Nationalism in the Emergence of Internet Architectures across Anglophone Equatorial West Africa
In the past decade, internet infrastructure across the equatorial region of West Africa has grown larger, stronger, and thicker than ever before. However, this development remains unevenly distributed, both between and within nation-states. Curiously, the growth of backbone-level network infrastructure far out-paces rates of access to those very networks for people in the region. This pattern runs contrary to most of the internet’s global history, raising a question of the motivations behind architectural decisions at work here: how might cultural factors influence the design and deployment of these technological changes?
To answer this, I propose a doctoral dissertation to explain how and why nationalism in Anglophone Equatorial West Africa may affect the architectural design and decision-making processes that surround the development and deployment of technological changes to the region’s emerging internet infrastructure. Since one of the major types of actors in this context is nation-states in the region, and since a particularly problematic cultural structure for these nation-states is nationalism itself, with its complex history of colonial, post-colonial, and globalized periods, the project would consist of case studies of Nigeria, Ghana, and Liberia, to observe how nationalism as a cultural factor here may impact each nation-state’s rationales for approaching internet-building, and these approaches’ eventual architectural effects on the network infrastructure of the region.
This is an important problem to study, for several reasons. First, understanding how nationalism influences internet architecture can improve our empirical understanding of how information and communication systems are built, by adding cultural, historical, and geopolitical context to questions of technical detail. In particular, the study may provide counter-intuitive insight into the abilities of nation-states to impact an infrastructure that is so often conceived of as global, or even universal. Second, this inquiry would help us move towards a theory of how we make sense of technological challenges, one which takes stock of the cultural factors that help produce the conditions in which we face such challenges. Finally, understanding the rationale behind nation-states’ and other actors’ investments of capital, labor, and time into particular architectural approaches to internet-building may improve our understanding of how these actors also seek to manage the risk of ruptures, such as political violence, economic inequality, or epidemic disease, to social or cultural structures such as nationalist unity.
Moreover, this problem deserves investigation now, for several reasons. New and customizable methods from across disciplines and intellectual traditions allow us to collect network traffic and topological data, written sources, and multimedia sources alike; this data can then undergo interpretive as well as computational analysis, leading to rich material for theoretical investigation and close reading. In short, we are now able to observe the shape of internet infrastructure in West Africa changing almost immediately, to build detailed portraits of the region’s internet-building over much shorter periods of time than ever before, and to test our theories more efficiently as well. More saliently, both internet architecture and the processes by which it is formed have real consequences for the livelihoods and environments of millions of that infrastructure’s current and future users. As the region approaches a critical turning point in its ability to change large-scale systems design, to adopt or reject new technological models on the basis of principle or ideology, the timing of this study also becomes more critical.
The theoretical grounding for this project draws together scholarly and conceptual literature from African studies, internet studies, and critical theory. The first of these, African studies, encompasses the histories, politics, economics, and philosophical traditions of the region under examination in this project. It draws in particular on the work of regional studies scholars, and of the tradition of bio-historical critique as developed by Toyin Falola. Beyond background information on the region, this set of literature allows me to focus on how nation-states may work to apply political or economic constraints on the development of networking infrastructure, and if so, through what means. The second, internet studies, provides methodological and interpretive tools to the project’s technological analyses, drawing on lessons from communications, media, science, and technology studies, as well as analysis of applied research on information and communication technology for development. These readings also provide the vocabulary and conceptual framework for the analysis of internet architecture and its changes over time, for example, to help determine how nation-states may attempt to inspect or control the data that passes through them, and if so, through what means and to what effects. The third group of literature, critical theory, helps to define an epistemological approach to the data, and to ground the study’s ontological position on both global modernity and the development of rationality in historical-social context. It draws on lessons from the work of the Frankfurt School, post-structuralist theorists, post-colonial theorists, and the Subaltern Studies group. This literature provides the interpretive framework for close readings of public communication, for example, to determine if ideological expressions of nationalism may be reflected in the development of networking technologies, and if so, with what effect.
