Is the Digital Indaba the Internet Berlin Conference of 2006?
September 10, 2006 34 Comments
(This post is a follow-on to a previous one on next week’s Digital Indaba on Blogging and the resulting comments that included accusations of my being racist and illegitimate)
Does the African blog-space – if there is such a thing – need codification, a coming together, a corralling under the auspices of a code of conduct or a common front? I do not think so and yet I have noticed a recent trend toward this end of trying to create a ‘mainstream’ African blog-space that confers ‘legitimacy’ on its members. Implying, if only gently, that those outside its auspices are illegitimate at worst or at best might be irrelevant to goals as varied as civil society ‘empowerment’, the creation of alternate media, etc. We are living in a world that increasingly looks to observed and enforced standards. It is almost as if the more peoples become exposed to one another, by virtue of blogging for example, the greater is the discomfort of those associated with the West (like the White so-called Africans who pissed me off by calling this blog racist and illegitimate.) They want a world where bloggers are ‘responsible citizens’, ‘legitimate’ and ‘empowerment minded.’ As noble as such sentiments sound, they have lurking behind them not an evil conspiracy but rather an instinct to occupy territory – the high ground of individual African blogging ideas and opinions – which has been much talked about in the last couple of years in the international and local media.
What organizers and conveners of events such as the Digital Indaba on Blogging refuse to recognize is the essential magic of blogging which is that every blog is THE CENTER. It is made so by the decision of one person to speak as they will, when they will, about whatever they wish. The blog’s audience, if it exists, is therefore treated to an act of one. Consider how many unique minds or perspectives can come to the fore due to this freedom. It is not that the Indaba will still the blogger. Rather, combined with others like it in the future, it will act like a force of gravity by forming positions, networks and attitudes that by virtue of advertisement and promotion occupy the centre or rather attempt to claim such occupation for themselves so that bloggers who are not ‘inside’ will presumably operate in the margins. As if there is not enough of that already within the traditional forms of media.
A central goal of these kinds of meetings is to move ideas and knowledge out of their tacit forms – where they are owned by individuals and received by individuals – to codified forms. Not for the benefit of the blogger but rather to profit the administrator who enables and ‘owns’ the codifying space. Knowledge when it is codified is made into a standardized message that is precious in the marketplace, far more in many instances that its tacit counterpart. Codification allows easy reproduction and because to do it means knowledge being more exactly described, it becomes easier to mark as intellectual property. This is a good thing since it can now be transmitted cheaper to a wider audience, creating profits and, when of a positive nature, leading to better societies. Unfortunately this is not the process the indaba represents. Let me explain.
The high costs in producing knowledge are start up ones – usually paid in the initial phase when ideas or knowledge are tacit. That is to say the writing of your blog is tougher, more expensive, than holding a conference of bloggers to come up with an organizing principle or organizational character. But since many ideas in blogs are not worth much financially, the value is to be had in the joining. By the one who claims to have created the common ground you stand on with others. The blogger who would join an ‘African Code of Conduct’ might earn some minor monies from a conference per diem or from a donor. But the one who will really clean up, in financial and power terms, will be the convener of the conference: the institution or person who boasts of ‘facilitating’ African voices, helping them ‘make a huge impact by sharing knowledge and enthusiasm and demonstrating to the rest of the world that Africa is more than a passive observer in the global village’ (quote from the website of next week’s first Indaba on Blogging)
Blogging on this continent does not need midwives. Especially not ones who want to demonstrate ‘to the rest of the world that Africa is more than a passive observer in the global village.’ It is this kind of defeatism and obsession with the opinions of others that puts paid to the creation of independent paths of our own. That we should now blog to show the world (read the West and White folks) that we are somehow worthy of their respectful consideration. What nonsense. Perhaps the way to ‘show the world’ is to have a conference of black people in the audience listening to panels basically made up of white people. You know? To hope that the authority of whiteness rubs off on the poor little African blogosphere. I wish I will be proven wrong about such panels but the defensiveness of the white Mandelas tells the tale. Ultimately though, whoever the panelists are, and despite the ‘rush for white,’ the logic of this benignly conducted colonisation of Africa’s blog universe will have plenty of rainbow colored African volunteers.
What really pulls my goat among all the ills of this ‘inclusive’ event is the corralling of bloggers – most of whom are just doing their own thing – into the donor universe. Consider once again the language of the Indaba which views blogging, at least in one aspect, thus:
Blogging, because of its far reach and networking qualities, is an essential tool in ensuring that the UN Millennium Development Goals are achieved in Africa and NEPAD remains a united and benevolent alliance on the continent.
Millennium development goals? NEPAD? Ensuring that it remains a united and benevolent alliance? That, ladies and gentlemen, is called the language of the hustler. Some wise African – and he or she could be white or black – who has identified an angle, a cow to milk. And that cow is you dear blogger. You are going to be positioned, united with others, invited to liberal, black loving Grahamstown. Even before you leave, little hustle proposals on ‘empowering African voices’ will be in the mail, probably on the same flight as you. Not that you will ever get more than a few cents. What you will get though is a big, prominent logo on your site that says something like Proud Member of Indaba Code. Somewhere in the proposal will be the sentence, ‘Indaba and company, a non-profit, civil society initiative, is proud to announce that 5% of known African blogs have signed up to the Code of Conduct we established and will form an important African digital voice in the achievement of the MDGs and the sustenance of NEPAD’s profile. We now require further funding for the Indaba to expand its activities…’
In return for a few bloggers being thrown the bone to listen to ‘20 renowned and respected speakers from across the globe and a confirmed line-up that would make Silicon Valley jealous,’ many others will operate in a blog-space that is marked and demarcated territory by little people who would try and update the Berlin 1885 scramble for Africa to the digital space. My railing against this process will not stop it I know, but I think it is important to be aware that what the Indaba and like conferences represent is a grab for territory. And when the African internet Bismarcks and Leopolds can call me racist for asking a question, then you better be aware that the gloves are going to be off during this scramble. The weapons will be to meet challenges with a deafening silence; refer to them as ‘unacceptably racist and misinformed’ (courtesy of one Vincent ‘Madiba’ Maher); and the calling of even more conferences. But, blogging being what it is and since they have decided to piss off the worst Gikuyu this side of the keyboard, I will only say this: I am watching and will ask questions first and then pull the trigger to my nukes later.