Opening Comments

Akin Adesokan

On the cover of the February 4, 2012 edition of The Economist, the procapitalist weekly magazine of business and politics is the face of Mark Zuckerberg, the then 27 year-old founder of Facebook, the social network. The attractions of this young business for the journal is its decision early in February to undertake what investors call initial public offering that would put its value at close to $100 billion. For a company with a user-population of 845 millions (were it a country Facebook would be the third largest in the world after China and India) but which only technically retails adverts, the distance between service and profitability is staggering. But it is real. Tacked onto this spectacular journalistic feature is a boxed little report titled “#AfricaTweets,” detailing the spread of Twitter use on the African continent. It maps the format of this media form on the contours of longstanding geopolitical issues on the continent in the worldlier-than-thou style that is characteristic of The Economist. The premise of this second piece is unstated but it is no puzzle, either: the specter of democratizing media calculated to haunt undemocratic regimes across the continent, so soon in the wake of Arab Spring and the fall of Colonel Muamar Gaddafi.

These gestures to political economy are just another convenient opportunity to underscore the clichéd but inescapable presence of communication technologies, particularly those formatted through interface and active interaction, and which go by the handy but less-than-illuminating name of social media. Our gathering today represents an attempt to initiate a process of thinking, debating, and analyzing the complex relationships between the unprecedented changes wrought by these technologies and the recent growth of different modes of literary and media in different African countries. In the past decade, there has been a noticeable growth of literary magazines, publishing houses, book fairs, photo exhibits, and film festivals, and other cultural activities of impressive range and quality, from Lagos to Cape Town to Nairobi to Yaoundé to Luanda to Dakar. Clearly, this trend is partly a result of global technological changes, whereby means of producing and distributing works of art have become more feasible, or at least increasingly less constrained by logistical concerns that used to undermine cultural and economic enterprises in the developing world. Publishers can now print their books cheaply and professionally in India or Dubai, instead of succumbing to poor-quality local printing or being locked into the pattern of extraction whereby the Western publisher or printer would add value and cost to works for local distribution.

However, the development also raises questions so consequential to an understanding of what these new literary and media initiatives actually represent, whether located within the continent or outside of it but fully identified with it in institutional terms. Who really owns the literary magazines, small publishing houses, book fairs, and film festivals springing up in these African cities? What are the connections between these institutional forms and the legal dimensions of their content as films, books, and magazine articles? What is the status of ownership, access, and fair use when new media and practices of cultural dissemination develop from the peculiar nature of global circulation of ideas and images, which trumps most conventional ideas of intellectual property?

We have requested the presence of this remarkable group of writers, librarians, artists, scholars, bloggers, and editors to set in motion the debate which these questions may provoke. With the explosive growth of different kinds of outlets for cultural, artistic, and political expressions as a result of the formal and aesthetic possibilities of digital technology, there have arisen equally compelling questions about ownership, access, intellectual property, copyright and piracy that are ever so complex. At a time when Huffington Post, a site initially devoted to personal web-log-in (blog) has become so influential as to be transformed into a journal of opinion, in turn compelling enough to be acquired by a major newspaper corporation such as the Wall Street Journal, traditional ideas of publishing, quality control, censorship, and ownership can hardly apply any longer. We expect this exploratory seminar to focus on the relationships between digital technology, creative and scholarly works encompassing literary, sonic, and visual media, and access. While the questions I posed earlier pertain to the rhetorical dimensions of artistic and cultural productions, and are designed to enable to primary coordinators of this project conceptualize it in preliminary terms, the following questions are designed to provoke our interlocutors into thinking about the practical aspects of the relationships between the digital infrastructure and its myriad contents:

  • Does the notion of digital divide still matter when the vocal contributions to social media belie the size of broadband available in an African country? Does such a divide, if it matters, relate in any way to the standard one between inside and outside, in the orientation of artistic works?
  • How feasible are paper-formatted literary magazines in an age of pervasive digital transmission of artistic, cultural or political value?  How do we measure the success of online literary and scholarly publications?
  • What are the connections, if any, between the increasing availability of vast amount of useable information through the character of digital technology, and the tightening of laws governing the circulation of intellectual work in different formats?  What are the implications of this?
  • How do we understand blogs, Tweets, and other low-byte forms of writing in relation to long-form, highly conventionalized modes of literary/scholarly composition?

I wish to give thanks to: the Vice Provost for Faculty and Academic Affairs, Tom Gieryn for his support, Sam Obeng, director of ASP for his support, Bill Johnston, chair of the Department of Comparative Literature; Howard Sywers, Marilyn Estep, my collaborators, Marion, Maria, Marissa, and Beth, and our panelists, respondents, and graduate participants. Thank you.

This paper is circulated by the author under the terms of a Creative Commons BY-SA 3.0 license. For details, see: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en_US

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