I was quite eager when the opportunity came to relocate to Lagos from Calabar after my secondary education. Despite opposition from some peudo-motherly quarters, I made the exciting trip by road to Lagos (with a bottle of non-alcoholic wine to celebrate). This threw me into a whole new circle of activities and contacts with new people, although my grandma was always there to stabilize my emotions. She was the reason I moved anyway.
Months later in 1994, I was invited to a Vacation Bible School, at the end of which I made quite a few friends and collected several addresses and phone numbers. Before now, I had only posted letters a few times in my whole life; a couple letters to my dad in Lagos, and one or two to my uncle in the United States. I was used to telephone conversations, which were far between in any case. I remember our NITEL phone number then was 087-222889. My brother and I used to randomly choose numbers from the telephone directory and prank calls, until the day my mum screamed at the phone bills.
In Lagos however, grandma had no NITEL telephone. My only options were to write letters to my new friends, or walk from Campbell Street down to NITEL tower at Marina to use the pay phone, which meant I would have to gather enough 10 kobo coins to place my calls. These were precious moments. To hear a friend’s voice at the other end and spending minutes conversing inconsequentially, or hearing the post man opening the postbox outside the house, was most times the highlight of each day.
It’s hard to look back and relate to those days, when communication was carefully planned and labouriously thought through. Today, we carry about fancy gadgets that instantly perform multi-functions, and we rarely think about what we channel via these devices. The rise and pervasiveness of communication technology has so sharply widened the gulf between our immediate past and today that I can’t even imagine how I stayed in touch or fixed appointments with friends.
My introduction to email was in 1998. I first heard the word “Yahoo” from the lips of an amiable former Bank MD who was also a Deacon at the local church I attended. A few months later, the same guy facilitated the installation of dialup internet connection in church from where I consolidated on my knowledge of how the system works. Those days also gave me materials to build the foundation of my family life today. I still had to compose from home what I intended to send via “Yahoo” though. Eventually, I ended up studying Computer Science for two years to take my curiousity to new heights.
Today I see how a new generation, born at a time when birth certificates carry the email addresses of parents, are living in the midst of data charged atmosphere and do not realize how deep in the belly of the information whale they are. The context of convenience and inconvenience is quite different from what some of us know. For this reason, there is a social head-butting going on between generation-then and generation-now. There’s a silent social struggle of one generation to accept the possibilities that such technologies brings, while the other generation struggles to see how this technology places them at the cusp of an economic, social, and political disruption.
So much is being written these days on the powers of the internet and the nature of the insurgency it is birthing around the world. A few years ago the focus was on the economic impact of the internet. Today, following several revolutions, particularly in the Arab world, much talk is on the political implications of the internet. Several countries are now grappling with how to regulate and put a leash on the raging Bull. That in itself is quite challenging seeing that it is nearly impossible to fight against a system and this is where countries begin to make a mockery of their institutions. I have a friend in China with who I keep in touch via gchat. We couldn’t after a while because the Chinese government had clamped down on that medium. Did they succeed? Yes. Do we still communicate? Yes again. Has anything changed? Nope! The fact is that systems are like living organisms; they evolve and find new ways of expression.
Unfortunately, many people still do not believe that there is a great shift globally due to the impact of communications technology. They simply compartmentalize their brains to confine these changes to trivial alterations that will not affect how economic, political, and social systems work. Paul Krugman, the American Economist, is famously mocked for predicting that “By 2005 or so, it will become clear that the Internet’s impact on the economy has been no greater than the fax machine’s.”
Interestingly Krugman titles the article where he makes such a notably faulty statement “Why most economists’ predictions are wrong”. Laughingly, in the article this economist ends up making his own set of predictions, several of which have been proven wrong. This tells you the extent to which, even the intellectual class, people underestimate the modern powers and workings of the information system.
Where I think people and their governments or organizations miss it is the passive assumption that communications technology, the manifest aspect of the information economy is all there is to it. Thus most plans have been focused on leveraging this narrow aspect for relevance. This is the error Paul Krugman made when he gave his infamous prediction about the internet:
“The growth of the Internet will slow drastically, as the flaw in “Metcalfe’s law”–which states that the number of potential connections in a network is proportional to the square of the number of participants–becomes apparent: most people have nothing to say to each other! By 2005 or so, it will become clear that the Internet’s impact on the economy has been no greater than the fax machine’s”.
