Come Into My Web: Literary Postcolonialism in the Information Technology Age

by V. Carchidi

© 1997 by V.Carchidi

Paper submitted for the First Conference on Postcolonial Theory

Just as education both indoctrinates and provides opportunities, so does information technology promise a bold new future--but at what cost? Literature from Africa and the Caribbean has a rich tradition of exploring the attractions and the thorns of formal, westernized education imported to communities during colonialism and its aftermaths, from Ngugi wa Thiong'o to Tsitsi Dangarembga and Zee Edgell. Their work demonstrates an awareness of the difficulties of simply plunging forward into an embrace of "the new," an awareness that can usefully be applied to the "information revolution". Postcolonialism cannot blithely accept the Euro-American spider's invitation to walk into the World Wide Web.

To ignore or deny the new--here, information technology and the Internet--cannot assuage its complex ramifications, as Chinua Achebe has shown. Although sometimes seeming to be the best reaction to threatening developments, simple resistance to the new leads only to opposition and impasse. In Things Fall Apart, the main character Okonkwo rejects with anger and violence the changes that are sweeping through his community. Throughout the novel, Okonkwo is remarkable for the distrust he feels toward connection: his character has been formed out of a fear of seeming like his "weak" father; even though his marriage to Ekwefi is a love match, he more easily expresses anger than affection towards her; and--despite a injunction not to participate--he kills the boy Ikemefuna who has become a son to him. This refusal of kinship underlies his destructive reaction to the changes occurring around him. Okonkwo cannot entertain any possible connections between his vision of the world and that of the newcomers. His stance of pure opposition forecloses debate and when he cannot move the community into direct repudiation, Okonkwo acts on his own, and kills--both another and himself.

A postcolonial boycott of the Internet is not likely to kill the information superhighway; postcolonialists do not have to fear committing informicide, even by deciding to eschew information technology! But we might find such a hypothetical boycott a figurative form of suicide, for it does erase the possibility of association that the Internet offers its users. If all postcolonialists decided to remove our fields from the Internet, we would be renouncing an important forum, one to which more and more students turn as a first recourse. Further, such a boycott would strip its practitioners of the power of the Internet to weave links between people--scholars, communities, and other sites--far and wide. Like Okonkwo, we would be cutting ourselves off from important sources and voices. To do that is to silence ourselves, to censor ourselves, and to condone a sense of the world as hegemonically Euro-American that already prevails in much media.

Instead of silence, one might be tempted to use the Internet to deconstruct itself. Like the military and missionary colonialism which Okonkwo spurns, the information superhighway is the product of attitudes, structures, and industry based in the "west." How more ironic, then, if rather than effacing oneself, one used that product to foment a counter-revolution, to carry the voices of those countries and cultures which have not been listened to during colonialism.

Yet such appropriation requires caution, as Ngugi wa Thiong'o points out. Although nothing might seem better than to seize the tools of the oppressors, a too-eager pursuit of new languages and new technologies can result in the loss of the very culture one most wishes to preserve. To take on the new is not an innocent action; it can require the deformation of one's sense of self, and at its furthest extent can lead one to become an agent of the very systems of oppression that one first desired to dismantle.

Ngugi details the danger of "dissociation, divorce, or alienation from the immediate environment" that can result from one culture imposing itself on another in Decolonizing the Mind (17). The problems that result--in Ngugi's example, from finding one's language and culture belittled and devalued--are not limited to the worst excesses of the colonial period which he describes. Ama Ata Aidoo powerfully points out the ways cultures can sell themselves out to others' viewpoints. In Our Sister Killjoy, Sissie flares out at the "Champagne sipping/ Ministers and commissioners" who "Sign away/ Mineral and timber/ Concessions, in exchange for/ Yellow wheat which/ The people can't eat" (57). But while the politicians sell out the resources, intellectuals dispossess their culture: "They say that after all, literature, art, culture, all information, is universal. So we must hurry to lose our identity quickly in order to join the great family of man" (121). Similarly, Stuart Hall describes the "internal expropriation" (385) that Caribbeans can undergo in the face of a constantly valorized other(395). The Internet provides another forum for universalizing, for signing on to the latest fad and signing off on local cultures and identities.

