Closing The Loop: Zuckerman and Best on Africa and Technology

Ethan Zuckerman of the Berkman Center (and elsewhere) and Mike Best of Georgia Tech joined together for a two-part session on “democracy, reconciliation and technology”, which in fact honed in on questions of wireless technology in Africa (one of our readings from the Washington Post has a good summary). I’ve been reading Zuckerman’s blog for about 18 months, and indeed one of his recent blog posts on Incremental Infrastructure, Or How Mobile Phones Might Wire Africa includes many of the arguments put forward in this morning’s talk!

The idea of ‘regulation’ was a theme of both speakers; Best spoke at length about the development of the Liberian Telecommunications Authority (LTA) (further information) – he and others have been looking at developments in Liberia in a forthcoming paper in Communications of the ACM on “Post-Conflict Communications: The Case of Liberia.” (will link when it’s available). Liberia is indeed an interesting case – there is effectively no fixed-line infrastructure and thus both point-to-point (phone/SMS) and Internet (via wireless ISPs) is through wireless means of some sort. Best argues that if you are to do one thing, you should be looking at getting independent regulation right; the crucial difference, he says, is insulating the regulator from day-to-day political control. Zuckerman spoke about regulation too, with a strong preference for entreprenurial, market-driven solutions (I put up an unconvincing defence of old-European-style public interest regulation and market scepticism; Joris van Hoboken made a more persuasive case for a commons-based approach) while accepting that it is a complex issue. Personally, I’m still unsure. I certainly appreciated the examples presented by both speakers of creative and innovative use of technology (interactive radio with anonymous texts-in, airtime as currency, political ringtones) – but fear that a liberalisation approach may enable the creative (or indeed political) uses of wireless communications to be locked down de facto by certain corporations. We’ll see – I do want Ethan to be right, as he understands much more of this and is infectiously optimistic.

One Laptop Per ChildOther topics included discussion of different approaches to Africa, including some gentle criticism of Bono (and others) and some consideration of the ideas of ‘governance first’ and indeed ‘infrastructure first’! Lots of this was on the table at the TED Global conference discussed by Zuckerman, and it was an interesting balance to what we heard and discussed in our visit to One Laptop Per Child last Friday…photo on the right is my own snap of this remarkable machine, which went into production just this week.

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