More News From the Frontlines – Digital Dakar

Late last night I met Amadou from Senegal and we started talking. As I always do whenever I meet anyone from somewhere else, I asked him about how people use digital technology in Senegal. Like Array of Words, who recently returned from the Philipines with tales of the Manilla Street Kid Digital Gift Economy, Amadou had some illuminating stories to tell.

For example, he reported that the Internet had really hurt the Senegalese tourism industry. Because until recently, people arrived at Dakar International Airport with a vague sense of what to do next but no relationships or up to date info of any kind. Tourists had no choice but to rely on the freelance guides to show them around or to lead them to a cheap hotel, or the taxi drivers who could do the same. And these local guides had a useful and thriving business in Senegal. They supplied relationships.

But no longer. Because now – equipped with Tripadvisor and Lonely Planet chat forums running 24/7 and up the minute reports on anything and everything – people don’t need guides anymore. Now tourists know exactly what they want and how to get it. Their networked hyper-efficiency has seriously disrupted the local guide industry.

Amadou had been a guide before arriving here in Canada just a week ago. And I’m sure he was a very good one because he is a smart, fun and generous guy. And his father also worked in the tourism industry, as a respected chef, as does the rest of his family. And as my wife Annie pointed out, based on her experience having lived for many years in Costa Rica, these sorts of informal professional clans can be found throughout the oral world, which is my experience as well.

Such professional clans – like western trade unions – generally work aggressively to maintain their established economic position. Which is only natural. But the Internet has cracked that established position. Amadou’s dominant local network has been replaced by a much more powerful global network. And not surprisingly he is unhappy about this. Amadou is not a fan of the Internet.

Amadou also said that what is happening with the Internet is that tourists who have a bad experience are sharing that bad experience with the world, resulting in service providers and destinations getting bad reputations, which hurts their business. Even, according to Amadou, when it isn’t merited.

And no doubt this happens. But it’s also true that what is surely happening now is that those service providers – be they guides or hotels or restaurants or whatever – who truly do deliver poor experiences, are now being held accountable in a way they never were before. Because before the Internet, you could burn someone and move on to the next rich foreigner. But now, actions are documented and shared via global networks, and suddenly the whole world knows when someone gets burned. And this has changed very quickly. Since about 2002 according to Amadou, everything has changed in his business.

So in Senegal too the Internet is disrupting the way things used to be done, when certain liberties were perhaps assumed to be available, at least for the less scrupulous. Or the more needy. Whereas suddenly now everyone in the Senegalese tourism industry is being held to the highest standards at all times. And as aggravating as it must be to be imposed upon in this way, it’s also hard not to see that this may be for the best on some level. Not just for tourists, but arguably for Senegal and the Senegalese, for it challenges all of the service providers to push themselves to deliver honesty and quality in ways that up til now they have not always had to. And in the process to be well-rewarded financially.

And of course a great many of the service providers really do do a great job and give it their all, as no doubt Amadou did. And I don’t want to in any way stain them with this brush. In fact, I think the web can only help those who are great at what they do, because the reputation economy will work in their favour. But where formerly the old clans controlled the entry of new businesses into the market very tightly, with the web, suddenly a willing and able entrepreneur can rapidly gain a deserved reputation for excellence, and break through to a viable career, without necessarily having to placate the establishment. This too seems to me for the best.

In the end it seems that what is happening is that the workings of the local village (OS1), dominated as they have always been by family and clan relationships that sometimes promote nepotism over merit, are being challenged and rapidly superseded by the workings of the global village (OS3), where again tribal relationships and rumours rule, but where the wisdom of crowds yields information that is cracking open the restrictive hierarchies of the local village and introducing new ideas, new blood and new opportunities.

Still, Amadou’s biggest objection to the Internet was simply that it keeps people inside. “I live my life outside” he said, and he just didn’t think it was right for people to spend so much time indoors. “They become crazy” he said. “They really do.” And he’s right. We are crazy. That’s why I’m doing all this preaching about committing to the earth. Because in our literate boxes we can’t hear her cry.

But in Africa this is only a temporary situation. Soon enough everyone in Africa will have an Internet-enabled cell phone or tablet. Then the OS1 world will create the OS3 global village outside. While we in the OS2 western world will sit inside and wonder what all the ruckus is about. At least, until it knocks at our door.

To acknowledge my new friendship with Amadou I’ll be sending him a copy of the Gift Edition of my new book, You Are Your Media. Thanks Amadou! I look forward to more discussions. If you do not agree with my take on your stories you can tell me, and I will pass on your comments. Maybe you too, reader, have comments. Feel free…

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