Movement towards a networked information economy in Africa

In his book, “The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom”, Harvard professor Yochai Benkler uses the term Networked Information Economy (NIE) to refer to a “technological-economic feasibility space that is the result of the means of producing media becoming more socially accessible.

He sees communication and information as the most important cultural and economic outputs of advanced economies and traces the emergence and development of various communications (radio, newspapers, television) through the 19th and 20th centuries as functions of increasingly centralized control due to the high cost factor of production, and believes that media was thus produced on an industrial scale.

The NIE is now seen as an emerging economic order within the information society and most countries, especially Western societies are fast heading towards a globally networked information economy. Even though most African countries have recognized the role and importance of the emerging information economy, the pace has been slow.

For example, Avgerou in a 1998 article writes that “At the present, most developing countries are severely disadvantaged within a global economy which is increasingly more technology and information intensive: Unequal distribution of resources, such as telecommunications and technical skills, causes concern about the ability of developing countries to participate in the emerging world economy.”

 

QUESTIONS

 

This raises questions about what the information economy holds for Africa and specifically what opportunities, challenges and impacts it may have. This trend may signify an increasing gap between Africa and the rest of the world. African countries cannot afford to stand by the sideline and watch as the rest of the world integrates into this network economy.

Fact is, the new Africa, will be built by an educated citizenry and an educated workforce. If we are to produce such citizens and workers we need to find new ways to provide learning for millions where we now provide for thousands. Consider in the US some 50% of those 18 to 23 years of age are in university or have had university education while in most parts of Africa, the figure is under 5%. We must have a vast expansion of secondary and tertiary education if we are to become the new networked information economy in Africa.

If those in our rural areas are to learn about new ways to improve agricultural yield; or to use bed netting to minimize the chances of contracting malaria; or to replace unhealthy and dangerous kerosene lights with solar lights, we must bring the knowledge of these possibilities to the rural areas.

Consider further while we talk of a vast expansion of learning, of knowledge and information, our present schools and universities are overcrowded and unable to deal properly with those now attending: lecture halls, classrooms, dormitories dangerously crammed with students, the learning process damaged by too many students, too few instructors, too few square feet of learning space.

The obvious question becomes: if most of Africa cannot afford to keep its present system in repair and functioning, how can we afford a vast expansion for the many who need learning?

The answer is a movement in the direction of a networked information economy for the continent. This is well demonstrated in Benkler’s “The Wealth of Networks”. The book demonstrates that information, knowledge, and culture always depend on an “economy”: a system for generating, collecting, organizing, and distributing them. In what Benkler calls the “industrial information economy” these functions require massive and expensive capital equipment, buildings to house the equipment, and large and expensive labor forces to maintain and operate the operation.

The central characteristic of all forms of the “industrial information economy”—publishing, libraries, television, radio—all require centralizing and operating out of “plants” organized on the “factory” model.

The university as it has come down to us from the 11th century is organized on this “factory” model. The “campus” is a scholastic “plant”: lecture halls, classrooms, libraries, dormitories: an elaborate and expensive factory for the housing and creation of an educated citizenry.

If a nation has five or fifty universities there are five or fifty sets of buildings and grounds that have to be maintained. And those wanting the learning that is housed in those buildings must leave their communities and emigrate to those five or fifty communities: the university as a kind of internal brain drain.

Benkler demonstrates that what we now have in the computer, the internet, and the cell phone are the modest apparatus for a new information economy he calls “The Networked Information Economy.”

The networked university does not require a physical plant. The computer and the cell phone—owned by the student or available to him or her in a local church or school or café — become the spaces of the university. The computer is the lecture hall, and such programs as YouTube (or TecherTube) bring the lecturer to where the student is, and make it possible for the student to watch the lecture at a time convenient, and to watch it as often as it takes for the learning to happen.

The computer and the cell phone are the classroom, and the tutorial, and the library. The “virtual library” makes it possible for five or fifty universities to share the books and journals a university needs, overcoming the expense of paper books in each setting at prices no longer affordable.

The networked university, the virtual university allows faculty and students in any part of Africa to access the laboratories of MIT in the US, or lecture notes from the Massive Open Online System (MOOCs).

There is teaching talent that is rare, and found only in one university. The networked university makes it possible to share that talent, so that students in all universities can learn. And the virtual university can bring to any part of Africa academics in disciplines not yet to be found in the country. The network, then, becomes the library, becomes the classroom, becomes the school, becomes the university.

We know that China and India, for examples, have transformed their economies dramatically in the last twenty years, become significantly richer, while sub-Saharan Africa has not flourished, indeed, has become poorer.

The experience of those nations that have recently moved to a new level of economic success is that the so-called Green Revolution—increasing the productivity of agriculture –is one of the pillars of that transformation. The Green Revolution led to sustained food surpluses and eliminated the threat of starvation, especially in Asia. It raised farmers’ incomes and contributed to the decline in poverty. The Revolution made it possible for people to have access to better nutrition and a more balanced diet. For those living in rural areas, it created greater employment opportunities.

Information is an important input for planning, and this can be shared through effective communications strategies. With advances in information and communications technologies, there are numerous ways to improve information and knowledge sharing, that will lead to the alleviation of poverty. We need an Information Network that will collect information from available sources in Africa and around the world, and make it available in usable form—translating it into local languages.

We need a Communication Network that will move this information throughout Africa to all who need it. Thirdly, we need a Technology Network that will enlist and organize the appropriate technologies that will make possible the circulation and movement of information and knowledge. A well established communication network can get the needed information to those who need it.

A recently launched book “ICT4D – Connecting People for a Better World, Lessons, Innovations and Perspectives of Information and Communication Technologies in Development” emphasizes the role of tools such as computers, mobile phones, radio, TV, video and the Internet in spreading critical information and improve the lives of rural people.

We know that there is no silver bullet that will solve all of Africa’s problems, and move it overnight to prosperity and health. Making use of the information and economic networks can transform the continent and bring hope to the hopeless.

The networks have the power to bring about development to people in Africa. Without a development agenda based on the three networks, it will be very challenging for Africa to achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and sustainable development.

ICT WORLD with  Dr. Osei K. Darkwa

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