The study would review three case studies: Ghana, Liberia, and Nigeria. These three countries have important characteristics in common besides their geographical proximity and the prevalence of English-speaking people and literature throughout them. They also have key differences between them. The three nations share some historical narratives, such as the British colonial occupations of Ghana and Nigeria, their subsequent anti-colonial independence movements’ inflections with Marxism and Pan-Africanism, and the relationships between their early leaders. Each nation has also undergone the effects of globalization and of neoliberal policy on their respective post-colonial political-economic structures. Liberia’s historical trajectory differs from Ghana and Nigeria in that its “colonial” history occurred much later, in the mid-1800s, and that the country was founded by former slaves from the United States. However, after Liberia’s dictatorship under Charles Taylor, the civil war through 2003 that led to his resignation and trial, and the subsequent implementation of constitutional democracy and neoliberal governance under Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the country has undergone serious reconstruction of its telecommunications infrastructure. i
Nigeria provides the case study with the richest internet ecosystem, but shares qualities of a “weak state” with others in the region; nationalism here may take the form of rhetorical or ideological expression in public communications such as mass media, and in policy-making stances, but be less rigidly enforced in the face of resistance, for example, from private sector interests or foreign direct investors. Ghana may provide a case study of a more “unified” national front than does Nigeria, and nationalism here may be expressed through popular cultural forms, reflecting its “stronger” state position with respect to regulatory and political stability. Liberia contrasts with the the other case studies here not only with respect to its historical (e.g. colonial period) differences and its relatively weak economic position, but also in its relatively recent transition from a complete dictatorship to a more globally connected democratic regime; so nationalism here may also be expressed differently than through mass media or popular culture, instead finding manifestation in the directives of government- or state-controlled organizations, including internet-building institutions themselves.ii
Another methodological rationale for selecting these three countries as case studies is to contrast between their demographic and telecommunications situations. Liberia is the smallest in terms of population and size, the least wealthy, and has the lowest internet usage rates of the three countries. Ghana has one of the world’s fastest-growing economies, but its rates of internet usage are still much lower — and growing more slowly — than those of Nigeria, which also has the largest size, population, and current rates of internet usage. Further, the political structures governing networking infrastructure and telecommunications provide a good range across these three cases. Liberia maintains a state-owned monopoly provider for telecommunications, LIBTELCO, whose management reports directly to the national government. Ghana allows a handful of telecommunications providers to operate and compete in the country, but maintains strict regulatory oversight of all of these. Nigeria, which has the “thickest” existing network infrastructure and the longest history of access, also has the most liberalized, privatized, and competitive telecommunications industry of the three, with little regulatory constriction. iii
To answer the central question of nationalism’s impact on internet backbone infrastructure architecture in this region, the proposed dissertation would employ a tiered set of research methods that include historical and technological description, collection and observation of network data, and close reading of primary and secondary sources on the region, and apply these methods to each of the case studies. It would apply this methodology, which might be characterized as inter-cultural comparative network studies, to each of the case studies. However, before undertaking the case studies, the project would provide detailed background information on the region, its histories, and the technological landscape in which this study is situated.
Contextual and Background Information
The pace of internet infrastructure-building on the Bight of Benin far outstrips the rate at which people who live there gain access to the global internet. Increased communicative potential here contradicts an aggravated digital divide. For example, new submarine fiber-optic cables, capable of supporting nearly twelve terabits per second of traffic (among the highest single-line capacities globally), now undergo their late stages of construction off the coastline of the Bight. And yet personal-computer usage rates in Ghana and Nigeria stand at barely five percent per capita, among the lowest rates of any comparably situated populations globally. Similarly, rates of internet usage trail the global indicators by wide margins; the most well-connected of the case studies here, Nigeria, has only a forty percent rate of internet usage, far below the global mean. iv
Fiber-optic submarine cables (which comprise the modern internet’s “backbone”) off the coast of the Bight of Benin (Cote D’Ivoire, Togo, Ghana, Benin, Nigeria), some still-incomplete, have capacity for the traffic of data in excess of nearly any other comparable infrastructure in the world – up to 40 terabits in some cases. These cables, and the surrounding infrastructure that supports them, are being implemented now in the region but have very limited landing points in the countries along the way, as well as very few connections to internet exchange points in the region.v The process of laying these cables and their connections and terminations is a good example of the pattern of internet-making in Anglophone Equatorial West Africa — but to what extent does nationalism, as expressed in practices of policy-making, economic resource allocation, planning, and negotiation, affect the technical design of these systems?
