Technology Unfolds Over Time

Ghana Internet Cafe pic by Rachel Strohm CC BY ND 2.0

Many ethnographers stick to one place or region throughout their careers. Perhaps the memory of the trials and travails of entering the field in the first place, of early incomprehension and discomforts, the exhaustion of language learning, makes them shudder to imagine starting that all over again. Social ties to the field can be maintained in new ways (such as through Facebook). For example. Over time these relationships become deeper, richer. It becomes easier to ask more sensitive and private questions. One develops a growing capacity for insight into a culture, for the non-public side of society, for a better understanding of social performances vs. personal idiosyncrasies, the cleavage points beyond a society’s well-ordered face.

After 7 years of traveling to Ghana, I’ve started to see this sense of time and of change emerge in my own work as well. In part experiencing this more private side of life, but also observing firsthand the changes made sharper and more apparent by my absences. The Internet café scene in Ghana is not what it was when I started fieldwork in 2004. It was around 2008 that I started to see reports from the news media and people in Ghana about ‘sakawa’ a vernacular term that referred to Internet fraud. This was a term only whispered about during my fieldwork but had emerged around 2008 as part of a very public moral debate and was incorporated into the narratives of Ghana’s popular culture – in music and local video-films.

To formalize this sense of passing time I re-interviewed 12 individuals from my 2004 fieldwork. I believe this makes my study the very first longitudinal examination of the Internet in Africa. I was especially interested in whether, with time, the Internet yielded benefits to this group, delivered on their initial enthusiasm and conviction in the way the Internet worked (which in 2004 was bolstered by astonishing second-hand stories/rumors of big gains but very little successful direct experience among users).

From my conversation with my 12 contacts I found that the way they connected the Internet to their aspirations and aims changed over time. Along with this the frequency, enthusiasm, and specific modes of use changed. Why did things change? It had to do with both individual and societal changes. Of course there were changes in life stage, jobs and new caretaking responsibilities made it difficult for users to get to an Internet cafe. Also, perhaps more interestingly, there were changes in collective patterns in the Internet cafes as well as in online Internet practices. Beyond those using the technology, the public perceptions of the technology (as apparent in the mass media and pop culture) in Ghana changed over that time. Material changes came into play as well, in particular the availability of GSM modems that made home Internet use easier to arrange and more affordable.

On the whole there were definitely some ‘successes’ according to local models of the Internet and its possibilities. Scammers got better at scamming. One young man I know legitimately acquired a $1000 scholarship through an essay competition (enough to cover an entire semester’s tuition at the private university he attended). One woman was able to create an international business partnership with suppliers in China. Three of the 12 met foreigners online that they ended up marrying (though two maintained these relationships long-distance).

Yet there was also widespread disillusionment with the technology often described now as “spoiled” and on the whole simply not like it was back in the good old days of 2004. The desirable people they once encountered online in Yahoo! chatrooms (especially foreigners) disappeared or seemed to grow wary with a growing public knowledge of Ghana and Nigeria as the source of scams. The public discussion of scamming in Ghana and specifically ‘sakawa’ (which was understood as a practice of acquiring money through spiritual sacrifice of close friends and family) resulted in users facing pressure and suspicion from those around them. Being an Internet user, inhabiting the Internet café was seen more and more as morally questionable. There was also some suspicion of the people Ghanaians encountered online and their authenticity in that context of the public conversation about scamming and deceit through the Internet. The difficulty of garnering the attention of foreigners, of relating to them, the problems of mutual intelligibility led many to cultivate relationships closer to home, with former schoolmates, friends of friends or perhaps with the Ghanaian Diaspora with Facebook playing a big role in this.

Asking these 12 contacts about their Internet use practices brought me to another realization: how much we miss by studying technologies from a snapshot-in-time perspective. Research on the ‘impact’ of technology assumes a one-time changing state, from what life was like before the technology to what it was like after. This doesn’t consider how the relationship between technologies, users, and the encompassing society continues to change and change. That there is no end to this change. The question of technology life-cycles in all their possible variation is one we have yet to fully explore and answer.

For all the examples and details from this study, references to relevant literature, there is a working paper available here.

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