Last September, I had the privilege of speaking at the Ars Electronica Cloud Intelligence Symposium in Linz, Austria (a super beautiful city!). My topic was the diaspora and the cloud (as in our participation in the digital cloud). I published a text in the Human Nature catalog that accompanied the festival. I thought I would republish it here for a wider audience. That and because for some reason I was thinking about F.T. Marinetti today.
A MANIFESTO FOR AGES
On February 20th 1909, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti challenged Italy’s status quo by laying to white paper his generation’s blue print for an awakening. It was a stinging criticism of all that was, a violent cry for what could be but wasn’t, a generation’s trumpet call for all to shake off of a staid past and take on the responsibility of defining a new path. Italy had become too complacent with it’s rich history of accomplishments. The museums, centuries-old architecture, and dusty libraries – Marinetti was intent on destroying them all. He sent out a call for a new future defined by bold ideas, unapologetic disregard for tradition and the status quo, and a fully clenched punch into the gut of old-schoolism. F. T. Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto spawned a Futurist movement that left an indelible mark in every sector of European society from art to transportation to heavy industry. It was a campaign that defined an era. A defiant movement that crossed oceans and embedded itself all the way into mid-century America’s design culture. To Marinetti, Futurism celebrated industrialization, infrastructure, mechanization, militarism and the fiery beauty of machine-gunned speed.
Just a month after the The Futurist Manifesto was published, Theodore Roosevelt boarded a steamboat (a symbol of Marinetti’s mechanical beasts of speed) in New York for a trip across the Atlantic. He was headed to Africa for a safari. Ironically it was an expedition funded by the Smithsonian Institute and National Geographic Society—the very institutions that Marinetti vociferated against. Institutions that were the gatekeepers and archivists of human and global culture—full of “professors, archaeologists, tourist guides and antiquaries”—worshipers of cemeteries full of strangers. Marinetti believed that prolonging these very institutions wasn’t pushing humanity forward, rather, it was holding it back from an overdue, unceremonious, violent, push into the future.
Because of it’s ferocity and indignation however, it’s easy to dismiss The Futurist Manifesto as the work of a disgruntled Italian socialite; a histrionic collision of pen and paper, masterfully orchestrated by the mind of an antisocial Italian. While he was Italian by nationality, Marinetti was actually born and raised in Alexandria, Egypt. Marinetti was the most prominent Africa Diasporan of his time; Africa’s earliest social commentator. A mastermind at attracting attention; he wore the swagger and self-confidence of an accomplished gentleman, and commanded respect for fiery manifestos that defined a generation. It’s a pity that none of his manifestos openly denounced imperialistic joie de vivre and colonial umbrage in Africa.
MIGRATION AND THE MODERN AFRICAN DIASPORA
The Africa of 1909 was characterized by suffocating and imperialistic colonial rule. Only natural resources and museum keepsakes as amassed by the likes of Teddy Roosevelt, exited African shores. The movement to stop the trans-Atlantic slave trade involving millions of Africans had taken place a century earlier, in 1807. 1909 marked nearly 100 years of cultural separation between the last Africans to be exported on masse off the continent. The cultural divide widened by another 50 years, to the 1950’s and 1960’s, when colonial rule began to disintegrate, and be replaced by independent African rule. Voluntary migration patterns resumed in the subsequent decades after independence. One hundred years removed from Marinetti’s manifesto, the modern-day voluntary African Diaspora population has grown to just over 3 million [PDF] in the United states alone.
THE CONNECTED PALM
A century after Marinetti’s “indefatigable” future, as defined by violent speed; it lives on in the near-instantaneous way we communicate. It is debatable that Marinetti envisioned his “eternal, omnipresent speed” as being applied to the pace of innovation and conversely, ever-expanding modes of connectivity. Gone are the days spent anticipating the arrival of cross-country letters from loved ones. Enter; the always-on, globally-connected network where you are the mailbox and the mailman. Your mailbox is no longer relegated to the sidewalk. It has been uprooted, shrunk, and firmly planted into the palm of your hand. The mailbox is digital and mobile; the mailman relegated to schlepping credit card offers and coupons. No too long ago, it took a month for a letter that I wrote to reach my mother deep in the village of Masindi, Uganda. Today, she’s able to text me minute by minute updates from a family gathering, and I can call her while she swelters over the dinner in her wood-burning stove. We can talk at any time, and in an increasing number of ways. Today’s social construct has evolved from John Doe’s with physical addresses to walking online personas with witty Twitter handles and an insatiable thirst to broadcast wanton social commentary.
Web 2.0 is the term bestowed upon these various blogging, microblogging, social networking, and media sharing technologies defining today’s connected experience–all engineered with a heavy emphasis on interoperability. Simplified, web 2.0 is a “cloud” of multimodal, omnipresent tools that span software and devices; individuals to corporations; civil institutions to presidential elections. Your Facebook network account is connected to your Twitter micro-blog; your Twitter account also feeds content to your blog which is also populated by your photo stream. So, perhaps it’s prophetic that as I write this text, the lexicographers at the English Language Monitor chose ‘web 2.0’ to represent the millionth “neologism” to join the English language. Web 2.0 as a concept–and its encompassing technologies–while less than 10 years old, has revolutionized how the world communicates, collaborates, defines itself, and to Marinetti’s probable chagrin, archives itself. This amorphous cloud is quickly becoming the de facto storage locker of human intelligence; a virtual library of man’s greatest contribution to destructive manifestos and ideas.
