South Africa’s digital isolation finally at an end?

South Africa only got television in 1976 thanks to apartheid and the National Party. This pattern of late-adoption of technology was repeated again under a socialist government when the ANC imposed similar tactics of isolation. Instead of unbundling Telkom, the national cable company created by the apartheid state, the party simply took up a position in the market and engaged in the kind of monopoly behaviour that East Germans experienced under Erich Honecker — in effect promoting an artificial, communications Berlin Wall which prevented South Africans from enjoying many of the technological advances of the turn of the century.

Almost 15 years after the rest of the world got broadband, however, South Africans in 2012 finally went online in a big way only to find the world had moved on. Granted, it was always possible to get a dialup account, but Telkom’s metred pricing and uncompetitive¬†practices stifled the kind of ubiquitous Internet that is apparent in the West. Luckily the country’s experiment with mobile telecommunications tells a slightly different story. With the national cable company stuck in the past, a new world of telecommunications unleashed a parallel universe of cheap and accessible services.

Now as the world of cable and mobile converge, we have to ask, what did we miss?

While government censorship committees were deliberating on implementing a Net Kill switch and debating the possibility of a national firewall (65% of South Africans lack Internet services) you probably learnt to ration your Net usage down to a few basic services like social networking and email. But the Internet isn’t just about facebook and twitter. Here are some points to consider.

1. The Learning Revolution.
Online Audio and Video lessons on practically any subject under the Sun, with Free educational lectures on anything from midwifery to rocket science, open university seminars, online tutorials, a plethora of instructables, the world of education never had it so good. Today you can learn how to bake a cake, share food recipes, learn a new language, start a career as a computer programmer with free coding courses, literally anything which can be taught can be related via the new digital medium as a new pedagogy of multimedia transforms education from an elitist pastime to a mass-based and popular occupation entailing lifelong learning.

2. The Open Source Revolution
Remember the days when you had to pirate that copy of Windows XP? Pirate no longer, since operating systems and the software ecosystems surrounding them became free as in free beer. The open source software revolution caused by the networked world of open distribution of digital resources has resulted in plethora of free operating systems along with free applications to match. From Android to Ubuntu, the choice is no longer simply Windows or OSX.

3. The Cloud
The conceptual leap from local storage to online storage is not all that difficult. It all comes down to issues of bandwidth. With broadband being spurred on by the many international cables now landing on our shores, several different cables all capable of quadrupling bandwidth on their own, the technological need to ration bandwidth has effectively ended. While harddrive manufacturers are unveiling their latest terabyte flash drives, Cloud Storage has become all the rage. Users no longer need to download information to a harddrive but instead store this information online to be accessed whenever it is needed. One example of popular uses of cloud storage is streaming audio and video which avoids the hassle of downloads and local storage.

4. Crowdsourcing and Collaborative Culture.
This one is a real paradigm shift. Okay, so you got online, and you figured out how to social network, but do you know you can land a job anywhere in the world while remaining in the comfort of your home? Because the Net allows us to communicate instantaneously with any part of the globe, the possibilities for online collaboration and distance work are endless. The labour market is thus free to go wherever it is needed. One benefit is crowdsourcing for example, Mechanical Turk and Ushahidi who focus on small jobs and creating digital maps respectively. Other examples are the relocation of call-centres dues to VOIP. Practically any service imaginable can be offered in this way.

5. Post Scarcity and the Internet of Things
The rapid advances in technology caused by the Internet have fundamentally altered our economic systems. From just-in-time print-on-demand publishing in which items like printed books and posters are made, but only as orders come in, to 3D printing in which objects one would normally buy at a store are printed on your desktop instead of being made in factories, the revolution that will put China on your desktop and fundamentally alter the way things are made and distributed continues apace.

6. The End of Money
The Internet has not only changed the way we think about money, it has altered our perception of value and created a world in which the only real commodity is our attention span. Whether it is the world of micropayments, Paypal or Flattr, or just the freedom of being able to sell stuff online via Gumtree or eBay, the entire global economy has been transformed and in a relatively short period of time. Increasingly Internet users are conceiving of money as software, the result is crypocurrencies like bitcoin, alternative economic systems like time-banking, Circle of Gifts, and the Talent Exchange, and veritable host of virtual currencies.

7. The Maker Revolution
Amateur robotics and home electronics is proceeding apace as the Arduino platform inspires a host of “makers” to create DIY projects such as the popular Raspberry Pi computer. Anything that can be automated will be and this is bound to impact on human labour as the more menial tasks in society become the domain of robotics. If you can Do it Yourself, life has never been better with an Internet that caters to the DIY home enthusiast, whether it is making home solar power, building log cabins or growing your own food, someone on the Net has a solution.


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