Sunday August 10 2014

Hoe the Internet and photos are our future

By Timothy Kalyegira

Earlier this year, the US Internet social network company Facebook bought a new Internet social network company called WhatsApp for $19 billion. The technology giant Microsoft had previously bought a photo-sharing website called Instagram for just over $2 billion.

In the home of the US technology industry Silicon Valley and on Wall Street in the heart of New York’s financial district, jaws dropped. This seemed like an exorbitant amount of money to spend on a new company. Was this money well spent or wasted?

In my opinion it might have been a slightly over-valued purchase, but it was the only sensible thing Facebook could have done. It was an important strategic purchase by Facebook because of the direction consumer trends are taking.

We are now in the 20th year since the Internet first went mainstream in the United States. One year later, in 1995, both the Internet and the mobile phone first arrived in Uganda. The Internet is increasingly penetrating every area of contemporary global urban life. Last week, I got amused when I overheard a young man in conversation with a cobbler in Makindye discussing a friend who has “got lost”.

The young man told the cobbler that their friend must be around but busy because, the young man told the cobbler as the cobbler mended some shoes, “I saw a recent update from him on Facebook.” The fact that in a semi-slum area of Makindye, reference is made to someone’s whereabouts as indicated by Facebook and the fact that the cobbler did not ask in Luganda “What is Facebook?”, shows how far we have come in twenty astonishing years of global communications.

Back to Facebook’s purchase of WhatsApp. According to Internet research, as we settle into a life with the Internet as much a part of our reality as electricity or radio, apparently photographs are fast becoming the most popular forms of expression, transmission and sharing of information on the Internet today.

As I argued several weeks ago, photographs, through Internet search engines and social media networks, are among the first means by which modern society forms an impression of a country or city.
An article in the US-based Atlantic magazine published on May 28, 2014, discussing the latest trends of Internet use around the world, stated that “photos are the future”.

The article, written by staff reporter Derek Thompson, explained that WhatsApp and similar website, Snapchat, are exploding in popularity around the world. Most surprising of all (and alarming to Facebook) is the fact that the sharing of photos on Whatsapp and Snapchat is now more than three times the number of photos shared on Facebook, which with 1.3 billion users as of August 2014, is by far the world’s most popular social media network.

In other words, Facebook saw the direction the Internet is taking and knew that if it did not rush and by WhatsApp while it still had the money, one day WtahsApp might do to Facebook what Facebook did to the first giant social media platform, a website called MySpace. The key point is that a major reason for the soaring popularity of Whatsapp is because the main activity by its 450 million users is photo-sharing.

As that Atlantic magazine article put it, “The Internet as you know is essentially a series of tubes optimized for facilitating the distribution of photos. Although Facebook’s share of that photo market isn’t growing, WhatsApp and Snapchat have exploded.” Once again, that explains why since 2001, I have been keenly taking photographs of public places, scenes, all with this in mind.

Why photographs matter
One might argue that photos are just another passing fad by users of smartphones, among many fads that the Internet has made popular in recent years. However, there is one institution that would know better than most of us the value of photos. It is an institution with a fearsome reputation around the world, regularly sending shivers down the spines of many Third World governments. This institution is called the Central Intelligence Agency or CIA, the foreign intelligence agency of the United States.

In his 1992 book Inside the CIA, Ronald Kessler examined the CIA directorate by directorate. He spoke to a former CIA officer about the National Photographic Interpretation Center, a department under the Directorate of Science and Technology, about the invaluable role of photographs.

Said the officer, Arthur Lundahl, a former Chief of the National Photographic Interpretation Center:
“A camera can take a picture of anything, and ipso facto you are involved in everything, whether it be economics or crops or biological warfare or missiles or submarines or missile testing. Anything at all that man does on the face of the earth that is exposed to the sky, you get images of that, if interpreted correctly, can tell you a tremendous amount of information.”

So, here we have Facebook buying WhatsApp for $19 billion (more than the total GDP of the Ugandan economy) and the CIA also emphasizing the vital role of photos. But I still get puzzled stares when I walk about taking photos of what appears like apparent abstractions and empty fields. In our O’Level geography, we had a topic called “photographic interpretation”.

And this is the education syllabus we claim is “irrelevant”.
That’s why I keep saying over and over again that something needs to be changed in our minds or opened in our eyes for we Ugandans and Africans to start “seeing”, to start perceiving, to start understanding the value of things that goes beyond the flashy exterior that seems to impress us, like SUV cars, flashy clothes, flashy phones and flashy homes as the sum total of our life’s achievement.

An uncle of mine, Dr Emmanuel Businge, made a striking observation while we attended a burial in Fort Portal in April. We were discussing education and he said “Europeans raise their children incisively.”
I found that insightful mainly because of how true it is. We were raised and so in turn raise our children to think mainly in terms of material things as the mark of success.

The subject of how we Africans raise our children is a whole other matter and I examine it in detail in my forthcoming book Understanding Uganda.