The ownership of backbone infrastructure across West Africa tangles together the region’s nation-states, the nationalized corporations of those states, European entities such as French and British telecommunications corporations, multi-national corporations without direct ties to particular nations or states, foreign direct investments, and private entities with less clear hierarchies of control.vi A puzzle for this project, then, is to determine the interests of each of these stakeholders, and the motives behind these interests. To what extent does nationalist interest drive their decisions, for example, to focus heavily on investment in infrastructure as distinct from investment in access for residents of the region? Put another way, to what extent does nationalist interest, if channeled through these stakeholders, govern the architectural decisions of internet-building in the region?
The internet exchange points (IXPs) of the region, where operators connect their networks together, for example, through peering agreements, have each shifted ownership and control several times over the past ten years. Throughout this flux, though, the internal dynamics and relationships of these exchange points form some of the human as well as technological conditions of of internetworking in the region. At these sites, networks may peer (connect, internetwork) or deliberately avoid one another. Service providers in the region may decide to pursue relationships with international infrastructure providers, or to “trombone” their traffic back along more local (and usually much slower) pathways. Individual service providers’ capacities and breadths are measured at these sites. The stakes of connections or divisions between their networks are set and negotiated at conferences and meetings related to the organizations who control both these physical sites and the information surrounding them, such as global network infrastructure controls.vii Examining changes to the roles and structures of IXPs in the region over time provides insight into how network topology, from peering to traffic shaping, moves from design to implementation — and raises the question of how nationalism may impact the human, economic, or technological implementation of specific architectural designs, for example, by constraining or enabling individuals from engineers to policy-makers in their efforts to connect or divide networks.
While development continues apace to increase the capacity of network-level infrastructure in the region, rates of access to the global internet from here still lag far behind global averages and trends. Similarly, the development of the prerequisite supporting technology for access to the network and its backbones appears to lag behind the development of information and communications infrastructure throughout the region. For instance, electrical power is neither evenly distributed nor reliably available to much existing local equipment across the region, including local access points, switches, routers, and computers. The “penetration” rates of mobile phone usage may have also been overstated by prior research and commentary in this regard, since access to the mobile internet requires not only a connection to the data (usually via satellite network coverage) but also the ability to power the devices making use of it (or their batteries). Yet within this region we see stark differences in access levels and historical trends of access across the case study nation-states.viii This raises the question of how nation-states determine their developmental priorities, and what role nationalism may play in promoting or devaluing local access to the networks as one such priority.
These examples, taken together, demonstrate the puzzle of how nationalism, as a cultural factor, may affect the architectural design and deployment of internetworking technologies. This is puzzling in part because the internet here is being built differently than in most of its history, i.e. from the network backbone down to local loops instead of in the opposite pattern. It is puzzling because the role of nation-states appears to be motivated by national interest but conflicts with a wide variety of other actors’ interests. And it is puzzling because infrastructure-building appears to conflict with the provisioning of access to that same infrastructure, but the reasons for this are unclear.
Local end users’ abilities to access internet infrastructure remain limited.ix Beyond the installations of long-distance fiber optic cables and of routers in regional or national internet exchange points,x the layers of operating networks, locally available bandwidth, internet service providers, data centers, and access to personal computers remain underdeveloped in the region.xi This disjuncture between cutting-edge infrastructure and minimal access is highly unusual compared to most internet history, since most of the global internet was constructed in the opposite pattern.xii The “traditional” architecture began with networks of computers, to which were added interconnections between those local networks, which were extended to regional networks, with minimal long-distance connections early on. These were gradually upgraded to meet the demands of traffic.xiii The current situation in Anglophone Equatorial West Africa, then, sees end-user access levels lag behind the capacity of the network infrastructure closest to them, rather than networks that strain and are upgraded to facilitate the demands of increased traffic. This study would observe the changes in these patterns of infrastructure and access, in order to grasp the scope of the problem at hand, and to gather evidence for an explanation of how cultural factors such as nationalism may be impacting the priorities of network builders.
