Jim Lowenthal is wiring Timbuktu.
Lowenthal runs a small Internet company based in Morocco that has an unusual contract from the U.S. Agency for International Development. His job is to go to the most remote African countries and establish Internet nodes in their capitals so that anyone there can make a local phone call and get on the World Wide Web. He's already helped bring Mali, Madagascar, Mozambique and Guinea on-line, and he is in the process of wiring Benin, the Ivory Coast and four others, as well as helping design Internet access for Timbuktu, in Mali - the city that is a synonym for the most obscure spot on earth."Timbuktu is a small town, but in the 14th century its university was a center of learning for the Arab world, because it was a key crossroad for caravans traversing the Sahara," said Lowenthal. "It's now a town of sand and shrub but with amazing archives that are piled up and deteriorating. The Mali ministry of culture would love to share them with the world, but they never had a way. The Internet gives them the way."
Projects like Lowenthal's highlight why globalization can leave one simultaneously optimistic and pessimistic about Africa. Globalization does two things at the same time: It increases the gap, further and faster than ever before, between those partaking of the information revolution and the global economy and those who are not. So the gap between the Rift Valley and Silicon Valley is growing exponentially.
But at the same time, globalization and the information revolution offer an escalator from poverty into the global economy that also moves further and faster than ever before for countries that get the basics right. Global investors are always looking for the next great opportunity, and Africa has the potential to be that.
"What U.S. AID is trying to do," says Lowenthal, "is broadly disseminate the basic information infrastructure that will allow African countries to move from one step to the other. And the great thing about the Information Age is that you can move from zero to 60 much more quickly then in the Industrial Age, if you get the basic digital information technologies. I just came back from Guinea-Bissau. It has one of the least developed telecom systems in Africa, but two entrepreneurs there just put up a three-story building that is completely wired. They're now running a computer training center, an Internet cafe and a marketing business for next-generation information technology solutions. You should see the colorful Web page designs now coming out of Africa by their own Webmasters."
Sure, it's just one building in a big continent, but that's how it starts. Americans don't realize that when they go to the doctor and get examined and the doctor dictates his notes from the examination onto a tape, that tape often gets shipped on the Web to a housewife in Ireland who transcribes it in her spare time for a fee and then sends the transcript back on the Web. There is no reason, with some basic English education and digital infrastructure, that Africans cannot get into this area of telecomputing and data processing.
No, the Internet will not solve the problems between Hutu and Tutsi in central Africa or cure AIDS in Kenya. And yes, power in Africa still resides with those with the guns, not those with the phones. Africa's tribal and economic problems will not be solved overnight or online. But all of these problems are related to, or exacerbated by, chronic underdevelopment, and the Internet gives Africans a new tool to leapfrog back into the game.
In 1977 there was a movie, "Black and White in Color" about French and German army units that were caught in West Africa at the end of World War I, but because the local newspapers were six months old, they never got the news that the war was over, so they went on fighting while the Africans watched in amusement.
"If they made that movie today it would be about how Deutschtelekom and France Cable et Radio were competing over who will get to privatize the telephone system in Senegal by offering the most connections at the cheapest cost," argued Lowenthal. "If you don't factor the Web into your analysis of Africa, you're going to miss something. We're just two years away from large numbers of people in Africa being able to tell their own story, and that has got to impact politics there."
New York Times News Service