African Digerati: Ethan Zuckerman

African Digerati: Ethan Zuckerman

Ethan Zuckerman is the 5th in the African Digerati series of interviews. Honestly, I’m amazed with what Ethan has done with technology and what he continues to do – so much of which directly benefits Africans. His line-up of web projects is simply amazing. What isn’t mentioned here is that he founded Geekcorps, a non-profit technology volunteer corps, that creates real tangible technology change on the African continent. He’s also on my “required reading” list of African bloggers.

Blog and/or website:
Theere’s a few of them. My personal blog is “My Heart’s in Accra”. I’m deeply involved with BlogAfrica and Global Voices, and I’m the chairman of the non-profit that runs Worldchanging.com.

What do you do:
Heh. I take great pride in the fact that I’ve never had a job… which is to say, I try to work on projects that are so much fun to work on that they don’t feel like work. These days, I work on a wide range of projects that focus on technology in developing nations, and my compensation is sometimes monetary, sometimes less tangible. Over a dozen years ago, I would have told you I was a “software architect” – I helped build Tripod.com, one of the first webhosting sites. Nowadays, my job title at Global Voices is “co-founder and big geek”, and my responsibilities include management, fundraising and oversight of our technical architecture.

What inspires you?
I’m inspired by people who have big ideas and are able to make them real. There are far more great ideas in the world than there are people who are able to bring them to fruition. It’s not enough to have a brilliant and worldchanging insight – unless you can take steps towards making that idea real. That might mean building a company, building an NGO, or writing and advocating for your idea. I’m inspired by African software developers who want to prove the point that Africans can lead the world, not follow. The way to make this point is not to make this argument, but by proving it by doing great work.

I’m inspired by Guido Sohne’s system to tag landmarks in Ghana with barcodes that can be read by mobile phone, allowing people to associate Wikipedia articles with the real places in the world that they’re about – here’s an innovation that could be important for anywhere in the world and it’s being built in Ghana. I’m inspired by the innovators in Kenya who are making mobile phone-based payment systems possible. When I’m able to make a payment with my mobile in the States, it will be because of the lessons learned from the project in Kenya. And I’m inspired by people who use technology to include as many people as possible, like Dwayne Bailey and his Translate.org.za, which is localizing open source software into African languages so everyone can use a computer in their native language.

Who are some of your biggest influences?
My biggest professional influence is my late mentor, Dr. Dick Sabot. Dick was a brilliant economist who taught at Williams College, near my hometown, and worked with the World Bank on poverty eradication programs. Dick got tired of working solely in the realm of theory and started helping students found companies, like Tripod, where I got my start in the technology industry. Dick believed that ideas were important, but believed that trying those ideas out in the real world was how you figured out if those ideas were any good. Every time I feel like I’m spending too much time in my head, Dick reminds me to try things out and see whether what I believe is real and true.

Lately, I’ve deeply influenced by the writings of Daniel Cohen, a French economist who wrote a brilliant little book called “Globalization and its Enemies.” His argument is that people in the developing world aren’t against globalization – they’re pissed off because they can see how other people are benefitting from globalization and they’re not feeling the same benefits. I think this is especially true of people working in IT in Africa – working in IT forces you to have a very good understanding of how technology is used in the US and Europe, and forces you into an understanding of just how big the differences are between the IT environment in North American and in West Africa, for instance.

If you weren’t involved with technology, what would you do instead?
I’d probably be a musician. That was the career I was pursuing before starting to work in technology. I came to Ghana for the first time in 1993 to study music with master xylophone player Bernard Woma. And that’s when I got fascinated with questions about technology in Africa, which ended up leading my life down a very different path.

Name one book that you would label “required reading” for those in the African technology sphere:
I think everyone who works in technology should pick up Eric Raymond’s “The Cathedral and the Bazaar” – and it’s easy to pick up, since you can download the text. Raymond was one of the first people to talk about how open-source software really gets made, and about the sort of personal commitments one makes in taking on a technology project. Writing software is a responsibility – you are making a promise to everyone you ask to use your software, and they’re making a promise to support you as well, sharing bugs with you and helping make the software better. It’s a very communitarian approach to solving IT problems and one that programmers around the world need to understand better.

What emerging technologies are you most excited about?
It’s a long list. I’m very excited about mobiles and micropayment systems – I was fascinated to learn that people in Uganda are using mobiles as ATMs. Someone in Kampala buys a phone card and calls someone in the village. They read off the code from the phone card, giving the credit to the person who owns the phone in the village. Then the phone owner gives a portion of the value of the phone card – in cash – to the person the caller in Kampala specifies. So the phone can be a bank. Think about how much more efficiently this could work when there’s a widespread ability to make payments with mobiles.