Similarly, the proposed dissertation would restrict its scope to the geographical and political region of Anglophone Western Equatorial Africa. Because of their intersecting, often paralleling historical and political narratives,xiv the cases proposed for study here also provide ideal conditions to compare political, technological, and aesthetic shifts in tandem. In each, contemporary relations of power, manifested as governmental and institutional patterns, include histories of indigenous, contact, colonial, post-colonial, and globalized influences. Similarly, cultural histories in each incorporate trans-national, ethnic, linguistic, and religious elements, while communities in each may be comprised from practical organizations such as agricultural, oil or textile firms on land held by remote owners, localities such as villages, institutions such as universities or local schools, formal markets comprised of privately-, publicly-, or state-owned businesses, informal markets comprised of both informal firms and local merchants, or the aforementioned ethnic and religious groups – none of which are mutually, intrinsically, exclusive from the others.xv This complex collection of structures has tested political-economic theories of global neoliberal capitalism as well as those of state-centered, anti-colonially-rooted socialism.xvi Finally, the institutions of governance and practices of governmentality in the region include both international bodies and local arrangements alongside the states’ apparatuses. To this end, the proposed dissertation will examine in detail the attempts to govern network “borders” as practiced by Ghana, Liberia, and Nigeria.
Internet-specific governance in the region is fractured. In part, the deployment and oversight of internet infrastructure, and of the industrial-scale technologies that power it, has been facilitated by national governmental bodies from each of the three case study nations, international bodies such as the non-profit Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, the International Telecommunications Union, broad coalitions of corporations, non-governmental organizations, and research institutions.xvii Yet, few of the nominal participants in these processes – particularly the processes affecting services for local areas, individuals, and consumers – have been able or willing to maintain their involvement in longer terms.xviii This has led to a lack of representation in internet governance for key constituents of the regulatory bodies, as well as a lack of consumer-facing services that require effective governance, such as content delivery over unthrottled, thick last-mile networks like those built by internet service providers in Europe and the United States. However, it should be noted that more regionally-specific groups have been striving to fill this gap for a decade, including the African Network Information Center (AFRINIC) and the African Network Operator’s Group (AFNOG). These groups have been increasingly well-represented of late at international industry meetings, such as the ITU’s World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) in December 2012, at which Committee 5, led by Ghana, held sway over many of the proceedings to review the internet’s role in the international telecommunications regulations.xix The specific impact of existing and still-incomplete infrastructure, on the deployment of smaller-scaled technological points of access to that infrastructure, forms an important explanatory factor on the recursive role of technological presences in shaping further cultural norms on how to proceed with technological development.
The proposed dissertation would also, to that end, discuss in detail what these patterns of internet access and use can tell us about the social structures in the region.xx Regarding the cultural conditions in which new technical developments are deployed, the ways that informational and communicative technologies have historically affected this region will also require explication.xxi Assumptions about the liberatory communicative potential unleashed by technology in the region’s cultures may be challenged by the statistics that show how most internet users in the region* connect through a mobile device, at internet cafés, or through institutionally located computers such as those at government, military, and university facilities, but rarely in households or homes. The study’s design addresses this by balancing such statistical data with the analysis of the discursive and social phenomena at work in the shaping of political valences for the deployment of technologies.xxii The study may find that the cultural conditions undergirding technological architectural work are shaped by the semi-public, less privately insulated, patterns of internet access in the region. This may conflict with assumptions that internet-enabled communications and expressions provide a buffer between producers and consumers of internet connectivity. Finally, the flow of information and communication within and across existing national boundaries will require detailed explication. Its complexity here includes technological questions of sovereignty and security, and cultural questions of interchange across or division within those boundaries.xxiii
Outline of the Review of Literature
The previous scholarship on which this study builds has three broad bases: African studies, internet studies, and critical theory. Each of these consists of contributions from several specializations of research and theory, outlined briefly in this section, which will be examined in greater detail in the dissertation’s review of literature.
