I have said it before, but not really spelled it out in detail but I think the proliferation of cellphones as the primary method of connectivity in Africa is not, as many have proposed, a cheap and practical solution to bridging the digital divide, on the contrary, it’s a very good way to make the rift permanent.
The essential reason is simple, cellphones will never be able to compete with full size devices in terms of capability. Cellular internet remains almost entirely a one-way thing. This is part of why, when a friend recently asked a group of West African African delegates to a conference how many of then visited facebook, almost every hand went up. When asked how many of them blogged, almost none did.
The single biggest issue in the digital divide today is not getting African’s access to content – it’s getting African created content accessible. Cellphones are extremely bad for this. Sure you could record a video or a song on a phone, but the quality is always going to be second rate. You can just about use this method to get news stories out… it’s never going to work for publishing a new song.
In Europe and the USA the biggest debates going on right now is those who see the benefit of the multiway internet arguing with those who are trying to preserve old business models that simply don’t work anymore. Newspapers, software companies, film and music distribution being the worst offenders. Instead of recognizing that in world where everybody can produce high quality content – supply and demand dictates that since the supply is now nearing infinity, the price must in turn approach zero – and learning how to find new ways of generating revenue, they are trying to maintain their status quo by lobbying for ever more oppressive copyright laws.
My views on this battle is well known, but the point of my current post is that it isn’t happening in Africa. ASAMI is making a valiant effort to be bastards in South Africa but that’s the entirety of the event to reach this continent. Nobody is lobying the AU to enforce stricter copyright requirements on it’s member countries.
Because in Africa the corporations got exactly what they want. A consumer internet. It’s too slow to share anything more meaningfull than tweets and cellphone pix on (so it isn’t a threat to the artificial scarcity model) too limited to create any competing content and too restrictive to allow any new software or ideas to grow.
It’s one way – from the companies to the users, at premium rates.
The one thing scarier than the thought of possibly losing the internet battle in the developed world (an unlikely reality no matter how hard they lobby because ultimately, the maths just don’t work) … is the thought of never even having the opportunity to fight it in Africa.
It has been said that Africa’s major economic problem is that we lack product refinement capacity, we export raw materials, and then buy them back as usable products at ten times the price. Nigeria is a prime example, the nation with the fourth largest oil reserves on the planet also has the highest petrol price on the planet.
But our internet access is even worse off… now we’re consuming, buying products – and we don’t even get to export raw materials, we’re not competing at all, we’re not even part of the market in the other direction ! Slavery didn’t end two-hundred years ago, it’s just that the slaves are now carrying their chains in their own pockets and don’t need to be shipped anywhere first.
So we don’t get to contribute to the web in any meaningful way, anybody who has tried moblogging knows that anything longer than a paragraph is likely to you hospitalized for RSI in your thumb, so we’re still entirely dependent on media companies for news. We don’t get to download music except from cellphone ringtone suppliers – at premium rates (that actually works out more expensive than the CD’s , or only barely cheaper), we don’t get to watch streaming movies and we most certainly don’t get to use the power of the internet to get our own movies and music to a wider audience.
Who cares about the size of Nigeria’s film industry ? They will never compete with Hollywood because outside of a few choice film festivals, nobody has ever even seen a Nigerian film. They aren’t in the video-rental stores, they aren’t showing at the theaters – they may as well not exist, the one technology we have that could change this, could make them have the kind of success that has seen numerous independent films from all over the world grow to massive hits online – which ultimately led to real DVD sales etc. and made them financial successes, these ideas aren’t available to us.
Now sure it was an interesting experiment when one South African film maker made a full length movie shot entirely on cellphones, but he still needed a computer to put it together, and that was a particular artistic expression, it’s hardly the appropriate method for making good quality indy films in general.
I think I’ve made my point, so as usual, I shall end with a pithy summary of this post for the tweep generation: mobile internet isn’t.