Out of Africa: Gutenberg, birth certificates and the elusive hegemony of information technology

In Africa, the Gutenberg revolution remains unfinished. For many people, printed documents are a novel technology, yet to fully penetrate all levels of society.

The news this week that the southern African country of Malawi will requires its citizens to have birth certificates for the first time got me thinking about a complex problem in African development: â''information povertyâ'' and the way old technologies retain the power to shock, to paraphrase the title of a recent book by David Edgerton, a British historian of technology.

Edgerton argues persuasively in his 2007 book, â''The Shock of the Old,â'' that well-established technologies retain the power to â''shockâ'' in a surprisingly large number of circumstances.

In Africa, many mature technologies have not yet been mastered. Electricity is probably the best understood. The recent power shortages around Africa are illustration of that. But a 500-year old printing technology, which began to transform Europe more than 500 years ago, is only now doing the same in sub-Saharan Africa. Printed documents â'' and the personal information that drives the creation of them â'' are only now becoming mainstream in many countries in the region.

In rural Africa, birth certificates remain atypical, though partly because government officials charge too much for them. The charges are a form of extortion but also a symptom a mentality that treats printing as an exotic technology, a scarce resource, an alien instrument.

In Africa, as I once explored in a paper for the Web journal, First Monday, the whole notion of information as an instrument of power â'' as a technology in the truest sense of the word â'' is poorly developed. In short, the motivation to master printing technology -- and to value printed documents -- is lacking because of an "information poor" environment.

In African cities, many -- dare I say most -- streets have no names. Home delivery of mail is virtually non-existent. Documentation of a person's identity is often non-existent.

The costs of "information poverty" are manifold. Governments in Africa can't deliver certain services because it is often impossible to prove who received them.

In the case, of children, the failure of most families to secure birth certificates creates the potential for mayhem. Who does a child belong to? The question can be impossible to answer without printed documents.

In Chad, another African country, a French non-profit recently caused an uproar by taking 103 local children -- presumed to have no parents -- and giving them to families in France. Even when the Chadian and French governments intervened to block the flawed adoptions -- because the children actually had parents -- figuring out who the kids actually belonged to wasn't easy -- because of a lack of documentation.

Printed documents are taken for granted industrialized societies. The people in these societies invest heavily in combating the problem of "information overload." Managin vast amounts of information is among the most lucrative pursuits by contemporary innovators: witness the great commercial success of Google.

Yet in Africa, "information poverty" remains a curious scourge.

Long live the printing press!

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