Forsaken Geographies Cyberspace and the New World ‘Other’

Forsaken Geographies Cyberspace and the New World ‘Other’

While on a conference trip in Mexico in 1993, I witnessed an incident which, though it was not entirely new to my experience and background in a rural outback of West Africa, nevertheless reminded me of the deep paradox of our existence and perceptions of progress and triumph at the turn of the 21st century. In the lobby of a three-star hotel in the heart of Guadalajara, a scantily attired child, hastily painted in the colors of an indigenous performer, having perhaps done the make-up himself, made gestures towards staff and visitors. He was six at most, possibly five, and he was there because he was not in school. He was there because he could not be in school.

For all the time I was in Guadalajara I had made a point to count how many indigenous people were on the streets, in cars, commuting to work in the busy traffic of an early, city morning, walking down the corridors at the national university of technology, shopping along Pablo Neruda Avenue. This is an old habit for which I implore your pardon, but one that I have had use for in every new city in order to anchor myself, to map properly its contours and configurations, to, as it were, securely locate myself. As a consistent outsider in most places, I have grown to search for little pointers that others take for granted, little indicators that are often lost to the normal traveler. No matter how cosmopolitan I may think myself, it is nevertheless excruciatingly frightening and lonely to be on a midnight train from Dusseldorf to Nuremberg, and one is forced by nature, by the instinct which the evolutionary processes of our forging have imbued us with, the instinct to search for safety and survival, to look for strength in numbers. I search for signs that create for me an illusion of belonging, the illusion of an imaginary community. One such sign is the demographic pattern of a city, the peculiar axes of delineation and bonding. In Guadalajara City I searched for the indigenous people not out of tourist voyeurism but in desperate need of an anchor. I noticed only a few, and the little boy in the lobby whose story I here narrate was among them.

The boy made gestures, as I said, but he did not speak, which is not to say that he could not speak. Evidently, at his age and out of school, he could only motion and gesticulate to the audience in that hotel lobby because he did not have their language: our language. Someone offered him money, which he rejected, and at this point he was driven from the lobby by a member of staff. As he fled, the fellow turned to us and explained what the little, painted boy wanted all along. All he wanted was water to drink. I begin with this story because it is about communication, or the failure of communication. It is also about location and privilege. It is about power and its proclivity for insensitivity. It is about priorities, also. It is about our propensity to misunderstand, and in the process demean those who, through the unfortunate circumstance of their location and background, cannot lay claim to same privileges of language and disposition as ourselves; our propensity to be so lost and engrossed in our own worlds, we consign all others outside those worlds into absence. In our piety in that Guadalajara hotel that day, some of us offered the little boy money. Yet he had two very fundamental needs more crucial than money: namely, water, and the ability to communicate this most basic need to others. Amongst us, both conferees and tourists, there were probably dollars in their thousands, a good dozen, state-of-the-art digital equipment, expensive clothing, innumerable degrees and diplomas, millions of miles in travel and adventure, a good deal of enlightenment and knowledge of the arts and letters. There was good will, too, and charitable disposition. Yet, of all these, two things which none of us was disposed to provide for a little, gesturing child: water, and understanding.

To that child the entirety of our discourses as conferees in his city, the entirety of our theories and enunciations, the entirety of our debates and intellectual flirtations, did not matter. To him nothing of our disputations over the nature and merits of a digital revolution, nothing of the increasingly mushy language of cybernetics and its discourses, nothing of the orgasmic, falutin of university professors and obscenely well paid research cadres who present themselves as the messiahs of the new age intent on leading us to the discovery of a new body, matters above that fundamental need which now we take for granted, the need for such indispensable basics of life as drinking water. I will speak about Africa, about the culture of digitization, and about the implications of the later for the millions of Africa’s children and adults for whom the idea of cyberspace is in all truth, more than virtual. But I will come to that. For now I will dwell on The Little Boy of Guadalajara and the implications of a disembodied, detached and self-obsessed, self-consuming new world that creates little room for his needs and circumstance.

