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Can convergence serve democracy?

After attending a few sessions at the Highway Africa conference in Grahamstown last week, I struggled to find an answer to the question: How will convergence make our democracy better?

Discussion about digital media and convergence tends to focus on the medium rather than the message; on the technology of communication rather than the content. The technology itself is viewed as an agent of change, without taking into account the wider social context in which the technology operates.

I have a number of problems with this approach, which the media historian James Curran termed “technological determinism”.

Firstly, if the media have a role to play in democracy, it is primarily the content that plays that role, not the platform. According to the classic liberal view held by most journalists in this country, the media provide information that citizens need to participate in democratic processes and a platform for different views to be aired and debated; and they function as a watchdog, holding the powerful accountable. What is the use of reaching millions of people if you’re not doing that? Supplying endless access to music videos via cellphones will not aid democracy.

Secondly, as things stand, convergence is widening rather than narrowing the “digital divide”. It is, as yet, a profoundly undemocratic process, because very few have access to digital media and those who do are the information-rich who already hold power in our society. In fact, in South Africa, print media still reach far more people, not to mention radio. So convergence is benefiting the few, not the many, and empowering those who already have power.

Ah yes, I can hear you say, but the technology will soon be available to everyone. Look at cellphones: 10 years ago they were an expensive elite accessory; now there are 400-million active handsets in Africa. Who is to say that broadband internet access won’t be available in rural villages a few years from now? But that is a false analogy. People in rural villages use cellphones for personal communication, and that is a great benefit in itself. But using a cellphone to call your husband is a very far cry from using it to access information. Because the one big elephant in the room, the one which none of the panellists at Highway Africa seemed to mention, is illiteracy.

In South Africa, the adult literacy rate is 82%. I don’t know the rate in rural areas, but it is probably much lower. And on other African countries, the picture is much, much, worse: in Mozambique, for example, the adult literacy rate is 46%; in Chad, 25%; Niger, a mere 14%.

Dreams of providing news to rural peasants via cellphones or the internet will flounder on that reality. Until we deal with literacy, we are wasting our time fantasising about empowering people through convergence.

Here is another question: media companies and their advertisers have never been interested in rural peasants. That is why rural villages in the Transkei don’t have newspapers, and it is why Ukhozi FM, by far South Africa’s biggest radio station, which reaches millions of rural households, gets almost no advertising. So why would media companies suddenly become interested in rural peasants and provide them with information via their cellphones simply because they can? And why should they? The primary function of media companies is to make money for their owners, not to serve democracy.

But perhaps that is where my answer lies. There is no reason why media companies would, or should, become interested in rural peasants. And they won’t. But perhaps, in a few years’ time, they will provide them with the same content that they provide their financially rewarding urban audiences — because it will cost them nothing. Media companies will produce content, and audiences will access that content in the way most convenient to them. And a rural peasant in KwaZulu-Natal with a cellphone will have access to the same content as a company boss in Sandton. If she can read, that is.

For anyone who believes that the media should play a role in making democracy work, that is a dream worth pursuing.