Marinetti would be enraptured, not only at the pervasive speed and disruptive nature of this cloud intelligence, but also in the way the modern day African Diaspora has swiftly adopted web 2.0 as a platform to launch its own digital revolutions and manifestos. He would also be proud of platform that has democratized the seat of power; transferring the responsibility of archiving man’s achievement from the “professors and archeologists” of his time to the global populace. Every connected human being adds their contribution to this ever-expanding library.
AFRICA’S DIASPORA CONTRIBUTES TO THE CLOUD
So how are Africa’s far-flung children using the cloud as a platform for change? What role is the cloud playing in preserving Africa’s cultural connections, knowledge transfer, and community building. Is the cloud good for Africa’s development, or is it detrimental to Africa’s progress?
Much as Marinetti was passionate about the Italy’s state of development; today’s Diaspora is keenly vested in the future of their homelands. Africa’s Diaspora is discovering each other in social media networks; exchanging, sharing and broadcasting common bonds and ground-breaking ideas. They are creating virtual communities so far from home, and location is no longer as daunting a barrier to the preservation of traditional cultural ties. The village gathering is no longer summoned by the beat of a distant drum, but by the click of a mouse and pregnant mango trees no longer need to serve as shelter for the gatherers. The cloud is the new town hall, the new mango tree. The collective intelligence of Africa’s Diaspora population can, for the first time, congregate in the cloud.
For the first time, Africa is also adding its rich history and collective voice to the human archive. No longer is Africa’s rich cultural heritage, development and identity championed and hijacked by those from outside and treated as a footnote to human history. Increasingly, Africa’s dispersed Diaspora are amassing a collective intelligence of their own; earning and editing their own Wikipedia entries. Just recently, Zambian economist Dambisa Moyo added her voice to the decades-old aid to Africa debate with the release of her book, Dead Aid. Until now, the 60-year discussion on the effectiveness of providing aid to Africa has been passionately debated ad nauseam in the halls of Western academia by middle-aged, white men. Moyo’s consistently firm stance and passionate argument against government to government aid is laced with a Marinetti-esque rejection of the status quo. Her command of social media tools—Twitter, Facebook, and Youtube in particular—has spread her message to the masses. Love her or hate her, agree or disagree, Moyo’s Dead Aid is Marinetti’s “roaring motor car which seems to run on machine-gun fire,” tearing through “cemeteries of wasted effort” in the aid regime. Moyo’s main stream media savvy provides a near daily stream of recorded interviews, debates, and book reviews from around the world, accessible from anywhere at anytime—a virtual pervasive library of an African voice challenging the establishment.
A recent sample survey of the Diaspora’s use of technology conducted by my own organization, Project Diaspora revealed that Africa’s Diaspora is far flung and relying more and more on the cloud to stay connected. 82.35% of respondents said that web 2.0 tools are somewhat or very much responsible for helping them find and connect with other like-minded Diasporans. From a cultural preservation angle, 47% felt web 2.0 very much contributed to their staying integrated with their home cultures. What is surprising though is that, a 26.5% majority spent an average of 5 to 8 hours online. More than 17% of the respondents spent more than 10 hours online.
Additionally, Africa’s internet presence while nascent by Western standards, is also beginning to stay connected. 54.2 million Africans have regular access to the internet. Recent investments in expanding Africa’s access to broadband backhaul infrastructure by Google’s 03B Network, and a consortium of undersea cable initiatives on the East and Western shores of Africa will undoubtedly connect more Africans into the cloud in the next few years. A connected Africa is a working Africa; a working Africa is an Africa that’s one step closer to economic independence. Paul Kagame, president of Rwanda, recently wrote an op-ed piece on The Huffington Post in which he states,
Our economy grew by more than 11% last year, even as the world entered a recession. We have chosen high-end segments of the coffee and tea markets in which to compete, and attract the most demanding world travelers to our tourism experiences. This has enabled us to increase wages by over 20% each year over the last eight years — sustained by, among other things, investment in education, health and ICT.
There’s a cloud gathering over Africa; a storm of connected thoughts and ideas that are pushing African countries violently forward. The Diaspora is using emerging web technologies in increasing numbers, frequency, and variety to stay connect with Africa, simultaneously charting a new digital course for it’s economic independence on the world stage. The Diaspora is also taking on the mantle of issuing it’s own brand of manifesto for the future of the continent. Africa it seems, is listening. Ten decades removed from Marinetti and Roosevelt’s colonial Africa, The Futurist Manifesto lives on in the cloud; re-interpreted and broadcast to inspire anew. A media savvy Diaspora charts a new course. What will Africa’s collective contribution to the collective human intelligence look like 100 years from now? What role will history say the Diaspora played in Africa’s rise? A hundred year’s from now, will Marinetti’s Futurist celebration of “industrialization, infrastructure, mechanization, and speed” have graced the shores and boarders of African countries? Perhaps the only lens one can use to answer those questions is meditate on this African proverb that has achieved immortality based on its easily retweetable nature: The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, the next best time is now.