The Internet as an African cultural artifact

Science tells us that every human being on the planet - white (Caucasians), yellow (Asians), red (Indians) or black (Africans) - hail from Africa with our origins being genetically traceable to a particular “Y chromosome Adam” and “mitochondrial Eve” who lived on this continent (see The Genographic Project).

Science tells us that every human being on the planet – white (Caucasians), yellow (Asians), red (Indians) or black (Africans) – hail from Africa with our origins being genetically traceable to a particular “Y chromosome Adam” and “mitochondrial Eve” who lived on this continent (see The Genographic Project).

Genetic Adam and Eve, according to various studies, lived not too far apart in time between 100,000 and 200,000 years ago.

 

Their “descendants [are now] spread across the earth, living in peace or at war, believing in a thousand different deities or none at all, their faces aglow in the light of campfires and computer screens.”

 

Indeed, with computerized technology – and specifically the Internet – which has made the world “a global village”, along with the universal values of “inalienable rights” under the United Nations, it may seem ordained that we are reverting to the very idea of family in what humanity was probably always meant to be.

 

In the same vein, it is no wonder that as uptake of digital technology continues to take root on the continent, there are those who would like to “culturally” contextualize the inevitability of the technological transformation to Africa.

First, it is inevitable that Africa gets technologically savvy. 

That’s why it is grabbing attention that Google will be equipping one million youths across Africa in digital skills in the next one year through the web-based initiative, Digify Africa.

Through digifyafrica.com, it is available to anyone on the continent with the aim to assist the youth play an integral part in the digital economy. The initiative has been formalized and is already being implemented in South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya.

But how can the philosophy of digital technologies be the same as ancient African philosophies?

An interview some months ago in the pan-African forum, Chimurenga, had an interesting take. The interviewee was Achille Mbembe, a Cameroonian political scientist and public intellectual with Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (WISER) at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa.

His suggestion is that Africa is a fertile ground for the new digital technologies, because the philosophy of those technologies is more or less exactly the same as ancient African philosophies. 

This is because technological adoption can be transformational.

Mbembe opines that “in [some] Africa cosmologies, African systems of thought before the colonial era, and even now, a human person could metamorphose into something else. He or she could become a lion and then a horse or a tree. And that capacity for conversion into something else was also applied to economic transactions. You were always transacting with some other force or some other entity. And you were always busy trying to capture some of the power invested in those entities to add them to your own powers.”

But it gets a bit tacky, if not perplexing, when he says that “this archive of permanent transformation, conversion and circulation is an essential dimension of what we can call African culture. The Internet responds directly to that drive and its cultural success can be explained by the fact that it meets at a very deep level with what has always been the way in which Africans transact with themselves and with the world.”

But this begs the question, why African? Or, more precisely, what is African? Is it geographic, genetic or cultural?

If being African is cultural – and therefore moral – as some often claim, it has been argued that the multitude of different ethnic groups that number in the thousands with their varied customs, it makes African cultural homogeneity a logical impossibility.

There may be some clustered similarities in cultural mores, depending on the region of the continent you look at, but nothing like a homogeneous culture across Africa. If this be a valid view, the idea of African culture is a romantic notion, if not fiction.

And, with the Internet as an African cultural artifact, Mbembe was probably stretching it according its transformative attributes to African cosmological claims. Unless the Africans include the Red Indians, Asians and Caucasians with whom we are all “related by blood”.

As a small historical note: The Internet - World Wide Web – was invented in 1989, by Tim Berners-Lee, a software engineer with CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research. In April 1993 – 23 years ago this month – the technology was made available for anyone to use.

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