[iDC] Collective Action

Trebor Scholz trebor at thing.net
Tue Jun 20 19:55:35 EDT 2006

>America is the world's richest country; it's not surprising that there
>are a lot of Internet users there.  Do you have statistics for any
>poor countries?

Ben, thanks for your respons.

Can blogs, wikis, and other participatory web architectures change the
world for the better; does the sociable web reach developing countries?
Currently, not even a quarter of the world's population has Internet
access. 70% of North Americans are able to go online-- Europe 36%, Asia
roughly 10%, and Africa 2%. Willinsky's arguments for Open Access to
research don't apply to those who don't have net access in the first
place. But -- imagine-- what would a broad movement of bloggers/citizen
journalists in Africa, bring to the attention of the rest of the world?
This would be a personal reporting with an affect that you would not
find on CNN. 

Already now, South Africa, for a start, has an active Indymedia.

Resources of the sociable web including Wikipedia are still of little
use to those without a computer and command of English. Most African
languages have only about a thousand articles in Wikipedia. The problems
encountered are ranging from keyboards supporting a particular language
to computer manuals in a local language.

The current explosion of the cellphone industry in Africa is a widely
known fact. Africans may not have ready access to the Internet but more
than half of them own mobile phones with SMS capability but without the
ability to run the Internet. In South Africa, net access is still sparse
but alternatively banks are looking into low cost banking options via
cellphones. Notably, also the world's first feature-length movie was
shot on a cellphone in SouthAfrica. The film titled ³SMS Sugar Man² was
directed by Aryan Kaganof and the story, not far as interesting as the
technology, is about a pimp and two high class prostitutes.

Currently there are several initiatives that are focusing on educating
African youth via cellphone. Tomi Ahonen reports that "There are more
radios than mobile phones, but those radios are in North America and
Western Europe, built into our cars etc. In Asia, Africa and Latin
America many more mobile phones exist than radios. ...  30% of the total
population on the planet carries a mobile phone. Every one of them can
do basic texting, basic mobile commerce, receive basic news, etc. "

The future of the sociable web in developing countries is the bridging
between simple mobile phones and the resources available online. The
project MobilED is a good example:

In March 2006 the pilot of MobilED was launched with teachers of Corwall
Hill College in Preotoria (South Africa). The project focuses on
HIV/AIDS and is for 15-16 year-olds. "The platform will offer access to
Wikipedia content with SMS, so that students can search the Wikipedia by
sending a query term to the server.  The server will then call back and
a speech synthesizer will read the article for them."

The 2004 blog explosion did not make it to the sub-Saharan Africa with
the exception of South Africa. For most Africans the Internet is as far
away as a semi-soy latte at a Starbucks. With little net access and all
of the action happening in North America and Europe, so far blogging was
limited to Western ex-pats. But this is changing: the Ethiopian blogging
scene is up and coming with blogs like Nazret.com. And, outside of
Africa, in South Korea, OhmyNews is a strong and successful example of
the sociable web.

Ethan Zuckerman points out that through citizen journalism and the
sociable web the world will have more access to what is going on in
places that are not sufficiently covered by news agencies.

Zuckerman: "None but the largest news agencies are able to pay the
travel costs and insurance for reporters to cover these stories. Most
choose not to cover a conflict that's bloody, dangerous, difficult to
summarize in a soundbite and unknown to most of their readers or
viewers. The net result - we simply don't have information about many
parts of the globe relevant to world debate. ... Even when we do have
some information about under-covered parts of the world, we have another
problem, what Ito terms "the caring problem". People pay attention to
subjects they care about. They tend to ignore subjects they know little
about. Media, trying to serve its customers in a free market, responds
by giving them more information on subjects they've demonstrated an
interest in and ignoring other subjects."

Mark Warschauer's work on Technology and Social Inclusion is also
definitely worth considering in this context.

Citizen journalism that cares about local topics in Congo, for example,
will produce a decisively different media sphere than that currently
shaped by CNN and others. Initiatives like MIT's $100 laptop contribute
to better computer access in Africa. But cellphones, not the Internet,
dominate Africa and cater to cultures that are shaped by oral

The future of the sociable web in Africa is mobile. 


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