within the businesses and tech communities as we move toward a new approaches to digital diversity, equity and inclusion.
We can hire coders, engineers, and developers who do not have conventional training—we can hire folks from code schools. Now we can begin too think about how to bridge the gap between the requirements in conventional job listings and alternative modes of training/apprenticeship/fellowship that can enrich teams in unforeseen ways.
We can partner with African hackers, with tween social media users, with underground hip-hop artists, with retirees and disability communities and refugees.
Articles and sites for contemporary African popular, digital and youth cultures:
Achille Mbembe’s theories of African digital engagement:
African tech entrepreneurs