Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Digital Borderlands

So I have not been good about following up on my last blog post (a post about the business side of the internet in East Africa will hopefully come shortly). In the meantime, I wanted to reflect on an OCAF talk I went to last week by Wolfgang Zeller, about the borderlands of 'sugango' (Sudan-Uganda-Congo) and how thinking about borders might help us think about other kinds of borders, digital or otherwise.

Wolfgang was sharing his work on the Sudanese-Ugandan-Conoglese border. My friend Lotje also does reserch in this area and it was great seeing some snapshots of a part of the world that seems peripheral to most people in Khartoum and Kampala, let alone Edinburgh and Oxford.

Wolfgang's main point was that borderlands should not be understood as peripheral or lawless- as spaces where no governance exists or where state power needs to eventually return- but rather they should be understood as centres in their own right, as places where new forms of governance take shape and where many different kinds of people converge precisely because a border exists there.

The activities that take place in borderlands, in other words, are directly related to the presence of boundaries and red lines. I think this perspective is helpful to those who speak of digital 'divides'.

Divides are not just barriers or lines that keep people apart- but they are lines that are useful for escaping the jurisdiction of powerful groups, insecurity and lines that allow people to make profits and livelihoods.

  1. Borders create safe havens from insecurity.
  2. Borders bring many different kinds of people together.
  3. Borders create inequalities that entrepreneurs can capitalize upon.

So how does this relate to digital divides...

Firstly, digital divides are not all bad to everyone...

In the case of the Sugango border, when insecurity breaks out on one side of the border, people move across to escape.

From my own research, I am aware that the limited penetration of the internet in Sudan is useful to HR managers. They can share information with the right 'caliber' of people and thereby filter the applicant pool in a way that they wouldn't be able to do if they used more traditional forms of communication like newspaper or noticeboards. The internet "divide" allows them to make out particular kinds of graduates from an otherwise large and undifferentiated mass of unemployed people whose qualifications have fallen into disrepute (due to the expansion and degradation of the tertiary education system). You could interpret the situation as one of information insecurity; by crossing borders, certain groups can protect themselves and make themselves visible to employers.

Information about jobs is a very particular kind of information that is valuable to individuals and is unlikely to be shared widely during periods of chronic unemployment, but I think this principle might be true in many situations. Divides create havens, as well as barriers.

I am not saying that the people 'protecting themselves' are necessarily the people who are deemed worthy by aid agencies or those who judge the 'digital divide' a bad thing. The people using the digital divide of Sudan are managers and more experienced/transnational job applicants. Nevertheless, we need to be mindful of how all people view these boundaries of technology. For instance, if we want to make information about jobs more 'democratic' or meritocratic, then we have to recognize their viewpoints. If internet penetration increases, will HR managers not find new divides, retreating into more private spaces of the internet? Digital divides cannot be eliminated without recognizing that they provide security and stability to some. These people may very well erect new digital divides in the future.

Secondly, borders and divides attract large groups of people. They are hubs of activity.

In the case of Sugango, they bring...

- the many truck drivers and traders that cross the borders bearing goods and oil.
- the 'opec boys' who organize the informal petrol trade, by siphoning oil from the tankers.
- the aid agencies and UN agencies that organize the movement of refugees across borders
-the customs officials whose relationship to the capital cities allow them to capitalise on insecurity when people begin to flee from insecurity in one country into another country (one wonders about the differences between the aid agencies and the officials in this case).
and then of course,
- the many workers of the 'boom towns' who provide food, drink, accommodation (and dentistry) to those who pass through.

All this activity in a place that would otherwise be peripheral!

When it comes to the 'digital divide', we can make out similar kinds of groups:

-the big IT companies who construct fibre optic cables, microwave and Imax towers, etc.- "transferring 'connectivity' across the digital divide"
-the smaller ISP providers and mobile phone entrepreneurs.
-the smaller entrepreneurs who set up mobile phone credit stalls
-the aid agencies who push ICT4D initiatives, who themselves try to manage the movement of people across digital 'divides'.
-the many who provide food, drink, accommodation to those who flock around the digital divide.

This comparison is not exact, for we are not talking about different jurisdictions here or different sovereign powers, but then again, we might think of pre-digital communication and post-digital communication as perhaps producing different kinds of power configurations, with varying degrees and conditions of state power.

Lastly, borders create entrepreneurial opportunities.

Along the borders of Sugango, Wolfgang described two kinds of entrepreneurs: entrepreneurs of information and entrepreneurs of security, describing the high premium of information about roads, currencies, prices, relationships and generally, the importance of knowing what's coming and going. Meanwhile, security men abound in different costumes- some recognizable, others emerging only when trouble begins.

Inequalities of price and abundance create money making opportunities...

This is something that has been strongly written into the Internet in East Africa project at Oii. Instead of seeing ICT penetration as producing 'disintermediation', we might think of it in terms of 're-intermediation' (This is also described by French and Leyshon in their analysis of ICTs in financial markets). In other words, we should not think about eliminating digital divides as removing gatekeepers or intermediaries, but as creating opportunities for new intermediaries to come to form.

How does the internet, the mobile phone, the mobile paying system, the crowd-sourcing infrastructure create new kinds of intermediaries and entrepreneurs who manage the digital divides out there?