BACK in the day, as they say, I was a busy and productive writer: letters to the editor and opinion pieces in the newspaper, articles in journals and chapters in books, and a couple of books of my own. It was all achieved with a typewriter (and tippex) and the post office. Then word processing arrived and disks were exchanged. Sure, it was relatively slow but publication is not generally a rapid process (nor should it be). Letters, of course, were handwritten and put in an envelop then the letterbox.
Gradually the options closed down. Email became the preferred means of communication and we were all forced by Bill Gates to abandon our preferred word processing packages for his inferior and unstable MSWord. And the Internet was the future.
I was always sceptical about this because every technical innovation is trailed by charlatans and bullshitters. When desktop publishing appeared in the 1980s, it was hailed as some sort of liberation. Of course, it wasn’t and most of what emerged looked like, and was, rubbish. Publication processes are more than technology and require professional input.
Then social media, including Twitter, became the vogue. Many people argued that reducing information and opinion to a few characters was a sure recipe for infantilising public debate. And so, as the Bible likes to put it, it came to pass. But Twitter was hailed as a progressive medium (another one). What few people realised was that apart from mindlessness it was suited to malevolence; and indeed, mindless malevolence. People have killed themselves following social media attacks. Just the collateral damage of progress, I guess. But critics of these new technological moments were derided as Luddites, a word with deprecatory impact.
Eventually I had to abandon my old, preferred ways of working. Sooner or later, you are forced to concede and eventually I came to appreciate the advantages of publishing in cyberspace. It is liberating and allows you significant freedom. There is no gatekeeper. People will read what appeals and ignore the rest. In 2016 I even invested in the website from which you are reading and it became the source of great pride with evidence that it was more widely read than imagined.
Antiquated ideology, mafia-style corruption and sheer incompetence and indifference have meant that for well over fifteen years South Africans have struggled with inadequate electricity supply. Loadshedding has become part of a way of life (and a word in the dictionary) together with the collapse of municipal infrastructure. The concept of maintenance seems to bear the stigma of political incorrectness. This has not deterred government from talking about smart cities and the Fourth Industrial Revolution. It’s the same mindset that promotes national health insurance (i.e., a national health service) while watching hospitals collapse. Modern societies require electricity or they fail. Such simple truths elude the ANC government.
Since last Christmas we have had four long periods of Internet connectivity failure. At first these seemed to coincide with Eskom or municipal power outages, but then we heard that batteries were being stolen from wireless masts. (This rang a distinct bell: we no longer have an automated driveway gate after its batteries were twice stolen.) This was not urban legend: someone was recently apprehended with R500 000 worth of purloined mast batteries. And other unexplained acts of destruction have built up a picture of sabotage as various parts of the ANC (the so-called ruling party) attempt to attack others. Yes, South Africa has a political party actively trying to bring down the government run by that same party and people it addresses as comrade. Sober political analysts now say that the province of KwaZulu-Natal is run by mafias orchestrated by chief mafioso Zuma pulling the strings from Nkandla in spite of the ill health that rules out his court appearances.
Amid this chaos what price cyber communication? Well, not much ultimately. The whole system can be brought down quite easily; a thought which is no doubt constantly occupying the minds of security experts facing up to Vladimir Putin’s imperial war. If my puny but much-prized website can be rendered dormant what about almost every aspect of modern life that is now run by databases and computer systems?
While government fails to support development with electricity, the private sector is little better. Our service provider admitted, but only once I started probing, that ‘there is a problem with a tower in your area’. Silence descended until I phoned again, which I did daily (except on weekends and public holidays when no one answered). The second time I rang the respondent denied any problem nearby. Someone is not telling the truth. The company (nameless, but the one that had a spot of bother in Nigeria) continues to send me endless advertising for products couched in terms that would appeal to a fifteen-year-old with brain cell deficiency. But consider this: an Internet service provider, a communications company nogal, has a very poor record of communication with its customers. All part of the cynical modern age, I guess: we are happy to take your money in exchange for weeks of nothing. There’s an old-fashioned word for that: fraud.
Sometimes I have a dream: I return to pen, paper, typewriter (you can still get tippex, but unfortunately only in a bottle) and the post office. Then I wake up to find most of those are history. I might live in a world of great potential, but it is one of extreme fragility. On the other hand, perhaps not. While we were experiencing an Internet blackout lasting a fortnight, we watched on television images from the bunkers under the Azovstal plant in Mariupol. KwaZulu-Natal doesn’t need Russian artillery; it creates its own chaos.