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Distributed Networks of Communication and Media Technology

The coincidence of Africa’s urban explosion with the so-called media technology revolution is an (if not the) essential element of what makes African cities so global, in spite of their largely informal character and seemingly chaotic qualities. African explorations and experimentations with technologies and their potential have been part of people’s efforts to make African cities livable since at least the colonial period. Cities throughout the continent are home to vast and decentralized industries dedicated to recycling, reproducing, repurposing, and reimagining found objects and technologies. Increasingly these industries turn on proliferating arrays of enterprises dedicated to the recycling, repurposing and recreating of computers and cell phones. Low-cost versions of these technologies are being massively imported as part of the burgeoning informal economy described above. How are these informally networked exchanges and industries transforming and repurposing communication and media technology, including through the creation of various kinds of apps and software? How far are they distributing these technologies and to whom? How are different people learning and using these relatively inexpensive and powerful technologies, and to what intended and incidental ends?


A closely related set of questions concerns the ways in which transformed and transforming technologies interact with distributed networks of space and people. Suddenly people at far-flung locales can communicate with each other almost instantaneously, see images of one another while they communicate, and easily send money back and forth. Sophisticated handheld recording devices open a world of possibilities for creative self-expression and representation, which can be rapidly disseminated, and further transformed, via virtual global networks of social media. How are people exploring and transforming the potential of these technologies in the reproduction and extension of social networks and the pursuit of economic opportunities? How are these technologies shaping people’s aspirations expectations? What is their potential for activism, advocacy, and community development? How might they also be drawing people away from the actual realities of their proximate environments in favor of simulated virtual environments? What is their potential, both positive and negative, for imagining, negotiating, and remaking actual and virtual urban spaces?

Actual and Virtual Urban Spaces

African cities are physical spaces as well as social and economic entities. Physically African cities are often challenging places in which to live and work due to shortfalls in  state sponsored services and infrastructure, a reality that is captured in extensive scholarship on informal settlements and urban change.  But new distributed communication and media technologies help make urban Africans less directly dependent on the state. They also offer significant opportunities for circumventing state control and giving citizens leverage in relation to state officials. One key area of enquiry for this research cluster will be the ways in which distributed communication and media technology are transforming people’s modes of envisioning and negotiating vernacular spaces beyond or beneath the official versions of their cities. These are the spaces that De Boeck calls “the Invisible/Imaginary City” and Wainaina calls “the Gaseous City.” The power of this space is that it remains invisible to uninitiated outsiders. Without knowing the invisible imaginaries and relationships that define these spaces, it is not be possible to “find” these spaces. How might technologies like GPS, Google Maps, and the like be changing the ways in which people imagine and use such spaces? How is virtual space transforming the “invisible city” and the “gaseous city”? 


Key research questions in this cluster relate to the virtual elements of these kinds of spaces. What are the implications of “the virtual” for language in African cities -- the spread of colonial languages, the revitalization of African languages, and the production of fusion languages? How might virtual-actual interfaces figure in advocacy and education? Environmental inequalities and ecological contradictions? Neighborhood organizing and urban planning interventions? How might they operate as sites of curation and counter-memory?

Performance, Music, and Media

Music and images are defining features of the actual and virtual spaces that are the focus of research cluster two, the mass “prosumption” (simultaneous production and consumption) of which is greatly facilitated by the distributed technology networks, which are the focus of research cluster one. Current transformations in music and media likewise need to be understood in relation to older processes and relationships. African urbanization has also long been a conduit for diverse music traditions and an incubator for musical innovation. How are these practices and traditions shaping, and being shaped by, current mass prosumption of music and visual media in African urban spaces?


Here we are specifically concerned with the ways in which music and visual media matter to the production of actual and virtual urban spaces. How are aesthetics, themes, and vernacular spaces of everyday urban performances taken up in cinema, television, radio, and music? How are they consumed and interpreted in distant but similar urban spaces, and how might that influence people’s experience of proximate spaces in relation to wider African scenarios? What kinds of possibilities exist for community-based curation of music and image? How might such arrangements figure in productions of social memory and counter-memory? By the similar logics, what are the possibilities of music and visual media for explorations of urban spaces and imagining their possible futures?  A closely related set of questions relates to music and visual media in the making, maintenance, and work of translocal networks. How might performance, music, and media intersect with difficult and crucially important social conversations? What kinds of connections and functions might music and image have in relation to externally initiated interventions, which may or may not be taken up by communities (e.g. to enhance urban food security, to facilitate urban planning, or to support for curation and artistic production)? Finally, what are the ways in which music and image are used and imagined in relation to advocacy, human rights, and transnational solidarity?

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