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Invisible Users: Youth in the Internet Cafés of Urban Ghana (Acting with Technology) Hardcover – May 4, 2012
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In this fascinating ethnography of life in internet cafes in Ghana, Jenna Burrell shows how a blend of scammers, religion, and a grey market produce a new form of digital marginality. Exploring the 'material turn' in science and technology studies, this book makes an important contribution to media studies, development studies, and anthropology.(Trevor Pinch, Professor of Science and Technology Studies, Cornell University)
Jenna Burrell offers a vivid and detailed portrait of a corner of the internet few of us consider closely -- the hundreds of millions of internet users in the developing world who share the online spaces we inhabit. Burrell's in-depth examination of internet culture in Ghana shatters stereotypes with nuance, encouraging us to think through complex issues like advance fee fraud, computer recycling and cross-cultural encounter from the perspective of ordinary, middle-class Africans approaching the internet with fears and hopes both similar and different to the ones we hold.(Ethan Zuckerman, Director, Center for Civic Media at MIT)
Too often, scholars and practitioners of information technology have used Africa as a foil for modernity and development without ever bothering to see what is happening there. This book is an extraordinary corrective. Rich with stories of Ghanaian life from the Internet Café to the Pentecostal church to the UN World Summit on Information Society, it uses this material to reformulate ideas of agency, materiality, orality and marginality. Invisible Users is a work on the global spread of information technology unlike any other, and a model for any to come.(Christopher M. Kelty, Associate Professor of Anthropology and Information Studies, UCLA)
In this well-written and compelling book, Burrell deftly supports her conviction that future scholarship must recognize the inconsistencies inherent in the digital experiences of those who live in the margins of our global society.(Practical Matters)
This book is a fine, Africa-based contribution to theory in technology studies as well as an empirical achievement that should be of strong interest to the cultural studies community in general. Those of us who work on Africa, youth, new communications technology, or Ghana will be far from its only readers.(Jo Ellen Fair African Studies Review)
About the Author
Jenna Burrell is Assistant Professor in the School of Information at the University of California, Berkeley
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Top Customer Reviews
The internet was supposed to extend to everybody, and this seems to be happening, although slowly in the margins. In Ghana, the elites in and from universities were originally the only ones online. Eventually, through internet cafés, other young users were able to get online; they "were decidedly nonelite, marginally employed, and had a degree of education that they had struggled to obtain and subsequently struggled to leverage." The exposure of young people by mass media to a varied and global sense of possibilities led to aspirations of travel, romance, and income. The western misconception about Africa being "passive, poor, and strange" helped café users in their efforts toward material gain via scams. Burrell examines the way verbal rumors that fly through Accra help power the eagerness to carry out such scams. "There is something really about this Internet, there is something that is really making my friends rich," says one user. Or at least, many stories say they are getting rich. "The amplifying effect of rumor yielded the reproduction and overrepresentation especially of those dramatic and memorable stories of big gains and thus reinforced a persistent, go-for-broke approach to building a social network online and the enrollment of foreign contacts among young Ghanaian users." Paired with these beliefs were religious ones, and Burrell gives a brief history of the complex interplay of animism and the different forms of Islam and Christianity as users examined the morality and efficacy of the internet. "Religion, in a way similar to the Internet, was viewed as a system that individuals could operate to realize certain desired outcomes." Some users were happy to participate in religions that emphasized a "prosperity gospel" which promised earthly rewards. One of the users described here got a holy man to give him a potion to be sprayed on his hands before typing so that good effects could be transmitted through the keyboard.
Some observers of the early internet thought that cyberspace would organize itself without any governmental help. Scammers in Ghana benefitted from a weak local police, but the commercialization of the internet has caused policing within the internet itself. Many sites now simply block all traffic from West Africa, but work-arounds are of course not long in being devised. _Invisible Users_ gives a picture of how, in the early twenty-first century, "These invisible users demonstrated diverse capabilities for coping with and managing a novel technological system that was not designed with them in mind." The ethnographic approach to her subject makes Burrell's book a stimulating look at an initial clash of technology and culture.