The Internet imposes its own languages and codes on all who use it. The resultant hegemonic voice is one that has been developed without interest in or consultation with the many cultures of the "west," much less with their kindred across the globe: "There is fear that English is becoming the international de facto electronic lingua franca, and people who do not speak English will be at a disadvantage;" users of the Internet further the flood of "cultural inundation" (Horton 23). To endorse Internet use is to accept the need to use such computer languages, complete with their codes of "netiquette." The fly's voice is swallowed by the electronic spider.

Such endorsement may obviate the very quest itself. Looking for the latest, most up-to-date information with the best intentions may lead to a complete erasure of what one most highly values, if one looks in the wrong places: the Internet's failure to reflect full global complexity makes it a problematic site for students to gather information on postcolonial countries. We see such a quest fail, for example, for Wariuki in Ngugi's "A Wedding at the Cross." This free spirit seeks "respectability" and transforms himself into Dodge W. Livingstone, Jr. but loses the bride he hoped to marry through his metamorphosis. Netspeak is as ideologically laden as any other language but even less easy to decipher, for the culture it carries, in Ngugi's terms, is invisible off-line. The language of the Internet shapes perception. HTML, for example, requires a paragraph mark for each break; thus anyone using the system must use paragraphs in a way that conforms to "existing" practice--where? Judith Broadhurst points out that accuracy in English is necessary; "Clean, coherent copy is now considered the equivalent of being neatly dressed...watch your grammar, spelling, and punctuation" (15). Virginia Shea, while alerting her readers that "English is not the first language of many people on the Internet" (75), nonetheless recommends that those with weak writing skills take a class to improve themselves, for "you will, however, be judged by the quality of your writing" (41). Such judgments necessarily come from somewhere; and their power ought not be overlooked. Marshall Van Alstyne and Erik Brynjolfsson point out that some groups are already considering labels that would signal a user's "relevance and reputation": these markers will identify what voices to hear. Another example comes from the propensity of the Internet to use catchy abbreviations: convenience has led to the popular acceptance of "poco" for "postcolonial." It's short, it's catchy, it avoids the problem of using "pc", which can mean personal computer or political correctness. But "poco" also means "little" in Spanish. Is postcolonialism "little," insignificant, marginal? The Internet here perpetuates an imperial judgment.

One of the great strengths of postcolonial work is its grassroots component: its vibrant performance-based multiplicity of voices. Existing formats cannot capture--and the term is significant--such people-centered, fluid kinds of work. One could argue that the Internet will further such spontaneity and carry the flavor of many voices in ceremonial and authentic debate. Its bulletin boards and newsgroups allow scholars and students from locations around the world --whether affiliated or not--to participate in discussions in the field. Its performative capabilities even bring benefits to communities, as the African Virtual University shows, "developed to provide engineering education to students in more than 40 nations on the country"; the first course coming from a professor at the University of Massachusetts ( Chronicle ). Horton celebrates, "the information superhighway offers an unparalleled opportunity for individuals to meet in 'electronic town halls' and form new, spontaneous communities based on common interests. They do not need anybody's approval to do that" (13). Such benefits are undeniable. But they come at what cost?

Yes, the Internet can open debates--between those who have access to computers, to computer training, to modems, and to institutional and technological support to allow them to make contact. Even in Blacksburg, VA, in the United States, which calls itself the "first electronic village," some people put their resources elsewhere than into personal computing. Thus, an electronic "town meeting" would exclude those who have chosen--or can't afford--to buy a computer and link in. Their voices would not be heard and any decisions taken at such an abstract meeting would not provide for or protect them. The "performances" that can occur on the Internet, then, are by definition elite, not grassroots, performances. The Internet requires far more than a village green, a group of people, and some ideas. It calls for technology--ever-developing, to keep up with the constant obsolescence of last year's toys--and all the attendant public policies needed to feed a community's resources to the everhungry electronic arachnid.

Clearly, there are many places around the globe that focus on other concerns: health care, access to food and water, environmental quality. Their refusal to literally buy into the technological giants who run the computer industries will silence them, make those voices--which some of us might think powerfully important voices to hear--absent from the growing capitalist industrial juggernaut. Since postcolonialism has been a field designated as the fiefdom of marginal cultures, we need to look for ways to counteract the exclusive and techno-determinist qualities of the net.

