Invisible Users: Youth in the Internet Cafes of Urban Ghana
Jenna Burrell, Assistant Professor in the School of Information at UC Berkeley
February 12th, 12:30pm ET Berkman Center for Internet & Society, 23 Everett St, 2nd Floor
Ghana, a small country on the Gulf of Guinea in West Africa, is the size of Oregon. Its entire population is only double that of New York City. Yet what is unfolding there, I argue, matters to the future of the Internet. New users are increasingly connecting from the margins of the global economy. This includes Ghanaian youth connecting from Accra’s numerous urban Internet cafes. The new global diversity online offers a more rigorous check on the ideals associated with the Internet in early cyber-utopian discourses. These ideals linked the novel material properties of the technology to new possibilities for greater equality, openness, and freedom. I draw from a 6-year period of ethnographic research (2004-2010) on youth in Accra’s Internet cafes, where the primary activity was cultivating relationships with foreigners in chat rooms and dating sites as these users sought to enact a more cosmopolitan self. In particular, I will discuss network security practices in the West that have, in many instances, led to overreaching measures, such as country-wide IP address blocking to handle scamming activities originating from the West Africa region (i.e. the famous Nigerian 419 e-mail scams). In this discussion we may consider how network security and network administration are shaped not simply by an impersonal technical logic or even commercial interests, but also by cultural biases and parochialism that violate, perhaps unwittingly, these early ideals of the Internet.
Jenna Burrell is an Assistant Professor in the School of Information at UC Berkeley. Her first book Invisible Users: Youth in the Internet Cafes of Urban Ghana (The MIT Press) came out in May 2012. She completed her PhD in 2007 in the department of Sociology at the London School of Economics. Before pursuing her PhD she was an Application Concept Developer in the People and Practices Research Group at Intel Corporation. Her interests span many research topics including theories of materiality, user agency, transnationalism, post-colonial relations, digital representation, and especially the appropriation of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) by individuals and groups on the African continent.