New technologies are as much about pleasure and leisure as they are about economic development, writes Emeka Nwankwo.
Technology is often discussed, and its funding rationalised, using techno-optimistic narratives about leapfrogging and global digital workplaces. But such ideas ignore the fact that people in the West, and in Africa, adopt new technologies as much for the fun of them as they do to increase their productivity.
The history of Africa’s private capital and digital technology sectors would be incomplete without incorporating narratives about global development. Development finance was a key source of funds for the continent’s nascent tech sector, and development finance institutions were ‘cornerstone investors’ in Africa’s private equity space. The implication of the early involvement of development actors in Africa’s capital and tech sectors is the adoption by these industries of development principles. Along with the funding, the sectors adopted utilitarian, techno-optimistic views. According to the African Private Capital Association, 59 per cent of Limited Partner investors in Africa are motivated by “impact”.
Both the private capital investment and digital technology sectors in Africa have at their heart the idea that a drive for profit and purpose can kickstart social and economic development. This so-called impact investing often frames digital technology as having the capacity to solve Africa’s perennial developmental challenges. The ‘Africa Tech Rising’ narrative goes that tech users in these markets, particularly new users who are often poor, can unlock economic opportunities for themselves and their communities by using technology. In this simplistic narrative, words like ‘leapfrog’ are used to argue that Africa can become competitive in the modern era by skipping some economic stages and infrastructures and going straight to the digital future. The belief seems to be that bridging the digital divide can bring with it financial inclusion, increased incomes, and other development outcomes simply via access to mobile phones.
The assumption behind these visions is that consumers in Africa will allocate scarce resources (such as time, energy, finance) towards adopting technologies that will improve their life. The suggestion is that these people, many of whom are poor, will forgo entertainment and leisure to afford and then to use technology in economically productive ways.
However, this not the case. Users in these markets are no different from users in developed markets. They prioritise pleasure and leisure and mostly adopt technologies to extend enjoyment. This contrasts with the utilitarian techno-optimistic and development perspectives that expect the poor to prioritise productivity over leisure.
Casual or social users are the largest portion of internet users and so it is unsurprising that they place more importance in fun than productivity. Facebook has historically been one of the most visited sites in Africa, social media platforms, pornography, entertainment sites, and gambling are also some of the most frequented platforms. None of which are generally regarded as positive routes to economic development.
Pleasure and leisure, rather than development, are crucial drivers of technology adoption. They attract new users, maintain their interest, and serve as a steppingstone into the mainstream market. This is true for users and for the technology itself. Technology starts at the periphery, attracting new users that, through popularity and profitability, propel it into the mainstream. What brings people online and encourages people to adopt new technologies is pleasure rather than productive work. As Payal Arora writes in her book, The Next Billion Users: Digital Life Beyond the West, ‘Play dominates work, and leisure overtakes labour, defying the productivity goals set by the development organizations.’
This trajectory of pleasure and leisure as a shaper of tech adoption has historically driven adoption and proliferation of technologies like cameras, video cameras, and VCRs. Consumers adopted these technologies as it offered the opportunity to consume and create, to maximise their pleasure in the privacy of their own homes. This applies to modern Africa too.
Entertainment content caters to human needs which makes them attractive to users and which, in turn, shapes consumption. Understanding this complicated reality of why and how users adopt technologies and how it is used, rather than focusing on glossy impact narratives, will help create and support consumer technologies that promote richer, more fulfilling life while generating returns for stakeholders.
Photo credit: World Bank used with permission CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 DEED