Compared to most countries of the world, Mexico is a wealthy nation, and though it rhetorically belongs in the so-called third world, is nevertheless much more than a figurative extension of the first. Statistics indicate that all Mexican citizens above 15 can read and write, and that this literate number constitutes 87% of the Mexican population.[1] In the context of global computerization and the digital revolution, Mexico [Connectivity Providers in Mexico] is not a complete outsider. Its numerous scientific and technical universities are equipped, and staffed with digeratti who are not only conversant with both the technicalities of computer mediated communication, but also provide network services. Along with the more basic technologies of electronic mail and fiber-optic or satellite communication, the country’s educational institutions and private locations boast a number of file-transfer protocol servers and mirror sites. The country has been a beneficiary in technological exchanges with the United States involving the movement of thousands of units of computer equipment. With Argentina and Brazil, Mexico has 90% of the computer technology in the whole of Latin America.[2] It is almost logical, therefore, that Mexico is often invoked as central to the information “revolution” in Latin America. [Latin American Information Revolution: Myth or Reality?] Such disposition is unimaginable in all but perhaps one nation in Africa.

In cyberist rhetoric, Mexico should already be the theater of great freedoms on the frontiers of a new world where it’s peoples have not only the liberty to traverse the universe and erect communities across national and cultural boundaries, thus invalidating the restrictive structures of an old world, but also possess the power to effect the transformation of that old world and all that constituted it, including their own bodies and realities. Mexicans should already be able to transcend the demands of their own bodies; the mundane demands of living and survival, as part of the new global community where, as J. Perry Barlow has promised, the mind is “uploaded into the Net, suspended in an ecology of voltage as ambitiously capable of self sustenance as was that of its carbon-based forebears.”[3] For the more realistic advocates of the digital revolution, the people of Mexico should already be part of an empowering restructuring of society that enables them to participate in the running of their own affairs as well as those of their country; they should already be enamored of a new democracy, an outbreak of irresistible translations and transgressions, a new liberalism sustained because it cannot be contained. The frontiers of challenge, for them, should be in arena of the definition of a new reality, a mind-sizzling, cybergasmic truth able to free them from the constraints of the old order, and of life itself as we know it. In the Mexico of this cyber imaginary, there ought to be no place for a painted, half-clad five-year old with grass in his hair, standing in a hotel lobby alien to his world, desperate among strangers, futilely gesticulating for drinking water, unable to communicate his quest and his thirst to an impatient, insensitive other world.

Cyberspace and the Persistence of Reality

That the cyber world of wonders already exists, and that it extends to Mexico, there is no doubt. Whether it is able to deliver all of its promises as “The world rendered as pure information [in which] … We feel augmented and empowered. Our hearts beat in the machines,” as Michael Haim has written, is another matter,[4] and one that is of less urgency to me. What is of interest here, is that in the presence of this great world of new consciousness where the old reality becomes a Jurassic Park, our single, most needling problem as a species, is that, that old reality, the reality of physical bodies with needs and desires, the reality of hunger and thirst and ignorance and vulnerability to disease, in truth, refuses to give way. Despite our enthusiastic efforts to redefine reality, to push the frontiers of experience and existence to the very limits, to overcome our own corporeality, to institute a brave new world of connectivities and digital communities, nature and its structures and demands still constitute the concrete contours of reality for the majority of humanity. And this nature is not just “a strategy for maintaining boundaries for political and economic ends,” as Allucquere Rosanne Stone has claimed.[5] This nature is a reality that manifest itself in the concrete form of hunger and thirst, in the absence of appropriate language, in the desperation of a child gesticulating for drinking water. This nature is not a mere category. This nature is a truth.

In the university campuses of Mexico, ten thousand computers may buzz still and a million fiber-optic wires criss-cross. Virtual communities may sprout where citizens shop on-line or relieve their sexual tensions away from demanding partners. Professors with time on their hands may download graphics packages and with these alter digitized images of themselves in the belief that by so doing they alter their bodies also. Students may indulge in the fiction of new identities, a practice as old as the human race itself despite vainglorious ascription of novelty to what, fundamentally, is only a new form of masking. The disposed may sit before their screens and fantasize about virtual food and digital aromas. Yet these remain the indulgence of a privileged few, and bring no alteration whatsoever, to the concrete fate of the millions of Mexico’s children and citizens [Carlos Fuentes’s Plea for the Poor of Latin America] who must battle a different preoccupation; namely the struggle to survive each new day, and to meet the demands of a real world.

