The urban youth frequenting the Internet cafés of Accra, Ghana, who are decidedly not members of their country’s elite, use the Internet largely as a way to orchestrate encounters across distance and amass foreign ties--activities once limited to the wealthy, university-educated classes. The Internet, accessed on second-hand computers (castoffs from the United States and Europe), has become for these youths a means of enacting a more cosmopolitan self. In Invisible Users, Jenna Burrell offers a richly observed account of how these Internet enthusiasts have adopted, and adapted to their own priorities, a technological system that was not designed with them in mind.
Burrell describes the material space of the urban Internet café and the virtual space of push and pull between young Ghanaians and the foreigners they encounter online; the region’s famous 419 scam strategies and the rumors of “big gains” that fuel them; the influential role of churches and theories about how the supernatural operates through the network; and development rhetoric about digital technologies and the future viability of African Internet cafés in the region.
Burrell, integrating concepts from science and technology studies and African studies with empirical findings from her own field work in Ghana, captures the interpretive flexibility of technology by users in the margins but also highlights how their invisibility puts limits on their full inclusion into a global network society.
About the Author
Jenna Burrell is Assistant Professor in the School of Information at the University of California, Berkeley
“In this well-written and compelling book, Burrell deftly supports her conviction that future scholarship must recognize the inconsistencies inherent in the digital experiences of those who live in the margins of our global society.”—Practical Matters
“This book is a fine, Africa-based contribution to theory in technology studies as well as an empirical achievement that should be of strong interest to the cultural studies community in general. Those of us who work on Africa, youth, new communications technology, or Ghana will be far from its only readers.”—Jo Ellen Fair, African Studies Review
“In this fascinating ethnography of life in internet cafes in Ghana, Jenna Burrell shows how a blend of scammers, religion, and a grey market produce a new form of digital marginality. Exploring the 'material turn' in science and technology studies, this book makes an important contribution to media studies, development studies, and anthropology.”
—Trevor Pinch, Professor of Science and Technology Studies, Cornell University
“Jenna Burrell offers a vivid and detailed portrait of a corner of the internet few of us consider closelythe hundreds of millions of internet users in the developing world who share the online spaces we inhabit. Burrell's in-depth examination of internet culture in Ghana shatters stereotypes with nuance, encouraging us to think through complex issues like advance fee fraud, computer recycling and cross-cultural encounter from the perspective of ordinary, middle-class Africans approaching the internet with fears and hopes both similar and different to the ones we hold.”
—Ethan Zuckerman, Director, Center for Civic Media at MIT
“Too often, scholars and practitioners of information technology have used Africa as a foil for modernity and development without ever bothering to see what is happening there. This book is an extraordinary corrective. Rich with stories of Ghanaian life from the Internet Café to the Pentecostal church to the UN World Summit on Information Society, it uses this material to reformulate ideas of agency, materiality, orality and marginality. Invisible Users is a work on the global spread of information technology unlike any other, and a model for any to come.”
—Christopher M. Kelty, Associate Professor of Anthropology and Information Studies, UCLA