Jordan Crandall on Mon, 19 Jan 1998 21:38:09 +0100 (MET)

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<nettime> American Emissaries to Africa

American Emissaries to Africa
From=20John Barlow via James Bond to James Baldwin and Back

Just when you think it can't get any worse, and just when you swear
you're no longer going to waste time writing about anything it says,
something pops up in Wired that you just can't turn away from, like the
violent scene of a bizarre accident.  You try to move on, but you just
have to linger and stare at it, mouth agape.  And then you have to stay
to find out what happened, trying to make sense of the mess.  =20

An astonishing piece of glib, colonizing journalism called "Africa
Rising" pops up in the January issue under the banner of market scout
Barlow (I can't bring myself to write his full name, it sounds like a
product plug) who literally hovers above the story with his head cut out
in the shape of Africa.  And well one might never get past this opening
illustration, which shows that, at least for Wired's brand of
cyber-journalism, an entire country can be Photoshopped into a
caricature with absolutely no respect for its people, their traditions,
their actual living conditions, and the peculiar form of violence that
this might enact.  An African man stands with a sprawling mass of phone
wires and jacks coming out of his head, a ring of surge-guards
encircling his forehead, dressed in a circuit-board skirt, with a
telephone phone receiver grasped in each of his hands.  He stands in
front of the cut-out shape of the African continent - out of which JB's
head seems to have dislodged, as it floats skyward and hovers, the
benevolent face of the author looking out from on high. It literally
brings a tear to the eye.  What would compel anyone to subject an
African man to such indignity?=20

The article is in the form of a travel diary, with JB sending in each
entry via email.  As JB says, "the act of finding a port into cyberspace
[is] part of the adventure" - and that's all he does, move from port to
port, a man on a mission for trade.  It is as if we were offered a
travel diary seen through the agency of a technology trying to connect
itself from one port to another, necessarily harnessed to a fumbling
human, with everything outside and between just raw material to be
molded according to its needs.  Africa as seen through the eyes of a
plug?  JB sails for the Dark Continent with two 3400 PowerBooks; several
solar panels; a Jaz drive; a large bag of power and telcom adapters,
most of them for sockets "of historical interest"; a Newton 2000
MessagePad; and five transformer bricks.  With just a little more
equipment, he could have gone on the Pathfinder mission -- and he might
as well have landed onto some otherworldly tabla rasa.  Dressed in a
faux good-'ol-boy American Frontier West moon suit, he's a cowboy James
Bond (although villagers see him coming and shout "Jook! Jook!",
confusing him with another brand) ready for a Harrison Ford-ish
adventure on the USS Away Team, blabbering on self-importantly about his
Mission. At one point, intoxicated with the connection potential of
Africa -- whose depths and complexities seem to part like the Red Sea in
the face the mass of technology that he wields -- he even suggests that
he is on a mission from God.

One is always made aware of the technology that he is hauling around.=20
He brandishes it everywhere, at a moment's notice, as if he were a
one-man mobile Product Convention - one anticipates that at any given
moment he might whip out a gadget and burst into a sales pitch
("Motorola products power the innovative solutions that enable your

The travel entries read like this:  "We stop for lunch at a crisp little
hotel in Masaka =85 Jonathan spends most of our lunch break sprawled on
the grass trying to pull down some tech support; I notice a microwave
tower sticking up over the village center, and ask if there's a phone=85"=
"Kisoro has abundant kilowattage, but we've left behind our AC
adapters.  We blast a few emails through Jonathan's AOL link before both
his laptop and satphone flick off.  Still not satisfied, I ask if there
might be a phone into which to plug my still somewhat energized
PowerBook.  Turns out the Sky Blue does indeed have one, though it
shares a single line to the outside world=85 I log onto the Starcom server
on my first stab, then fail to locate a domain name server, for some
reason I could never figure out.  A dozen more tries and still no luck.=20
So no mail.  Irritating though it is to be so close to cyberspace and
yet so far, my struggles are vastly entertaining to the little crowd
that gathers around me.."  What adventure!  How terrible it can be not
to be able to get one's mail, or send field reports back to the US base
describing the hardships thus endured.  One might as well just pack up
and go home - or better yet, upload out!

At the end of the story, JB makes a link between a business and a school
("no better way to fertilize a future market") and then leads up to this
little tip: "If I had a ton of money I would invest half of it in
machete-and-loincloth-level African telcos."  Congratulating himself
profusely on a Job Well Done, he reports that "now I can get on the
plane feeling like I'm part of the solution.  And that is all I really
want from anything I do."  What kind of solution does he mean?  Perhaps
some kind of chemical solution that you can apply to any complexity,
smoothing it over with a digital gloss?  Or a solution that can resolve
anything by applying the right graphics, programs, and connections --
productizing all for a consuming gaze?  Perhaps it is a solution
registered here in one of the five general conclusions that he makes at
the close of the article:

"AIDS gets the headlines, but the Net is spreading even faster."

Does JB see his "Mission" as one of counteracting the grim reality of
AIDS? Can the cold reality of AIDS be outrun by the spread of the net --
by faster connections, by the introduction of relentless drives for
upgradability, speed, and self-adequacy measured by processing
capacity?  By the right, compatible, SAFE connections with which to
route around the stark realities of the flesh? =20

Let's switch roles: another first trip to Africa, another JB, another
race (an American black man), another vector pointing in the opposite
direction - not up but down.  This JB found in Africa's "exoticism, its
marketplace scents and sounds, its beggars, its lame, its colors, its
emotional aggressiveness - something of the depth, the ability to touch,
the willingness to accept the 'stink of love.'"  For him, "Africa in all
of its turmoil, in all of its pain, was teeming with the essence of what
it was on the most basic level to be human."  After Africa "he was more
convinced than ever that America's - and the West's - only hope of
survival lay in a liberation from the hypocrisy that had made oppression
and subjugation in the name of democracy and religion possible.  It was
time for a 'redefinition' of our myths in the context of our deeds.=20
Africa had cemented his belief that to be of African descent in the West
was 'to be the "flesh" of white people -- endlessly mortified.'"

A wide gulf indeed between myth and deed.  Between market statistics and
media abstractions and the specific realities of locally situated, lived
practices.  Between Net and mortification.  Between the impulse to "wire
Africa" and the Africanization of what it means to wire.  Here politics
begins, and it's a long haul.

Jordan Crandall

Please be aware that a portion of the money you spend on the cover price
of Wired will surely be used to launch more idiots into developing

James Baldwin's trip is described in the words of David Leeming in his
_James Baldwin, A Biography,_ New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1994.

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