The Rule of the Gadget, or: A Mobile Phone is Just Like a Pen

Sokari Ekine by Spreeblick on Youtube

At re:publica 10, I interviewed Nigerian researcher, writer and activist Sokari Ekine on mobile activism in Africa for my current employer, Spreeblick. Earlier that day, Sokari had participated in a panel on the same issue. She has also edited a book on mobile activism, SMS Uprising, which I reviewed on this blog.

Both her panel and this video interview, when we published it on Spreeblick some days ago, did not receive the attention they deserve. I think it’s a pity, because Sokari shares a very experienced, down-to-earth view of technology in activism that is different from the common hype.

I have asked Sokari some questions that paraphrase this hype – whether mobile phones can provide an idea for a better future for Africa, whether they can be used to combat illiteracy and poverty. I hope she didn’t mind, because she gave exactly the answer that I had hoped for.

Sokari likened mobile phones to a pen: They are but a tool, and they can be used for good as well as for bad¹. This view should be the most natural thing in the world, but apparently it is not. If I look for media reports on digital activism, I will rather find stories on new technologies than on successful projects (which include much more than just a technology put to an issue!).

It seems as if we have already accepted the supremacy of the gadget. Do I even need to mention the iPad? What wonders have we heard this piece of plastic and cables will achieve! Were we not told that it would safe journalism in one strike?

My issue with the iPad is not that its influence was massively exaggerated. What bothers me is that it seems as if we have accepted that gadgets are shaping our habits, yes, that technology is at the core of our societies, rather than common values².

Remember those newspaper editors, how they have bowed in front of the iPad. It is not the quality of their work or the role of journalism in society that they trust in to find a business model, but a mere piece of technology.

This bothers me: It seems to be a common belief that there is some kind of technological determinism, that our civilization will rise and fall with the development of gadgets. Then it is indeed reasonable to see Steve Jobs as a guru, because the products of his company are part of the law that our societies are following.

In this situation it is a big relief to hear an experienced voice, and Sokari is one of the most trustworthiest that I could think of, say that “no technology can provide a better future”, and that it is about us to use the tools that are e.g. mobile phones to shape our world.

¹ also see: Goldstein, Joshua; Rotich, Juliana: Digitally Networked Technology in Kenya’s 2007-2008 Post-Election Crisis. A shortened version of this essay is also included in SMS Uprising.
² my German-speaking readers may also be interested in a talk by Miriam Meckel at re:publica 10 on the same issue.

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