Cyberculture in a Deprived World

I dwell on the boy in Guadalajara because his case has a relevance, and a resonance for me as an African and an outsider in the West, because his case has a relevance for the African condition in the cyber age. I dwell on him because he is a reminder of the implications of our complicity in the erection of a new frontier, even as we claim to have destroyed all frontiers; our role in the construction of a new border besides existing borders, a new line of demarcation which he, and many millions more like him, may not cross.

In the foreword to Steve Talbott’s investigation of the implications of the internet, The Future Does not Compute, California publisher Tim O’Reilly makes a simple, almost frighteningly definitive deposition: “Computers are with us,” O’Reilly states, “whether we like it or not.”[6] There is an irony lost to most who associate the new world of cyberreality with unmitigated independence and freedom, in the fact that no matter how much we extol its virtues, no matter what extraordinary possibilities for freedom we ascribe to it, no matter what new languages and registers we invent to describe its uniqueness and omnipotence, cyberreality, and the phenomenon of computer mediated communication depend irretrievably on one, inevitable condition; the computer or digital system. Incidentally, while O’Reilly’s statement holds an unavoidable element of truth, computers are not, in fact, with all of us. Computers may be part of the reality of thousands of children, even hundreds of thousands, in California and Detroit and New York, but for the child on the streets of Lagos and Mexico City and the Southside of Chicago, computers are not part of reality. And without this component, without this point of entry, this interface, cyberspace and its myriad promises and excesses, do not exist. This is the alternate reality of the geography that I invoke, the geography which the child pleading unheeded for drinking water, represents.

Like Mexico in Latin America, the leading country in information technology in Africa is South Africa. Not only does the “new” nation of South Africa boast a history of participation in digital networking longer than most, it is today at the forefront of the more advanced forms of this technology. These include an admirable number of network communities, appreciable presence on the improved interfaces of the world wide web, as well as a string of transfer protocol servers. Its virtual communities are part of the global network of cybercommunities. Its government has a national policy on information technology and, in May 1996 the country hosted a United Nations sponsored international conference on computer mediated communication. Like Mexico, South Africa [South Africa Internet Directory] is not a complete outsider to cyberspace. Yet South Africa’s digital revolution is the preserve of the hubs of industry, commerce, and education, and these constitute a minuscule, albeit powerful, sector of the country. For the rest of its population, for the millions who have only emerged from a century of segregationist disadvantage, for those who wait still for the promises of a new, liberal democracy to fulfill, the allures and discourses of cyberspace are non-existent. For those millions the question is not whether the computer is favored or tolerated or not. The fact is that it does not exist, and the reality within which their daily lives are defined and spent, has no room whatsoever, for a digital nirvana. Their worry is not the inconsequence of nature and the body: their most elemental worry is for the survival of nature and the sustenance of the body.

According to experts, while “many of the white one-seventh of the South African population enjoy incomes, material comforts, and health and educational standards equal to those of Western Europe. In contrast, most of the remaining population suffers from the poverty patterns of the Third World, including unemployment and lack of job skills.”[7] This remainder of the population falls outside the statistic enabled to be part of the new world of cyberspace and digital reality. For this remainder, which unfortunately constitutes the majority of South Africa’s population, subsistence, basic health care, access to elementary amenities such as electricity and drinking water, constitute the priorities of existence. For them the laudable benefits of the digital revolution in no manner compare to the promises of their real revolution which, till the present, have remained short of fulfillment. Here the facts of categories and strategies, are real; they affect the individual’s chances of daily survival.

For the majority of South Africans the repression and violence of the past decades, and the deprivation and disillusionment of the present, imbue existence and reality with a concreteness and depth of meaning evidently difficult for the purveyors of cyberist discourse to grasp. In same manner that Vivian Sobchack invites Baudrillard to experience “a little pain to bring him to his senses, to remind him that he has a body, his body,”[8] the history of South Africa’s majority inscribes any notions of departure from reality or its dismissal as “only a temporary consensus … a mere stage in the technique,”[9] as Nicole Stenger has described it, as unbearably obscene.

