December 4, 2019

The use of technology across the world has increased rapidly in recent decades resulting in a reshaping of how individuals and states interact, function, and develop. As such, our world is now heavily interconnected and sees digital technologies impacting nations’ ability to thrive politically, socially, and economically.1 The spread of digital technologies has been met with the belief that technological innovation could help liberate and progress the countries of the African continent to ‘catch them up’ with the West. However, the Internet and digital technologies, such as mobile phones, and the process of colonialism can be understood as historically intertwined2 as both have been developed and implemented with Western states and organisations as the driving forces at play. Meaning, globally we have seen the integration and dependency of the Internet and digital technologies spread from the West and imposed on other states, the African continent in particular. These technologies spread often through the likes of government sponsored charity initiatives like ‘Computers 4 Africa’, a United Kingdom based charity who provides schools in African nations with computer supplies. Or through the likes of ‘Free Basics’, a mobile app developed by Facebook allowing users to access a small selection of websites that can be viewed without paying for mobile data,3 which was heavily criticised for encouraging users to pay for digital technologies but also due to the fact the websites offered were majority in English rather than the native language of the country. However, it must be acknowledged that colonialism as a term is situational and often sees blanketed use to describe the experiences of many different individuals and countries4 and so, as with colonialism, each African country will have a different experience with digital technologies.


From the normalisation of digital technologies across the globe, has stemmed a ‘digital divide’, understood as “the unequal access to and usage of new technology”5. This has seen those in poverty across Western states disadvantaged, but also throughout the global spectrum, less affluent countries are also struggling. Unlike other forms of technology, the Internet provides African nations the ability to interact on an international platform with the rest of the world, overcoming the previous barriers that have hindered the continent 6. However, digital technologies and the realm of cyberspace came late to the African continent, largely due to the aftermath of colonialism and the countries focusing on state-building7. Nevertheless, this delay in progress has not meant digital technologies and the Internet have not progressed at all within African nations, as highlighted through the use of mobile phones and social media in the Arab Spring or in Nigeria where their Nollywood industry has been exported to large Western media streaming sites. However, due to the origins, implementation and development of digital technologies and the Internet, cyberspace and cyberculture have arguably become a product of the West. Cyberculture, the way in which people perform online, can at times be perceived as a reflection of Western morality and perceptions of ‘right and wrong’. This mimics behaviours deemed desirable in Western culture, which historically was carried out on a global scale through the process of colonialism8. The sub-Saharan region of Africa has been described as ‘a technological desert’9 and, similar to previous technological revolutions, this process began in the West and was then imposed upon the less developed regions of the world. This digital divide has seen the development of digital colonialism, which addresses the multitude of issues that have come from the Westernisation of the Internet but also the enforcement of digital technologies towards less developed countries across the African region. The digital divide arguably goes further than being about those who simply do not have access to digital technologies and the Internet10, rather the digital divide addresses the lack of access to the international markets, increased security threats, and cultural norms that have been brought by the West to the African continent. Digital technologies and the Internet have been reflective of colonial tendencies through the fact that Western states, in an attempt to ‘help’ countries across Africa, have steered them towards the adoption of digital technologies11 and encouraged a dependency on them despite providing only a small handful of benefits such as access to international markets. This situation is reminiscent of colonial times when Western states approached African countries in an attempt to ‘fix’ or ‘democratise’ their governments, we may be seeing a modern day equivalent through the deployment of digital technologies to the continent12.


From this digital divide and digital colonialism, the concept of ‘digital native’ has evolved into the notion that those who are born with access to the Internet and are, in turn, socialized by it are those most likely to thrive online 13. Often during colonial times, the people across the African continent were seen as subservient individuals 14 who were to follow the rules put out by Colonisers. Through digital colonialism, individuals across the African continent have been subservient to the colonial nature of cyberspace and the ways digital technologies have been spread. Many issues similar to those present during the colonial peak have re-emerged for individuals across Africa in regards to a lack of agency and individual freedom. Many African people have gained access to these technologies but not the freedom to develop content such as web pages or social media platforms in their own way15. Digital natives have much more power16 and therefore use this to create their own space with their own norms, shaping their online world according to their own outlook. This power dynamic sees the formation of an ‘othering’ concept,17 deeming digital natives the desirable norm and non-natives as needing to be assimilated. Consequently this dynamic is reflective of the types of power dynamics the African continent saw during the colonial period which does not take into consideration the cultural and spatial differences across the continent18. This ‘othering’ of individuals online based on their technological interaction creates a binary ideology of those who are not ‘native’ to the online world.


Finally, cyberspace and the Internet can be viewed as an extension of colonialism in regards to the business world. The BBC reports that as the Internet spreads across the African continent, more businesses are moving online and reaching a larger market19. Cyberspace has the ability to deconstruct the pre-existed physical borders that put constraints on businesses or governments to trade in the international market therefore providing economic benefits for countries across Africa. However, the countries of the continent that have really benefited from this movement towards cyber activities are those with stable and strong economies and telecommunication systems already in place20. New digital technologies create an environment where “missionaries declare the scriptures” 21 due to the fact that these digital technologies have been beneficial to the societies and environments they were created in and where the developers and users often assume all experiences will then be the same. Simply because digital technologies have revolutionised the business world of the West by providing platforms for smaller business, encouraging e-commerce, and digital banking, does not mean that this is the same for countries across Africa.


The role of digital technologies across the African continent have minced and furthered patterns that were prevalent during the colonial period. Digital technologies across the African continent have produced an environment where colonialism is able to occur simply on a new platform and in a new manner. While the African continent are not merely passive bystanders in this situation, the issue does not entirely lie with them. Rather it is the mindset of Western states and companies regarding African countries that has furthered this problematic situation. Until the digital divide is breached allowing the African continent to develop their own responses to digital technologies and operate in cyberspace on their own terms, these patterns reflecting colonial prejudice and technological bias may prevail.