One way to make mobiles more useful is to make them interfaces to the Internet for people who don’t read. Interactive voice response (IVR) systems make this possible – they allow you to create a voice interface to any system that you’d normally put a web CGI interface on. We’ve seen them used to help deliver banking and health services, but there’s no reason you can’t use them for trade, transport, and all sorts of other matchmaking services.

Obviously, wireless technology is fascinating to anyone who works in the developing world. As Wimax starts becoming a technical reality, it’s going to be very exciting to see what it means for Africa. And I’m enthusiastic to see mesh networking becoming an option for African infrastructure projects.

Finally, I think that the One Laptop Per Child project could be hugely important for Africa. The idea of millions of schoolchildren with powerful computers connected to the Internet is a really revolutionary one. I think that if OLPC succeeds, it could really change how people around the world understand Africa.

What do you see as the biggest advantage or opportunity for African technology development?
Something that’s very important in technology research is problem selection. If you choose a boring problem to solve, you get boring technologies. If you choose a fascinating problem and are able to solve it, you can start a revolution. Right now, there are much more interesting problems in African technology than there are in the developed world, in my opinion. I think that smart computer science students around the world should be looking at the developing world for challenges to address – power usage, wireless networking, non-verbal interfaces, computer-based systems for microentrepreneurship. It’s a huge advantage for African innovators to be surrounded by interesting, worthwhile problems.

What do you see as the biggest challenge for African technology development?
The shortage of skilled geeks. There just aren’t enough well-trained geeks on the continent right now. Really talented folks are incredibly overcommitted and overworked. We need thousands more Africans who’ve worked in North America and Europe to come back home and bring their skillsets with them. And we need to get better at training geeks… which requires building great IT businesses as well as training programs, because people learn how to be IT professionals from doing, not just from studying.

What are your thoughts on the impact of blogging in Africa?
Blogging is important because it lets people share their emotions and thoughts with a global audience. There’s really no part of the world that the North hears less from than Africa. When we hear about Africa, it’s usually through the filter of international news, and generally focuses on political, environmental or health tragedies. Most people in the North have little or no understanding of what everyday life is like on the continent, what African ambitions and dreams are. Blogs are already giving people a window into each others lives that they’d have difficulty finding through any other medium – we can do much, much more, especially if we can help new groups of people start to communicate using these tools.

6 thoughts on “African Digerati: Ethan Zuckerman

  1. Wonderful interview. Makes me wish I could spend just an hour with Ethan and pick his brain. Question after question after question.

    When he says, “I’m inspired by people who have big ideas and are able to make them real. There are far more great ideas in the world than there are people who are able to bring them to fruition. It’s not enough to have a brilliant and worldchanging insight – unless you can take steps towards making that idea real. That might mean building a company, building an NGO, or writing and advocating for your idea.”

    I think we in Africa need to keep doing this. The ones who have the influence and power should probably create incubators that allow those with executable ideas which are already in the process of growth to have a chance at developing these ideas.

    The continent is waking up and I think it will be beautiful to see what we will give birth to.

  2. You’re a good interviewer and this series is great. Ethan Zuckerman demurs at the suggestion that he’s an African Digerati, and his accomplishments are certainly various, but African Digerati sticks.

    My favorite part is where he says: “I think that smart computer science students around the world should be looking at the developing world for challenges to address” because it’s clear he’s speaking from the idea of: if they know what’s good for them and not so much from the perspective of what’s good for the developing world. Both are true of course.

    I would really like to hear if you have any thoughts from a professional perspective here in the US about how your interest in the “really interesting” problems from your African perspectives play in your development of solutions here. It’s about moving from the edge to the center, I guess. Well, that didn’t come out right, but in my mind you’re African Digerati in the same way Ethan Zuckerman is.

    Thanks for this great series. Thanks for your “must read” blog!

  3. Agreed John and Josh. Ethan’s thoughts on development in Africa run very much in line with mine. He’s, by far, the more experienced on the front end of this space, so I always pay attention to what he has to say and respect his point of view.

    I’m particularly in agreement with his belief that Africans are responsible for making Africa better. It’s up to those educated techies in the diaspora to apply their years of experience to solving Africa’s technological problems. Many of these technological problems, once solved, will likely solve a number of economic and social issues as well (my opinion).

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