The advent of virtuality and cyberculture in South Africa is particularly interesting, for not only is this culture sited in the midst of a larger society marked by the unimaginable poverty, deprivation, and despair still evident in the townships of Durban and Johannesburg and the arid villages across the country, it is also circumscribed by the persistence of minority white privilege amidst a disadvantaged black majority. The emergence of a minority within a minority, which cyberculture introduces to this polity, and the further withdrawal of this enclave of privilege from the harsh realities of a population for which liberal democracy has proved big on promises and thin on delivery, symbolically underlines an incongruence characteristic of cyberism as a whole, and of post-humanist notions of progress. In a country with a history of repression, cyberspace reinserts the culture of insensitivity while further dislodging the disadvantaged from the scaffolds of power. Electronic mail and the web browser, with all their unarguably positive potentials, nevertheless become veritable tools for the construction and fortification of an other world, outside the borders of which everything else is inevitably consigned to erasure and absence. In connective South Africa the majority of the population fit most perfectly into that category of the inconsequential revealingly known in cyberspeak as “PONA”.[10] They are, indeed, a people of no account.

Yet South Africa is the most prosperous, most promising of African nations. Compare it, if you may, with Kenya in the East, another country with a certain proximity to the industrial world if only through its famed tourist industry and its highly educated and cosmopolitan middle class, but one whose entire budget revenues of $2.4 billion in 1993-94 fell short of South Africa’s defense budget for same year, $3.2 billion (which is only 2.8% of South Africa’s GDP for the year.) Despite a supposed political stability for nearly 20 years, Kenya’s per capita national product approximates only 25% of South Africa’s. Under these circumstances, and with an external debt of $7 billion, allocations to education, communication, and social infrastructure are commensurably lower, giving only an even more minuscule, almost infinitesimal sector of the population access to the facilities of information technology. In the race toward global digital revolution, even Kenya has no place.

And Kenya is not the most impoverished of African nations. To the contrary. Compare it in turn with Somalia, “one of the world’s poorest and least developed countries”[11] where 70% of the population are nomadic and decades of internecine warfare have destroyed not only the fabric of the economy but also, with specific relevance to our discourse, the entire public telecommunications system. Compare Somalia with Chad, [Survey of connectivity in Chad] another nation where a cycle of civil wars has equally destroyed the most basic social and technological infrastructure. Compare Chad with Liberia, [Survey of conectivity in all African countries including Liberia] for long one of the continent’s most stable polities where, for the past decade, unfortunately, civil war has equally destroyed not only the economy and infrastructure, but hundreds of thousands of lives, also. For over a decade, in Liberia, school age children exchanged chalk and board for automatic weapons and submachine guns and fought in a bitter civil war. There were no computers in schools. There were no schools at all.

For these countries and their citizens, deprivation is an almost unshifting reality, and within the matrix of this reality, the assertion that “computers are with us” and the world is on the brink of a great cybergasmic explosion, is a fallacy. It does not reflect the world as we know it. In the end, cyberculture is a dependent phenomenon, reliant on the relative mitigation, if not absence, of deprivation. The accessibility and relevance of cyberspace are dependent on the ability to transcend the constraints of basic subsistence; the privilege to take certain fundamental dispositions for granted. Within the above geographies, however, as within those of rural Mexico, and India, and the American inner city and rural outback, deprivation is an unmitigated presence that forecloses access to the entry points of cyberspace. These are territories where reality persists, the localities of the “Other” of our new world. These are the geographies forsaken in the jargon of cyberist discourse.

