Media Machines: A Postcolonial Archaeology of New Media and Africa

Jennifer Blaylock University of California, Berkeley

“First world problems,” a thriving meme and a popular hash tag on twitter, is used to qualify complaints about the small inconveniences that sometimes come with the consumption of high status goods, especially the latest media technologies. Nigerian-American author Teju Cole has written a biting critique of “first world problems” on twitter pointing out that “first world problems” works on the assumption that the third world is too occupied with serious problems like famine, disease, and corruption to have time to engage in the pleasurable technological indulgences of the first world. He writes, “All the silly stuff of life doesn’t disappear just because you’re black and live in a poorer country…Here’s a First World problem: the inability to see that others are as fully complex and as keen on technology and pleasure as you are.” Cole’s statement is an example of how media machines become the means for claiming exclusionary “first world” status, but also points to how the ownership of consumer products becomes a method to appeal for recognition as equal participants in the globalized world.

The role that media technology play in demarcating the globe into “first” and “third,” and “modern” and “developing” worlds becomes clear when we critically look at the intersection of discourse about new media and Africa. What appears to be a hyper-connected world in which the remote village has become global is actually structured by hegemonic perceptions about what counts as new media technology, who has access to it, and where it is invented. But how and why have media technologies in the twenty-first century come to be such powerful taxonomic symbols in Africa and abroad? In other words, in what political and economic contexts was discourse about the “newness” of media technology activated to represent a deterritorialized globe? And how has the emphasis on the new simultaneously also entrenched geographic difference?

My dissertation project, Media Machines: A Postcolonial Archaeology of New Media and Africa approaches these questions by analyzing the history of new media technology in Ghana from the 1900s to the early 2000s. Each of the four chapters considers a different media technology—gramophones, cinema, television, and smart phones—within changing economic, political, and social discourse. Media Machines challenges the notion that media technologies are transferred from the West to the technology-poor Global South in two ways. First, by examining the origin of this myth and its many retellings in discourse about new media and Africa. Second, by bringing to the fore media histories of African innovation that have been hitherto untold.

In the first chapter, Initial Contacts in the Digital Age, or When the Visual Record Skips, I demonstrate that contemporary photographs of African mobile phone users often draw on themes and formal conventions found in photographic practices from the early to mid 1900s. Anthropologists, advertisers, and adventurers would stage scenes of what Lisa Gitelman has called “initial contacts” between indigenous peoples and technology. Like early contact photographs, the most popular of the mobile phone images juxtapose Africans in pastoral settings wearing traditional clothing with the new media technology. As scholars have noted, these depictions, like the gramophone scene in Nanook of the North (1922), were a way to co-produce ideas of the modern and the primitive.

Based on archival research, I trace the staging of indigenous initial contacts with gramophones from Martin Johnson’s 1907 trip to the South Seas with Jack London to a scene in his Africa travelogue film Congorilla (1932). By looking at Johnson’s use of the contact trope we see that not only do these images repeat over time like a needle stuck on a record, but their repetition was often sponsored by media companies like Victor. By comparing Johnson’s oeuvre and other travel photography in the early twentieth-century to contemporary mobile phones images, I argue that new media in global visual rhetoric continues to draw on a tendency to define Africans as part of an unchanging landscape in order to celebrate the ability of media technologies to transform and develop Africa. The blurred relationship between corporate sponsorship, education, and spectacle in the historic use of contact images points to the ways that contemporary media industries continue to capitalize on the perpetuation of racialized narratives of progress.

Spectacular demonstrations of state-sponsored cinema continued the justification for European rule that images of Africans posed next to gramophones had begun. By the 1940s mobile cinema vans exhibited informational films for rural African audiences across the British colonies. Drawing on cinema technology to sustain British technological superiority, the colonial government worked diligently to promote and develop educational content that would promise Africans the possibility of becoming equally modern in the near future. These films—on health and medicine, agriculture, community development, and citizenship—exposed African audiences to the same types of information being deployed to Africans today through mobile phone applications.

In my second chapter, Mobile Utility: The Infrastructural Absences of Mobile Cinema, I draw on British colonial discourse about cinema to demonstrate how new media in the context of Africa have historically been produced by international actors as primarily useful devices for African education, salvation, and development, rather than seen as instruments for entertainment or self-expression. I compare colonial era mobile cinema with contemporary international development discourse about mobile phones to consider how the emphasis on the increasing mobility of information continues to focus social and political change on the transformation of the individual rather than the development of public infrastructure.

In the third chapter, New Media, Neo-Media: The Brief Life of Socialist Television in Ghana, I describe the inauguration of television in Ghana. Unlike the origins of cinema, television was born without the baggage of paternalistic colonial ancestry. The first broadcast on July 31, 1965 came out of a radical time when Africans across the continent were boldly and creatively inventing systems of governance resistant to imperialism and racial inequality. Alongside the formation of the new state, the new medium was designed to help realize the vision of African socialism promoted by the first prime minister of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah. Yet with the February 24, 1966 coup d’état, only seven months after programming began, Nkrumah was overthrown, and Ghanaian socialist television came to an end.

During this early period, the television division was headed by African-American political activist, Shirley Graham Du Bois, the second wife of W.E.B. Du Bois. Du Bois was instrumental in innovating existing television systems to fit the needs of the new African nation. Based on archival research and interviews with key Ghanaian television pioneers, I argue that despite Canadian expertise and British and Japanese equipment, the inauguration of Ghana television resulted in the invention of a new television system. This Afro-futurist segment of Ghana’s media past provides a counter narrative to new media discourse from the colonial era that positioned Africa as the passive receiver of media machines that were invented in the West, and instead details how Ghanaians negotiated and adapted new technologies from abroad into local media systems to empower Ghanaians and Africans and those of African descent across the world.

In the last chapter, “Who wants a BlackBerry these days?” Serialized New Media and its Trash, I use the popular Nigerian video series BlackBerry Babes (2011–12), which follows a clique of trend-setting college girls who deny friendship to anyone who does not own a BlackBerry, to analyze how international enthusiasm for the development potential of mobile phones is contested in West African popular culture. While technology reports in the early 2010s announced the death of BlackBerry in the USA, headlines across the blogosphere cited BlackBerry Babes as evidence that, “BlackBerry is doing incredibly well—in Africa” and is still a status symbol for Africans. However, contrary to global headlines, BlackBerry Babes offers a critical take on BlackBerry. Like typical Nigerian melodramatic serials that reveal moral resolution through punishment and redemption, not only are the Babes eventually punished for their lewd actions, but the absurdity of the Babes’ laughable exploits to obtain what is ultimately an empty signifier of class is the joke that fuels this serial comedy across six parts. Like the new models of BlackBerry phones the girls fetishize, the BlackBerry Babes serial becomes a means to reinforce both the phones and the Nigerian video-industry as markers of membership within global capitalism, while also expressing disillusionment with the promise of social and economic mobility that screen technologies seem to offer.

Rather than being ancillary to the history of media technology, discussions about new media use in Africa are central to understanding how new media have contributed to the maintenance of racialized global capitalism, and how they have also offered the hopeful means to its undoing. At a moment far removed from the fall of the Berlin Wall, at the “end of history,” the analysis of new media discourse in Africa untangles the lasting impacts of imperial capitalism on global theories of media. Conversely, an evocative look at mid-twentieth century Afro-futuristic media discourse reminds us of a time before the end of possibility, when African intellectuals invented media technology anew through imaginative forms of resistance. Media may spectacularly organize the world into “first” and “thirds,” but as Media Machines exhibits, that order is subject to change.

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