Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Invisible Users

Invisible Users: Youth in the Internet Cafés of Urban Ghana

Jenna Burrell
Copyright Date: 2012
Published by: MIT Press
Pages: 248
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Invisible Users
    Book Description:

    The urban youth frequenting the Internet cafés of Accra, Ghana, who are decidedly not members of their country's elite, use the Internet largely as a way to orchestrate encounters across distance and amass foreign ties--activities once limited to the wealthy, university-educated classes. The Internet, accessed on second-hand computers (castoffs from the United States and Europe), has become for these youths a means of enacting a more cosmopolitan self. In Invisible Users, Jenna Burrell offers a richly observed account of how these Internet enthusiasts have adopted, and adapted to their own priorities, a technological system that was not designed with them in mind. Burrell describes the material space of the urban Internet café and the virtual space of push and pull between young Ghanaians and the foreigners they encounter online; the region's famous 419 scam strategies and the rumors of "big gains" that fuel them; the influential role of churches and theories about how the supernatural operates through the network; and development rhetoric about digital technologies and the future viability of African Internet cafés in the region. Burrell, integrating concepts from science and technology studies and African studies with empirical findings from her own field work in Ghana, captures the interpretive flexibility of technology by users in the margins but also highlights how their invisibility puts limits on their full inclusion into a global network society.

    eISBN: 978-0-262-30145-9
    Subjects: Technology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. 1 Introduction
    (pp. 1-28)

    Newlyweds Joyce, a twenty-four-year-old Ghanaian woman, and George, a fifty-one-year-old Canadian man, sat across from me at a pizza restaurant in mid-November 2004. From balcony seats, lit dimly by strings of Christmas lights, we relaxed into the interminable wait for our soggy pizzas. Below us lay the teeming streets of La Paz at dusk, a mixed middle- to low-income suburb of Accra, Ghana’s coastal capital city. Street sellers piled their sour, green oranges and lined up mobile phone accessories on tables and tarps lit by kerosene lamps. Rigged sound systems drew attention to the wares of cassette tape sellers who...

  5. 2 Youth and the Indeterminate Space of the Internet Café
    (pp. 29-54)

    This ethnography begins in earnest in this chapter with an introduction to the people and places that comprise the field. A small number of Internet cafés served as the starting point for my observations but this quickly expanded into various other sites and the broader urban environment the cafés were situated within. The regular inhabitants of these Internet cafés were for the most part male youth (ages sixteen or so to about thirty). Speaking with Internet café operators and owners, people in the neighborhood, and the families of some of these youth filled out the picture of the Internet café...

  6. 3 Ghanaians Online and the Innovation of 419 Scams
    (pp. 55-80)

    This chapter travels into online virtual spaces to consider digitally mediated encounters between Ghanaian youth and the foreigners they met there. The practice of collecting and cultivating foreign contacts (in Yahoo! chat rooms, on dating sites, and elsewhere) was the most common and characteristic use of the Internet in Accra’s Internet cafés.¹ The bond users began to develop with key chat partners or, alternately, the thrill of pursuing an ever-expanding roster of contacts compelled many youth to return again and again to these spaces. The cross-cultural nature of these online encounters offers some unique, new insights to the literature on...

  7. 4 Rumor and the Morality of the Internet
    (pp. 81-104)

    To arrive at a coherent reading of a new technological form, users may draw from different kinds of scripts. As scholars have argued, advertising —well-recognized as a kind of script—intentionally plays into this process by depicting new technologies in a way that is meant to shift public understanding toward a market-desirable, gender-normative, and otherwise reassuring or stabilizing role for the technology in the social order (Nakamura 2002; Mackay and Gillespie 1992; Lally 2002; Hubak 1996). Scholars taking a more materialist analytical stance suggest that the technological form itself (here the computer, monitor, peripherals, the operating system, and other software)...

  8. 5 Practical Metaphysics and the Efficacy of the Internet
    (pp. 105-132)

    Religious practice and belief were a frequent point of reference for Ghanaian Internet users when they spoke about their social relationships, aspirations, and their use of technologies including the Internet. The way they talked about this belief was marked by a sense of the presence of spiritual forces (good and evil) and the operation of these forces in one’s day-to-day existence. This chapter delves into the complicated and dynamic terrain of religious practice in urban Ghana. To refer to this as a matter of “religion,” however, is in certain ways misleading. Sociological approaches to the study of religion since Durkheim...

  9. 6 Linking the Internet to Development at a World Summit
    (pp. 133-158)

    In recent years, the international aid sector has seized on digital and network technologies reframing them as tools of contemporary development practice. This chapter makes a brief diversion from the main thread of this book to consider this process. In an effort to ground such consideration ethnographically, I consider one particular event—the Africa regional conference of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS)—sponsored by the United Nations, which was held from February 2 to February 4, 2005, at the Accra International Conference Centre. This event took place midway through my initial nine-month period of field-work in Accra....

  10. 7 The Import of Secondhand Computers and the Dilemma of Electronic Waste
    (pp. 159-182)

    After the World Summit on the Information Society concluded in 2005, the attention of the national government and the business community in Ghana turned to a number of relevant concerns: the overtaxed electricity infrastructure, the influx of computers and other electronics as a burden on waste-handling systems, and the financial flows necessary for the business of enabling connectivity. Each of these issues illustrates a creeping awareness of the materiality of the Internet in Ghana countering a dominant rhetoric at WSIS that celebrated the transcendence of the material that would follow from joining the “information society.” At WSIS, the instantaneous connection...

  11. 8 Becoming Visible
    (pp. 183-200)

    Ghana, a small country on the Gulf of Guinea in West Africa, is the size of the US state of Oregon. Its entire population is only double that of New York City. Yet what is unfolding there, I argue, matters to the future of the Internet. By exploring the social world of youth who inhabit Accra’s Internet cafés, on their turf and in their words, I have sought to contribute to a richer understanding of how digital technologies might be desirable and useful in the world’s peripheries. Much of the early conversation about the Internet centered on its liberatory possibilities....

  12. Notes
    (pp. 201-212)
  13. References
    (pp. 213-230)
  14. Index
    (pp. 231-236)