Communications technology is beyond communicating or talking to one another. Its true power lies in the ability to communicate and share ideas. It has made the social space for popping and sharing ideas so limitless in its boundaries that it is makes safer sense to leave predictions to the self conceited. A handle I follow on twitter tweeted a quote, and I think it speaks to this diagnosis:
“Ideas are infinite. When you share food with another you both have half a plate. When you share an idea with another each has a full idea.”
This is the most critical element of the information revolution driven by modern technologies; the propagation of ideas. How do you make predictions on the trajectory of an idea, or how do you regulate it? You cannot! You can only counter an idea with another idea.
Two dudes at Stanford University knocked around an idea a few years ago. I wouldn’t be wrong to say you wish you work for them. Another dude in China had an idea that if we can’t stop those Stanford dudes, then perhaps we can counter theirs with a local idea. Today Baidu dwarfs Google in China. A kid playing with his phone somewhere at the fringes of an African city is nursing an idea, and not a single one of us knows what it will become tomorrow. This is made possible by the internet.
This is the part we so often relegate when thinking of the preponderance of this medium of information exchange. We look at the hardware before us and can only see info barter and data processing. Very few are able to hear the silent calls of our techs to imagine new worlds of possibilities.
As opposed to other systems which manage their information centrally, the internet devolves information management to the edges and concentrates that power in the hands of users. This is where the trouble lies when it comes to ignoring its potency or trying to regulate its activities. Eli Dourado, while writing on the idea of BitCoins, noted this about the internet:
“Moving decision-making to the edges of the network also has the effect of decentralizing power. End users can decide for themselves whether to use encryption, whether to engage in the sharing of copyrighted files, and indeed, whether to use a cryptocurrency to buy drugs on a Tor hidden service. Notwithstanding the Snowden revelations, Chinese censorship, and the occasional use of Internet kill switches by regimes facing domestic uprisings, the Internet represents a great devolution of social power”
The potential of the internet should not be mis-comprehended as something smaller than it really is. As more and more people are absorbed into the information economy, ideas are being channeled through the portals of other ideas, and these ideas are breaking up into further ideas that it becomes very difficult to track and to control. This is how much of the human creativity of the last decade have been largely unleashed. In a 2012 New York Times article, Vint Cerf wrote:
“When I helped to develop the open standards that computers use to communicate with one another across the Net, I hoped for but could not predict how it would blossom and how much human ingenuity it would unleash.”
Let me hinge my point here. We in this little part of the world cannot begin to imagine what potentials can be released within this generation if the internet is made accessible to everyone. It is past the time we think of the internet as merely social media and its associated noisy opinion-hood. Forward thinking governments and organizations should be creating units within their space to study the underlying growth of the internet, and how to adopt and adapt to its provisions.
It is not enough to tout the overflogged economic rhetoric that small businesses are the engine of the economy. The small business of the future is going to be heavily reliant on the internet and its associated technologies. It will be nearly impossible to effectively plug-in to the business world without knowledge of the global information economy. This is why our government today must strategically create the environment for that tomorrow’s economy. Ignoring it is at a very costly future price.
Today, the rise of BitCoin is having some serious implication for the global finance industry. The smart ones are already looking into this modern and growing medium of exchange. Traditional newspapers and publishers all over the world are seeing their profits thinned due to the increase in online reading, while others are smiling to the bank. OpenCourseWare is redefining university education as we know it, and some have even begun to question the necessity of a university degree. If we are not careful, one day, the existence of government itself will be questioned.
No so long ago, I met some person who is a renowned legal practitioner in the country and we got talking about technology issues. I was amazed at the utter ignorance displayed on even modern internet tools for the legal profession. When I think about the matter and realize these are some of the kinds of people who influence policies and make laws for us as a country, I understand why we are where we are at the moment. In any case, I hear there is a National Broadband Policy coming out. I wait to see how it will be implemented.