Top Internet thinker lands in South Africa
ONE OF THE MOST respected authors and lecturers about Internet trends, Clay Shirky, is in South Africa this week for the Tech4Africa conference, where he’ll deliver a keynote address. Shirky teaches “New media” as an associate teacher at New York University’s graduate Interactive Telecommunications Programme and is the author of a number of books, including Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organising Without Organisations and Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in
a Connected Age. In these, his latest books, Shirky makes inspiring observations about Internet usage and the prospects that exist in a world where everyone is connected by communications technologies.
Shirky says technology has to be placed in context. “I was one of those techies who wrongly believed in the Nineties this was mainly about the technology. It’s the easiest calculation to make. If you see an existing situation – and then you get new technology and new behaviour – you think: ah ha, the technology caused the behaviour.
After nearly two decades of thinking about this stuff, I’m not sure I believe that strongly in the idea of inflection points anymore
“What has become clear – partly from watching this unfold in the world and partly from improved social science research – is what the technology is doing is allowing new behaviours but it’s not causing new behaviours. As I put it in
Cognitive Surplus, behaviour is motivation filtered through opportunity. And, in fact, what the technology is doing is giving us new opportunities to fill ancient motivations. And so the social piece of it really is the critical bit.”
Shirky uses the example of Ushahidi – an open source social networking system developed in Kenya to allow monitoring of violence in the wake of that country’s disputed elections in 2007. Ushahidi allowed Kenyans to use their cellphones to identify points of violence geographically, which were then mapped and made available online. Since then the system has been used to track violence and disasters worldwide.
Says Shirky: “We’re all used to the sentence that starts with ‘this technology was developed in Mountain View, California, and spread worldwide’. The sentence: ‘This technology was developed in Nairobi, Kenya, and spread worldwide in three years’ – that’s a new sentence.”
He’s inspired by the innovation that happens when technology is used to fill rudimentary needs. “What the developers of Ushahidi did wasn’t to design a tool but to design an opportunity. To make it clear, why you’d want to participate in something like this,” says Shirky.
Does he believe we’re reaching an inflection point for the innovation of technology in Africa?
“After nearly two decades of thinking about this stuff I’m not sure I believe that strongly in the idea of inflection points anymore. There are certainly times where a technology that didn’t exist is invented and you can point to something really clean there – the first time a search engine showed up, the first time a browser showed up, the first time the web showed up. But the social changes after that, the kind of embrace and progressive use and expertise, are actually an incredibly smooth curve.
“If you look at everything – from the adoption of email, to the adoption of web, to the adoption of FaceBook – the curve is just very smooth. For any given person the inflection point is the moment at which they’re surprised: but the surprise I think often comes more from our assumptions about how the world should work than it comes from any sudden change in the environment.
“The inflection points reflect more when we start paying attention to effects rather than when the effects start happening. We’ve been able to see the ‘face’ in FaceBook all the way along: it’s just that for a lot of people it’s risen around a threshold of value, or interest, or importance just in the past 12 months. So we want to say 2009 or 2010 was the breakout year for FaceBook, or the fact that FaceBook hasn’t had a breakout year, or every year is the breakout year for FaceBook… take your pick,” says Shirky.
Tech4Africa takes place in Johannesburg from 11 to 13 August.