October 25, 2012 8:25:42 AM
I have been on the internet for about twenty years, amazed at first by simply being able to send typed messages worldwide and to pay nothing for the service (since I was on a free community network). Now I pay to be online, of course, and though the ease and speed of e-mail continues to be of astonishing usefulness, and though it is still the activity on which I spend most of my online time, the internet has become a commercial hub, and the view on the screen is no longer typed letters but pictures and video. That's how the internet developed here in the US. There were those that thought that it would be the same story all over the world; after all, the internet was going to make us all global e-citizens inhabiting the same cyberspace, and especially the young users, whether from China or Brazil, would all be doing about the same thing. Even in Ghana, the predictions would have gone, young people would trot along the same electronic trail. Jenna Burrell, an Assistant Professor in the School of Information at the University of California, Berkeley, knows different. Ghanaian youths did the internet differently, with their own aims and achievements (not all of which were laudable). Burrell has summarized her findings in Invisible Users: Youth in the Internet Cafés of Urban Ghana (MIT Press). This is the sort of sociological study we should be seeing plenty more of; it is a detailed and intricate look at a small segment of internet use. It will have to be a foundation for future studies; Burrell did her research in the internet cafés before there was extensive cable connection to Ghana and before the boom in mobile computing.
The internet was supposed to extend to everybody, and this seems to be happening, although slowly in the margins. In Ghana, the elites in and from universities were originally the only ones online. Eventually, through internet cafés, other young users were able to get online; they "were decidedly nonelite, marginally employed, and had a degree of education that they had struggled to obtain and subsequently struggled to leverage." Cafés were not a place to socialize with other users. Despite the designation, the cafés were not places for coffee or refreshment. The machines were typically lined up on the walls with the users facing away from each other; Burrell says this is different from non-African layouts of cafés elsewhere. There was one chair for one machine, and no extra tables or chairs for socializing. The young people who came might skim from the money their parents gave them for food or transportation to pay for the use of the café's computers, and since they paid by the minute or by the hour, they were under pressure to block out outside distractions. The internet was a tool for making them into more cosmopolitan selves with broader, international ties. As has been documented in Western users, the Ghanaian youth would play with the possibilities of altering their race, gender, age, or location, but in the internet cafés the alterations were often made with the purpose of gain.
The exposure of young people by mass media to a varied and global sense of possibilities led to aspirations of travel, romance, and income. Working towards these ends was the goal of many café users: "The practice of collecting and cultivating foreign contacts (in Yahoo! Chat rooms, on dating sites, and elsewhere) was the most common and characteristic use of the Internet in Accra's Internet cafés." There was socializing, all performed via text windows (supplementation with webcams or phone calls was infrequent), and there was some sincere effort to have pen pals through keystrokes. One youth described his enjoyment of enlightening a chat partner in Nicaragua: "She thought Africa was a jungle and we live in trees." Burrell writes, "The reference to 'living in trees' was a recurrent one in the interviews and circulated as a kind of idiom or saying rather than necessarily a direct recounting of conversations with foreigners in online chats."
The western misconception about Africa being "passive, poor, and strange" helped café users in their efforts toward material gain via scams. Everyone on the internet has gotten an offer from an heir to royalty or the lawyer representing a wealthy leader, wanting to find help to transfer money out of their strife-filled country. These messages classically come from Nigeria, but are issued from Ghanaian cafés as well. (Burrell cites a source that says "advance fee fraud" was going on back in sixteenth century Europe, and that before the internet such schemes were carried on by mail, phone, or fax.) Burrell examines the way verbal rumors that fly through Accra help power the eagerness to carry out such scams. "There is something really about this Internet, there is something that is really making my friends rich," says one user. Or at least, many stories say they are getting rich. "The amplifying effect of rumor yielded the reproduction and overrepresentation especially of those dramatic and memorable stories of big gains and thus reinforced a persistent, go-for-broke approach to building a social network online and the enrollment of foreign contacts among young Ghanaian users." Paired with these beliefs were religious ones, and Burrell gives a brief history of the complex interplay of animism and the different forms of Islam and Christianity as users examined the morality and efficacy of the internet. "Religion, in a way similar to the Internet, was viewed as a system that individuals could operate to realize certain desired outcomes." Some users were happy to participate in religions that emphasized a "prosperity gospel" which promised earthly rewards. One of the users described here got a holy man to give him a potion to be sprayed on his hands before typing so that good effects could be transmitted through the keyboard.
Some observers of the early internet thought that cyberspace would organize itself without any governmental help. Scammers in Ghana benefitted from a weak local police, but the commercialization of the internet has caused policing within the internet itself. Many sites now simply block all traffic from West Africa, but work-arounds are of course not long in being devised. Invisible Users gives a picture of how, in the early twenty-first century, "These invisible users demonstrated diverse capabilities for coping with and managing a novel technological system that was not designed with them in mind." The ethnographic approach to her subject makes Burrell's book a stimulating look at an initial clash of technology and culture.