If the computer or digital interface, is a condition for cyberspace and cyberculture, computer literacy is a condition for successful utilization of the computer. This new literacy, the ability to understand and manipulate the accessories of computer-mediated communication, in turn relies on the condition of the old literacy, the ability to not only read and write, but to do so functionally. This basic skill, unfortunately, is not available to all. In Africa, the distribution of literacy varies from countries with levels competitive with other regions of the world, to those where the literacy level dips below 30%. While South Africa registers a literacy level of 76%, for instance, which is among the highest outside the highly industrialized world, Mali, though literate from age six upwards, nevertheless has a national statistic of less than 19% literacy. In Somalia and Ethiopia the figure is 24%. In Egypt, 48%. For many of these countries even the statistics are unreliable since significant portions of the population are transient either as nomads, or as migrant labor, thus not only falling outside the reach of census apparatus, but also precluding the occurrence of any significant levels of literacy within. In all, such demographic constituencies, together with those officially registered in national statistics, constitute a sizable mass of illiteracy across the continent.

In countries with traditionally, relatively high levels of literacy, like Nigeria, Kenya and Ghana, perennially deteriorating economic and social conditions have exacerbated rather than reduced illiteracy, thus placing earlier efforts towards mass literacy on a reverse. For instance, Kenya’s already mentioned external debt of $7 billion, an infinitesimal figure for most societies in the west, is nevertheless thrice the size of its entire, expendable annual revenue. Under such constraints, allocations to education especially at the crucial, primary levels, are commensurably low, in some cases much lower, indeed, than the national defense allocation. The implication is that practically millions of people in these countries lack the basic ability to read and write. Where traditional literacy is non-existent, the new literacy, computer literacy, is, logically, precluded. And when we remember that the literate in the countries I have mentioned, though more functionally so compared to the majority of America’s literate population, for instance, nevertheless have no access to advanced forms of communication technology, and thus are less likely to have access to computers, then can we begin to understand the nature of the gulf between these geographies, and the pockets of privilege that constitute the global cybercommunity.

Rather than peculiar, the African condition is, in fact, representative of the crisis of illiteracy and deprivation not only in the so-called third world, but also within the highly industrialized regions of the world. In Brazil a government-estimated 17.7 million people are illiterate. In India the official figure is 168 million. In the United States, [On Illiteracy in America and its Effects] though official surveys claim a staggering national literacy rate, experts nevertheless point out that “nearly 90 million adults or approximately 47 per cent of American adults are at the two lowest levels of literacy.”[12] According to a report published by the Ohio Daily Reporter in 1995, and backed by the authority of Chall, Heron, and Hilfer, “27 million adult Americans cannot read the simplest texts and street signs.”[13] In central Ohio alone, “91,000 people have a literacy disability.”[14] For these and other millions of world citizens, the requisite skills for access to cyberspace are lacking, thus ensuring that they remain on the outside of our brave, new world. Across the boundaries of conventional geopolities, a grand territory of disadvantage grows; a huge, global digital underclass and a new world of otherness that spreads from the inner cities and villages of mid-west America to the refugee communities of south-east Asia, oblivious to the advantages and threats of our digital revolution and in turn excluded from the registers and details of our discourses.

Implications and Conclusions

The reputation of the digital superhighway as the greatest, most efficacious cultural manifestation of the democratic ideal since the printing press and photography, is today almost generally accepted among those who have access to its myriad opportunities. The equally frightening negativities and shortcomings of this emergent territory have increasingly come under the competent scrutiny of many concerned critics, among them such eloquent scholars as Mark Dery and Mark Slouka, each of whom has in the past year produced an excellent critical assessment of cyberculture.[15] I come to the investigation of cyberculture not as an adversary, however, but as humanist whose background in the deprived geographies of the world necessitates sensitivity to cultural and political machineries that discount those geographies. While others may contemplate the exciting technological challenges of this new phenomenon, and speculate on its awesome possibilities, I am nevertheless driven to recognize the reality of the absence of billions around the world who share my background, and therefore belong in the disturbingly huge category of the discounted.

Cyberspace, much as it may provide multiple routes of interzonality to many, nevertheless remains the preserve of a statistically negligible fraction of the world, unable yet, and indeed unwilling, to undermine the fundamental boundaries, within and without, that separate the powerful and privileged, from the less powerfully disposed. Increasingly we find that the greatest shortcoming of cyberculture, is not in the provision of occasionally disreputable freedoms and liberties, but in the unavailability of such facilities of participation and fulfillment to the majority; in its foreclosure to certain geographies, and in the general unwillingness of the privileged to account for the unrepresented. Cyberspace, as we have seen, is not the new, free global democracy we presume and defend, but an aristocracy of location and disposition, characterized, ironically, by acute insensitivity and territorialist proclivities.

