Fascinating stuff from Michael Spencer about what’s happening in Africa right now, technology-wise:
Did you know that 70% of Africa’s 1 billion people now use mobile phones? Really? That’s more than twice America’s entire population. But how is this possible when only 14% of rural sub-Saharan Africans have access to electricity? How do all those Africans charge their phones? This was a question posed to me and my fellow panelists at Columbia University’s Africa Economic Forum this past weekend. The answer may also come as a surprise… in 21st century Africa, where there is a need, there is an entrepreneur.
The people of Africa are currently experiencing the fastest adoption of new technology ever witnessed in human history. The sweeping pace and sheer magnitude of change dwarfs the release of a new iPhone or iPad here in the United States. As noted by the panel moderator and leading communications strategist, Charles McLean, “Africa skipped the Industrial Revolution and is now leapfrogging into the Information Age.”
I was recently talking with my cousin who’s a missionary in Ghana, and he’s seen this technology boom first-hand. (For example, he sees more people with cellphones than running water.) Africans’ increasing embrace of technology certainly has positive effects, such as an increase in the flow of information and communication. However, my cousin was also concerned that this massive influx of technology — be it mobile phones or something else — was also accompanied by a lack of thought or concern about the social and ethical ramifications that technology can bring with it.
We have similar issues here in America, of course. But, from my cousin’s perspective, we do have the benefit of an infrastructure that can offer some measure of regulation and control. What’s more, we’ve grown and matured, if you will, into much of this technology. In other words, we’ve had time to adjust to it and give some consideration to its impacts on society. (However, I think you could make a good argument that this is becoming less the case, though, given how fast technology is outstripping many of our regulations and controls. Blame it on the Singularity.) Africa doesn’t necessarily have this luxury.
Obviously, this doesn’t mean that technology shouldn’t be making its way into Africa, or that enterprising individuals shouldn’t be encouraged to take advantage of, and prosper from, any technology boom. And technology, as I said before, does have positive effects. If nothing else, it does mean that Africa, with its various disparities, is going to be very interesting to watch in the coming years. Here’s hoping that Africa makes the best of this situation, and that the technology boom truly helps its people flourish.