African studies as collected for this study includes work in cultural history, regional studies, and area studies traditions. This includes the descriptive, encyclopedic research as undertaken by scholars such as Kwame Anthony Appiah and Henry Louis Gates, which along with the primary-source repositories such as those provided by the University of Wisconsin, the Schomberg Center, and the Library of Congress, provides the initial reference points for further investigation.xxiv xxv Canonical cultural histories of the region, such as those undertaken by John D. Fage, Basil Davidson, and many others, help form the study’s frame of reference.xxvi This field of study also makes clear certain assumptions that drive much Africanist research: national borders, for example, may be taken for cultural ones.
More critical approaches to these assumptions include research on the history of colonialism and on contemporary African society in the region, such as that of Toyin Falola and Cheik Anta Diop.xxvii Falola’s concept of bio-historical criticism takes into account the fragility of colonially and neoliberally ascribed cultural demarcations. For example, he argues that to produce contemporary knowledge from an African or Afrocentric perspective, constrained by nineteenth-century constructs of proprietary and bounded epistemology that derives from colonial nationalism, is to produce a paradox.xxviii This school of thought is challenged and complemented by that of more liberally critical historians such as Isidore Okpewho, approaching discursive practices in West Africa, particularly of literary work, as matters of incremental, evolutionary development within these same conditions, complicated but still ontologically possible.xxix These approaches provide the study with a theoretical stance grounded in epistemologically Africanist terms, and with an empirical methodological framework centered in data generated in and from the region under question.
The dissertation’s review of literature and case studies will recapitulate the region’s history in more detail, attending to such pitfalls and outlining the transitions from colonial occupation, through post-colonial independence and then neoliberal, globalized nationalisms, to the current era. The clearest open area for Africanist research and theory, however, centers on technological development. The rise of an African internet infrastructure has, so far, been addressed mostly speculatively by Africanists, especially in relation to questions of African nationalism and of Pan-Africanism.
To address his, then, requires input from another set of scholarly and conceptual literature, grouped here under the rubric of internet studies. This section of the reviewed literature provides the methodological and interpretive tools to the study’s technological analyses, drawing on lessons from communications, media, science, and technology studies, as well as reviews of the deployment of research on information and communication technology for development (ICT4D). Such work explains how the internet is constructed, and by whom. It follows the diffusion of technologies into cultural paradigms, and examines how technological impact might be measured within a specific set of people or practices. Technical literature on the components and practices that constitute the internet figure prominently here, as do abstracted theories of networks as simultaneously social and technical phenomena.
These internet studies detail the infrastructure of the internet as well as its supported layers of technology, including networks, links, data, and all the services that run on top of these. Their theoretical traditions are broadly distributed. In studies of communication and technology use, a critical turn from determinism and nominalism has taken place over the last decade. This project situates its own analysis of communication among its research subjects close to the schools of thought of adaptive structuration and constitutive communication. Wanda Orlikowski and Robert McPhee have demonstrated how groups of people can form their identities through the use of communication technologies, stressing that this kind of identity-formation relies heavily on a feedback loop between practices of communication, normative assumptions derived from those communication patterns, and social structures instituted on the basis of such assumptions, which must then be communicated explicitly, both to social newcomers and in response to intended changes to norms or structures, thereby completing the loop.xxx They are complemented by studies in the same field that show how media use is fundamentally enmeshed in social and cultural contexts. Wendy Chun and Friedrich Kittler’s works, for example, mark the fragile distinctions between public and private life, hardware and software, that we rely upon in casual conversation about digital life.xxxi The dialectical relationship that these two bodies of work reveal – between technology and subjectivity, between media and everyday life – has, however, remained quite narrow in scope, usually limited to organizational or sometimes national behaviors. Its relevance to this project, then, requires a re-framing in regional terms. Some of the most productive cultural theories surrounding and informing this project describe themselves as methodologies. However, others also help demonstrate where this study will fit into a broader survey of the field. These include Michel de Certeau’s description of “everyday life,” Henri LeFebvre’s corresponding critique of the concept, and the resulting theoretical conversation. xxxii
The major benefit of the communications and media studies approaches to the issues at stake here is their attention to the nuances of culture and behavior. Rather than measuring, predicting and controlling such behavior, other cultural theories seek to explain its roots.