.Even where such technology already exists, and where access is available, its resources are available only to a limited few. In Things Fall Apart , Achebe shows the outcasts of Umuofia, or those hard-done by--the parents of twins, the foster brother of Ikemefuna--being the first to take to the new values being presented as options to them. Such a carnivalesque reversal of hierarchies, although presented as difficult in the novel,, offer clear benefits. Unfortunately, the new technologies do not have this liberating and reconstructive effect on existing power structures. Yes, anyone can have access--but only with time, knowledge and money--therefore, only those already privileged as the "haves" of the modern technological globe. We are back to Ngugi's description, speaking "a language that automatically exclude[s] the participation of the peasantry and working class in the debate" (26). Those who have lacked access to capitalist and technological benefits because of stereotype and prejudice--women, people of color, the unemployed, the poor, the rural, or others--continue to be even more effectively excluded. Those stereotypes grow more persuasive as these marginal groups now increasingly lack information considered crucial to full citizenship in their world. Erik Brynjolfsson and Marshall Van Alstyne addressed the increased "stratification" that can result from Internet use in the scientific community, writing that the Internet leads scientists to communicate more with each other, and less with colleagues and students on their campuses. They see the Internet as continuing barriers: "As quickly as information technology collapses barriers based on geography, it forces us to build new ones based on interest or time. Ironically, global communication networks can leave intact or even promote partitions based on specialty, politics or perceived rank" (1479). They warn that "the unifying and integrating benefits of access technology should not be taken for granted," and urge that "At this early stage, we can and should explicitly consider what we value as we shape the nature of our networks, with no illusions that a greater sense of community will inexorably result" (1479). Just as western capitalism increasingly concentrates wealth in the hands of a few at the expense of the many, so can the Internet increasingly privilege those with access to knowledge over those without. The Internet is unequally available in the United States, used primarily by a "narrow elite" that ignores the economic and geographic impedimenta to full access for all (Connell and Franklin 616); as the technological demands constantly increase, the promise of access for all retreats further into the past.

These problems of elitism are not, of course, unique for postcolonial users of the net. But a knowledge of colonial--and neocolonial--exploitation allows us greater insight into the dangers of such depredation, and can encourage us to function as a safeguard against an unthinking info-tech imperialism.

The lure of money lies in the power it wields. Information technology also offers power: to shape what is known and to control its access. Michael Korda has said, "The person who controls the computer is thus in a singular position of power," over people as well as information (qtd in Broadhurst xix).

Certainly postcolonialism needs to be able to use the technology--but do we use it to replicate existing power structures in the western empire, or to further the alternatives that have made postcolonial communities so resilient even under military occupation--of connection and humanism, rather than isolation and technoism? How, can the Internet be made to reflect a good society, rather than one that replicates sexist, classist, and racist perspectives?

Simply being aware might be one answer; and these points might seem self-evident, something with which all Internet users are armed before entering the assimilative vortex. However, Tsitsi Dangarembga's Nervous Conditions presents a salutary warning against too nonchalant a sense of "self-warned is self-armed." In that novel, the young girl Tambu has seen her brother grow to despise home and family through his education, which has made him "superior" to those around him. When she gets the chance to go to school, she is determined to avoid that supercilious sense of betterment. Nonetheless, the novel demonstrates that her experiences change her reactions to the family compound despite her best intentions. School becomes so important it finally even weakens her connections to her best friend, Nyasha, whom Tambu neglects during an emotional crisis brought on by the cultural tensions smothering Nyasha's sense of herself. Tambu, like her brother, is altered: the new language of her education has brought with it, as Ngugi powerfully asserts will always happen, alienation from her early life. It is not enough simply to approach the Internet aware of its problematic nature and determined to avoid its dangerous vortices: the web can catch one nonetheless.

What then? The literature on education offers some suggestions for help, by recommending not a complete flylike freedom, but a commitment that balances the attraction of the west. Two young women's negotiations of the traps and opportunities of education reveal the beginnings of a path through the complexities of using the Internet without destroying the grassroots, performance-based strengths of postcolonialism that have been so effective in recasting questions uttered by Euro-American academic voices. They offer a way forward with care and constant renegotiation.

Sissie in Our Sister Killjoy is an example of the elite; well-educated and bright, she wins a scholarship to go overseas. This example of the typical brain and heart drain that Aidoo tracks in the novel: from an internalized sense early on that Europe is superior to Africa, the brightest go abroad and then never return--or do so only to perpetuate the myth of the wonders of Europe as a "been-to." Sissie feels the temptation; and justifies a trip to England. But she uses her education to give herself a critical perspective on what she sees around her, and to ask others difficult questions. Unlike the doctor who earnestly tells her he is helping their people by showing white Europeans that he can be a successful doctor, that he is "educating them to recognise our worth" (129), Sissie knows the solution is to return to Ghana, as she does at the novel's end. She escapes a love affair that threatened her sense of self, and flies from Europe's web--not into isolation, but back to the sweetness like fresh honey of her home country (133)..

