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Conversations around today’s internet are stuck in a stifling binary. Either we hear that the digital revolution will either magically deliver us into an über-efficient world where we are all connected and uplifted, or our fears about it gone awry, threatening our democracies and economic security, will be realized.
Ramesh Srinivasan (@rameshmedia), a professor at UCLA and author of the recent book Beyond the Valley (MIT Press), studies the relationships between technologies, politics, economics, and societies across the world. He is a regular guest on networks such as NPR, MSNBC, The Young Turks, and much more.
A third way emerges when we look beyond the Valley, at how people in the global South—Africa, South Asia, and South America—experience digital technology. It is across these parts of the world, and not North America, Europe, or even China, where the vast majority of internet and social media users live. It is also in these regions where the internet is most rapidly expanding. If we want the full story about the internet’s present and future, we must look beyond Silicon Valley and learn from the communities of the south.
In the 20 years that I’ve spent studying how communities in the global South use technology, II’ve found that these are the real innovators, not just passive users of Western or Chinese tech. They are also makers, creators, and hackers. And they are guided by values far removed from the self-serving corporate strategies that govern the Facebooks, Googles, Facebooks, and Amazons of the world, which ensure that users sit at the bottom of the tech production chain with outstretched, hopeful hands. While Western companies focus on keeping our attention at all costs, gathering our personal data, and taking us down behavioral rabbit holes, in the global South the users are seizing control.
Though users in these resource-scarce regions face profound material constraint, they are the real innovators of technology: doing more with less, finding ways to design, create, and shape technologies to support their lives. Technologies are created not just to support their makers’ own pocketbooks; they are guided by values that benefit the communities they live within and the sustainability of the natural environment around them. Examples of digital technologies designed and controlled from the ground up by local users are flourishing around the world.
In Nairobi, Kenya, I was amazed to see a 3D-printing business set up on a street corner, merrily printing everyday objects for passersby. Their custom 3D printers, which make everything from medical devices to household appliances, were cobbled together from circuits and wires salvaged from dumps and recycling centers. Not only are they a fraction of the cost of Chinese and even American printers, they are also far more robust and resilient, able to withstand the heat, noise, and elements of this East African country. Why? Because they were designed by Kenyans for their local environment and fellow countrymen.
But what about economic security in a nation where banks have failed to access the majority of the population? The Kenyan mobile money system M-PESA allows more than 100 million people to pay for goods and services via credits linked to their mobile phone accounts. M-PESA, a technology unlike anything in the West, eliminates the need for banks, replacing a bank’s stolid authority with a network of local agents such as sugarcane merchants, food stands, and other small businesses. Because it was designed to be less expensive than the foreign alternative, the technology is accessible to all—not just to those a bank deems worthy.
What about connectivity? In the Oaxaca region of southern Mexico, indigenous peoples working with the Rhizomatica organization have built and maintained the largest community-owned cell phone network in the world. Far from being content with just these accomplishments, they have been spreading this idea to other communities across the nation and world.
Scenes like these, played out every day in the global South, explain why the mega-corporations of the United States and China are trying to expand their footprint outside of the Northern Hemisphere and why tech insiders see Africa as the place for the future of AI. They also raise important questions about the brands and terms we all too easily accept around technology.
For one: What is innovation, really? Does creating new technologies with an unimaginable wealth of resources in sterile labs and lush offices in the West capture all that “innovation” really is? s innovation best expressed by Apple’s “planned obsolescence” approach to design, ensuring that our phones will die on schedule, creating e-waste, and forcing us to have to buy new ones every few years? Parts of the global South that lack infrastructure, power grids, and organized local governments are producing an inspiring culture of innovation that we can learn a lot from in the West. In the global South, innovation means introducing technology solutions with an awareness of the economic and environmental constraints they face.