A wealth of prior study on international and transnational political economies has laid paths to investigate institutions and cultural patterns that structure, and are changed by, shifts in technical and aesthetic practices. These studies include quantitative measurements and concrete challenges on the implementation and adoption of new technologies.xxxiii The field of information and communication technology for development (ICT4D) research, along with international relations and international development, brings a macro-level view of these institutions to bear on problems of broad consequence – employment, food distribution, and international politics, for example.xxxiv Their perspective on the internet’s introduction to Western Africa has largely concentrated on either the opportunities for international business and diplomacy to stake claims on and through the infrastructure at hand, or on the complex negotiations that take place at the United Nations and other governance bodies over who assumes the duty and privilege of administering, regulating, and overseeing these technologies’ practitioners. Similarly, political science and economics approaches to these topics have demonstrated the concrete challenges of the deployment of new technologies and their integration into deeply embedded local systems.xxxv These studies have tended to concentrate on hegemonic historical and political formations, such as on measurements of local and state-wide civic engagement as derived from polling numbers in elections. In so doing, such studies may elide other tensions, such as those between ethnically-based groups acting in voting blocs, and thereby skew their statistics on metrics such as engagement. So, while these studies remain invaluable to a deep understanding of political practices in the region, they must be complemented here by more directly African-centric scholarship, which may introduce more complexity to statistical models, but which also addresses these ambiguities in richer detail.
This focus on technology leads to a materially derived conception of social structures of control as they shape the conditions of possibility for further technological development. In literature from new media studies, critical thought is juxtaposed with concrete understanding of the mechanics of inter-networked cultural forces. Henry Jenkins’s seminal thesis on “convergence culture” gives a concise and convincing overview of likely outcomes for a society in which digital media proliferate.xxxvi Other proponents and detractors of the internet at large abound, such as Cory Doctorow and dana boyd, who speak from techno-libertarian points of view, or Jaron Lanier and Sherry Turkle, both staunch humanists.xxxvii However, all these writers tend towards a starkly ethnocentric perspective, rather than the comparative approach undertaken here; further, most of them tend to generalize about human-computer interactions from studies of media and their contents, rather than from attention to infrastructure or cultural context. Lisa Gitelman’s refreshing admonition to the field at large – that media are never so new as they may appear, after allxxxviii – serves as a touchstone to keep this study’s theoretical and methodological approaches clear on their purpose and goal.
In order to move from examinations of technology directly to examinations of the cultural contexts in which the concept of technology can be posited in the first instance, another set of vocabulary and tools must enter this study’s theoretical framework. The conceptual literature grouped as critical theory, then, grounds this study’s epistemological approach to its data, and its ontological position on both global modernity and the development of rationality in historical-social context, drawing especially on lessons from the work of the Frankfurt School, post-structuralist theorists, post-colonial theorists, and the Subaltern Studies group. The dissertation’s theoretical position will engage with the epistemological arguments of the Frankfurt School and of Michel Foucault, focusing on their critiques of instrumental reason, or technological rationality: the notion that rationality as such, under social and historical conditions such as industrial capital, becomes an instrument of domination, recursively constituted by the proliferation of automating technologies, rather than an individual’s capacity for logical and critical thought.xxxix
Other scholars have also argued for the relevance of Antonio Gramsci’s theories to African power struggles, though his concepts of hegemony and historical blocs have proven difficult to read into the contradictions and conflicts that have shaped West African political structures in modern history.xl Similarly, Foucault’s theories of diffuse, capillary power have been critiqued as irrelevant to non-European contexts.xli The dissertation would seek to address each of these objections to drawing on such theoretical sources by describing a logic of epistemological organization in this historical context that is neither strictly archival, nor strictly modern. The “control society” envisioned by Gilles Deleuze helps here to describe and explain how discursive and intellectual abstractions work their way into lived effects.xlii Simultaneously, accounts of globalization from writers like David Harvey, Andrew Ross, and Frederic Jameson mark out a different socio-economic terrain – the importance of labor to the construction of the conditions of possibility for technological development.xliii They demonstrate the inextricable links of the historical and practical arrangements of labor with technological development, to say nothing of the clear impact of labor arrangements on social structures of control.