Zee Edgell's Beka Lamb offers a further solution. Beka succeeds where her friend Toycie fails, because she balances her education from a catholic school with other kinds of knowledge: from her mother's love and her father's business sense, from her grandmother's politics and her great-grandmother's awareness that we are all a part of the earth. Toycie, who puts all her faith in education, is lost when it lets her down. Beka, instead, like an Anancy trickster figure, sidesteps the indoctrination and uses the school's benefits for her own ends. Rather than passively accepting its teaching, she takes its skills and weaves them with her other sources--local, indigenous, and emotive--to create her own future, an alternative to the colonial snare. Both Beka and Sissie find strength to resists the lures through their deep connections to their local communities. That local awareness does not repudiate a wider awareness, but it provides an escape from becoming cocooned, alienated, lost in the swathings of a Euro-American perspective. Similarly, postcolonialists should use the Internet--but only as one voice among many, rather than embracing the spider's silken embrace as the only hope for the future. We ought not ignore the web; It can take its place in the range of media that are a part of the postcolonial world, one mode of transmission in the range from shouting and dancing in the street through to photocopying, faxing, and beeping, from oral praise poetry to intricately woven folktale and proverb. But we need to remain constantly aware, when conforming to netiquette, that its rules are arbitrary and that we use it only to further our purposes--purposes dictated by local commitment, not by the universalizing web striving to span the globe. We must ever strive to recognize that the computer is simply an instrument, not the only one to which we must conform our ideas, but one to be put down for a better one--even a more "primitive" one such as song or telephone call or public demonstration-- as circumstances demand. Additionally, we must use the Internet to raise debates, ask questions, and interrogate the existing structures which remain patriarchal, capitalist, and western-centered. This tool, the Internet, must be used to unpick the mythic cobwebs of Western progress that have led us to an overexploited planet and a collapse of holism as we face the next millennium.

Dr. V. Carchidi,
Massey University
Palmerston North
New Zealand

WORKS CITED

Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. London: Heinemann, 1958.

Aidoo, Ama Ata. Our Sister Killjoy. London: Longmann, 1977.

Broadhurst, Judith A. The Woman's Guide to Online Services. NY: McGraw Hill, 1995.

Chronicle of Higher Education. "On Line." 17 January 1997, A-24.

Connell, Tschera Harkness and Carl Franklin. "The Internet: Educational Issues." Library Trends 42.4 (Spring 1994): 608-25.

Dangarembga, Tsitsi. Nervous Conditions. Seattle: Seal, 1989.

Edgell, Zee. Beka Lamb. Kingston: Heinemann, 1982.

Hall, Stuart. "Cultural Identity and Diaspora." Colonial Discourse and Post-Colonial Theory. Eds Patrick Williams and Laura Chrisman. NY: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1993. 392-403.

Horton, Forest Woody, Jr., ed. Towards the Global Information Superhighway: a non-technical Primer for policy makers. FID Occasional Paper 11. The Hague: Federation Internationale d'Information et de Documentation, 1995.

Ngugi wa Thiong'o. Decolonising the Mind. London: James Currey, 1992.

-----. "Wedding at the Cross." An Anthology of African and Caribbean Writing in English. Ed John J. Figueroa. London: Heinemann, 1982. 8-16.

Shea, Virginia. Netiquette. San Francisco: Albion, 1994.

Van Alstyne, Marshall and Erik Brynjolfsson. "Could the Internet Balkanize Science?" Science 274 (29 November 1996): 1479-80.

Author's e-mail: V.Carchidi@massey.ac.nz


Other Papers:

By authors' names:
Wood | Wiley | Gibbins | Guneratne | Gupta

By short titles:
Hawaiians in Cyberspace | Becoming Modern | Calligraphy and Dialogics | Virtual Spaces | Internet & English

Abstracts of other papers (by short titles):
Hawaiians in Cyberspace | Becoming Modern | Calligraphy and Dialogics | Virtual Spaces | Internet & English