The Tangled Web

This article discusses the relationship between politics and technology in Africa.

“Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive.”

Little did Walter Scott realise in 1808, when he wrote the poem, Marmion, to commemorate the battle at Flodden Field, that this quotation would inspire a commentary on the relationship between politics and technology in Africa over 200 years later.

But, if you think about it, that single line encompasses so many of the issues relevant to the spread (or lack of it) of technology across the continent. Without a doubt, the “web” is tangled. In Scott’s time, the telegraph was still in the experimental stage. Here we are, a few leaps and bounds later, able to use wires, fibres, wireless, microwaves and satellites to communicate at the speed of light across unimaginable distances. It has become quite normal for the majority of the world’s population to carry a portable communications device.

All of this wonderful innovation has opened massive doors of opportunity. Our world is shrinking, as we are better able to understand how it works and how we contribute to its preservation and benefit from sustainable use of its resources. In the last 200 years, the planet has been able to support population growth from 1 billion to 7 billion people, largely thanks to the application of technology and innovation across the broad range of human activities. 5 billion of those new members of the community arrived in the last 50 years. Amazing!

So, the “tangled web” has helped us to feed more, employ more, and house more people. And, yes, increase the number of hungry, unemployed and homeless, too. Is this where the “practice to deceive” comes in?

In a way, it does. Human communities have evolved complex methods of managing themselves – preferring to hand power to politicians, rather than taking personal responsibility for sharing the tasks of community management. Politicians have to justify the power they have by exercising it – creating rules and regulations for others to live by and penalties for failure. William Pitt the Elder (he was British Prime Minister from 1766 to 1778) recognised the “power problem” when he said, “Unlimited power is apt to corrupt the minds of those who possess it.”

How true! Although it is a “no-brainer” in 21st Century Africa that the rapid spread of technology is the fastest enabler of increased economic activity and social well-being, many of our politicians (and their bureaucrat cronies) are busy doing nothing to advance progress. Far too many of the structures that are created to facilitate innovation and communication become the immovable barriers that prevent the willing and able from moving onwards and upwards.

We have “talk shops for Africa”, if you will pardon the expression. I’m not going to name them all – they range from the ITU to your local municipality. Everything must be viewed with suspicion, licensed, regulated, taxed, controlled, discussed, documented, revised, prevented – you name it and the politicians will engage with it. The deception is that we stop progress in the name of progress.

It is time that we, the people of Africa, demanded that our politicians take their hands off the tangled web of technology, so that we can all benefit from the advantages of affordable access. If small countries like Rwanda and Mauritius can do it, the rest of us have no excuse.