Returning to theories with more concrete Africanist relevance, post-colonial studies theorists have long traced the complications of subjectivity in cultural contexts inscribed with colonial histories. These include concepts of the subaltern subject, put forward by Gayatri Spivak, Partha Chatterjee, Dipesh Chakrabarty and others in and following the Subaltern Studies group.xliv Building on their work, Radhika Gadjjala’s examination of subalternity in cyberspace strikes at concrete questions of voice and silencing that attend such struggles in online environments.xlv So too does Lisa Nakamura’s work on the visibility of race in computer-mediated communication.xlvi
At its core, the conceptual puzzle of this dissertation is to determine the impact of cultural forces on the conditions of production of rationality itself; this is why it takes this theoretical stance between critical theory and post-liberal critique. Yet, none of these sets of scholarship or theory, in themselves, address the peculiar concatenation of culture, geography, and history at work before this study. Building on these three bases, of African studies, internet studies, and critical theory, then, the dissertation would seek a balance between technical literacy, historical critiques, and theoretical argumentation.
Proposed Methods of Research
The dissertation proposed here would employ a tiered set of research methods to answer its central question, of how nationalism impacts the technical architecture of internet infrastructure in the historical context of contemporary Anglophone Equatorial West Africa. These tiers are collection, description, observation, analysis, and theorization. The design of the project builds each tier upon the preceding ones.
In anticipation of the first phase of research, the collection of data and of data sources, digital and physical information storage resources have been provisioned. The digital storage, which will be partitioned into secure and public-facing segments, will house collected network data as well as digitally formatted records, transcripts, literature, audio material, video material, primary sources, and secondary sources. It will later also provide the space for indices of this data, and, in the public-facing portion, presentation of the indexed, organized results of the research. The physical storage space will contain documents, photographs, and backup storage for the digital repositories, including books, printed records, audio and video tapes and disks, and physical primary and secondary sources. Additional computing resources for network data collection using open-source software and public-domain algorithms will also be provisioned, and some required software and dependencies will be installed on those resources.
The software-based network data collection will proceed using open-source tools for network mapping, BGP monitoring, route tracing, to undertake continual observation and recording of the network traffic in the region. For example, scheduled scans of the public internet will observe hops in the region from point to point, to outline the network topology; count public-facing web servers, and count public-facing access points to internal networks. Alongside these data, results of existing scans of the region, where possible, will be acquired for comparison. Comparing two point-in-time scans from the same tool, and saving the differences as an output file, will provide further insight. A similar process will be undertaken with visual maps of fiber optic and copper wire infrastructure in the region, as well as of wireless and satellite network coverage: comparison of map images across points in time; tagging of physical infrastructure development; overlays to political map boundaries; and indexing differential files. This data will all be saved to an encrypted database for further queries.
The collection of primary and secondary sources on internet-building in Anglophone Equatorial West Africa will mainly be undertaken through traditional library-based research. These sources will tend toward the textual, especially including conference proceedings, policy-making negotiations, technical documentation, and legal documentation. However, multimedia sources will also be included in this collection. Further, intensive queries to public, academic, and corporate datasets on the region will also be used to populate a broader database of potential leads for close reading. All of this data will be saved to an encrypted database for further queries, especially for tagging as potential material for further review.
Next, the study would undertake detailed description of the collected data, separating technical from cultural descriptions at first. Technical writing will be employed to describe the internet-building process for each component of the network infrastructure. Similar approaches, using techniques from history, sociology, and communications studies, will assist in describing the historical, cultural, and political conditions of the region and each of the case studies. Third, the study will proceed to observation of the more overarching patterns of internet-building and of internet usage in each case study. Visual and statistical recordings of the collected network data will be complemented by linguistic and natural-language patterning of nationalist interest as expressed through discursive activity and materials. Visual and geographical comparisons of the visual maps’ changes over time, will likewise complement close readings of the primary and secondary sources collected during the first phase of research. The close reading method will take each text in isolation first, providing detailed observation of its rhetorical and symbolic structures along with any argumentative or descriptive purpose it may provide. The results of these observations will be recorded in secure digital storage and indexed to their source documents or media to maintain replicable organization of the data.