To remember that the vast majority of humanity, both outside and within the highly industrialized world, have no knowledge whatsoever of this new platform of liberties (to speak less of access to it) is to underline not only the esoterism of our discourses, but also to call our attention to the challenges of forsaken geographies and silent territories, of populations and denominations on a new margin of our own creation; those races condemned, as Gabriel Garcia Márquez ominously observes, to a hundred years of solitude with no respite on earth. It is to underscore the true nature of cyberculture as a territory of privilege, and to remind us of dominions which, though left behind in our march into a new age and a new millennium, nevertheless remain to invalidate our claims to progress.

In calling attention to the condition of Africa and the other territories that I have discussed here, if only briefly, my intention is not to present an indiscriminate critique of cyberculture and the exploration of cyberspace, but to caution against the amnesiac proclivities of cyberism; the inclination to escape into cyberutopia and in so doing ignore the responsibilities of technology to society. My goal is to present a challenge to all those who possess and understand this new technology; namely that we begin to explore with greater seriousness and humanism, means of extending the numerous, practical possibilities of this new technology to the greater majority of humanity.

Going through the June 6 issue of the International Herald Tribune a news photograph attracted my attention. It is a photograph of Henry Ford the 3rd riding in the prototype of the motorcar that his great-grandfather, Henry Ford, drove in 1896. To many at the time the invention of the automated moving machine was an epitome of the creative capabilities of the human species. It was celebrated by poets and entrepreneurs alike. Over the course of this century, however, the technologies of automated mobility have found their enduring appeal in our ability to make their numerous possibilities and benefits available to the greater majority. This in itself owes to the vision and realism of those who, instead of configuring the automobile into an icon of privileged utopia, embarked upon a real course of democratizing its possibilities. Henry Ford pledged to make the motorcar available to all. In Germany the National Socialists designed an affordable automobile named for common folk, which to many would seem an irony of history. Today not everyone may possess an automobile, yet almost everyone has access to some form of mass transit based on this technology. Such is the challenge facing us as members of an unarguably elite community.

Some would argue, perhaps, that such advanced technologies may not, after all, be of interest or indeed necessity to certain sections of society or regions of the world, and could infer the justification for such a position from the foregoing. Such arguments, however, only underline a tendency not only to create and perpetuate underclasses, but also to assume a liberal right to speak for such constituencies. Clearly, for billions of people around the world, cyberspace and connectivity are not a priority, as has been demonstrated here; but surely, a technology as versatile and increasingly domineering as that of cybercommunication holds inevitable possibilities, and consequencies, for not just the minority that presently accesses and controls it, but for many others, too. One such area of possibilities is education. This is perhaps most pertinent at the formative stages of learning when every child should have the right of access to the very best that our civilization and species can offer. The child in a refugee camp without schools may have greater need for more basic structures, but she has no less right to, or ability to grapple with, the facilities of digital or connective learning should those be made available to her. And while a country devastated by war may have a more immediate need to restore its telecommunication system than achieve instant connectivity, it would nevertheless be wrong to preclude such a possibility or fail to recognize its ultimate desirability. In other words, while the logistics of such infrastructures may yet defy present circumstances and capabilities, it is nevertheless little justification to subscribe to development theories that offer rudimentarism as the logical condition of the less industrialized.

Our responsibilities begin, perhaps, with recognition; with taking into cognizance the precise nature and reaches of the technological revolution of which we have become enthusiastic purveyors. Rather than consume ourselves with the vain and insensitive rhetoric of cyberutopia and the deconstruction and reconstruction of bodies, genders and rarefied epistemies, we should perhaps define the concrete, positive gains of cybertechnology, recognize the present inaccessibility of this technology, and ultimately outline a strategy for making these gains available to as many as possible. This, I believe, while it does not necessarily distract us from the wilder, more narcissistic explorations of cyberspace upon which many of us are already embarked, would certainly relocate us within the frames of what I consider technology’s premiere raison d’être, namely, to serve the cause of greater human development.