These observations form the groundwork for the bulk of the proposed dissertation’s writing, which takes two phases. From the perspectives of critical, Africanist internet studies, as informed by the review of prior literature, the case studies will undergo comparative analysis against one another, to isolate their similar and unique architectural changes over time, as well as their similar and unique cultural factors at play, with particular emphasis on expressions of nationalism and on radical changes to technical architectures. Finally, on the basis of these analyses, the project will lead to theoretical discussion of the potential causal relationships between nationalism and internet architecture, to explore the possibility of cultural factors’ forming the means by which rationales themselves can be constructed in social context — that is — of how culture may form the conditions of production of rationality. In this theorization, the methods of inquiry and explication will follow those of the scholarly and conceptual literature reviewed earlier in the dissertation, engaging with existing discourses and suggesting new approaches to these problems.
This dissertation would determine how and why nationalism in Anglophone Equatorial West Africa affects the technical architectures for that region’s emergent internet infrastructure. Cultural contexts and factors such as nationalism are likely to have affected the patterns of design and decision-making for the internet’s backbone infrastructure in and around Anglophone Equatorial West Africa. I expect to find that nationalism affects technical architecture by working to establish boundaries and constraints on the networking infrastructure currently under development, as well as control over and insight into the data that constitutes the traffic of those networks, but only does so with serious contradictions and only partial successes.
This study is likely to take about twelve to fifteen months to complete. Preliminary background work, of the collection of historical, political, economic, and network data on the region, as well as the identification of primary and secondary sources, is in progress and should be completed by early summer of 2015. Travel to the region would benefit the analysis of the networking and political-economic situations, and if funding can be secured, would be undertaken in the late summer or early fall of 2015. The bulk of the earliest, descriptive writing is on schedule for spring and summer of 2015, while the analytical and theoretical writing is scheduled for fall and winter of 2015.
Solving this puzzle can improve our empirical understanding of the effect of ideological and discursive expression through social formations on technological development in historical context. Understanding the specific role that nationalism assumes in the design and development of a regional internet architecture would allow us to better understand why backbone infrastructure development out-paces the development of means of access for end-users. It would allow us to more accurately and holistically understand whose interests are served by these patterns of development. It may provide a basis for a politics of cultural relevance in the context of technological development by empowering cultural workers to recognize how their efforts affect large technological-historical narratives. Finally, it can contribute towards a theory of how cultural factors affect the conditions of the production of rationality in the context of global modernity.
Proposed Outline of Chapters
An overview of the project and its constituent parts, methodological approaches, theoretical stances, assumptions, and hypotheses.
- Literature Review
A detailed review of the research, scholarship and writing that informs this project.
- Historical Background of Anglophone West Africa
Description of how the current technological, geopolitical, and socio-economic conditions in the region have formed, based on archival research, primary and secondary sources, and reference materials.
- Internet Infrastructure Development in Anglophone West Africa
Description of the existing processes of technological change currently underway in the region, based on observatory research, public data sets, and reference materials.
- Patterns of Nationalism in Anglophone West Africa
Observation and analysis of the expression, through socio-political institutions and discourse, of nationalism in the region, based on public data sets, and historiography.
- Architectural Patterns of Internet Infrastructure in Anglophone Equatorial West Africa
Observation and analysis of the design and decision-making at work for the internet’s infrastructure in the region, based on public data sets and internet studies methods.
- Case Studies: Ghana, Liberia, Nigeria
Analysis of each of the cases, detailed reports of the results of observatory research.
- Nationalism, Instrumental Rationality, and Anglophone West Africa
Analysis of the region’s particular ideological tensions, based on post-structural and Africanist methodologies. Analysis of theoretical approaches to these tensions, critiques of such approaches, and the stance of this project.
- Cultural Roots of Technological Rationales
Theorization of the root causes and mutual impacts of technical, political, and ideological factors of historical changes in the region, based on the analyses undertaken in the preceding chapters; theorization of the recursive relationship between technological development and culturally produced senses of rationality in historical context.
Summaries of the research completed, conclusions drawn, and questions remaining unanswered by the dissertation but available for future researchers to answer.
* See table appended to the end of this document based on existing public domain data.
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