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Billions of Earthlings carry little bits of Africa around with them in their pockets. While rare minerals (coltan, gold, wolframite) are mined in Congo to make the tiny capacitors in cell phones, these same minerals are recuperated on toxic e-waste sites like Agbogbloshie in Ghana. African earth enables planetary scale computation and may also find its ultimate resting place in its soil.

With mining sites now serving as strategic locations in the geopolitical game, the African continent has become the locus of fierce competition between North American cloud platforms such as Facebook, Google and Uber, and Chinese hardware giants like Huawei and ZTE, for control over the rapidly growing African user base and access to resources. Although internet penetration varies significantly between regions, Facebook has signed up almost half the countries on the continent to its free ‘internet’ service in a controversial move to corner the market in one of the world’s biggest mobile data growth regions. As a result, the underprivileged find themselves in a walled garden in which they can access only a limited set of extractivist corporate websites and services. Just as Uber runs city mobility from Nairobi to Lagos, Silicon valley culture is spreading across the continent and has inspired the birth of countless start-ups, incubators, accelerators and tech districts from Nigeria’s Yabacon Valley to Google's first artificial intelligence lab in Ghana.

The GAFA stack (Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple) is openly attempting to dominate the African cloud, while Chinese tech giants are making massive investments in hardware and infrastructure. For instance, Chinese phone maker Transsion Holdings has become Africa’s top smartphone producer, selling more than 80 million phones annually. Other Chinese firms have been exporting facial recognition software to Zimbabwe with the aim of optimizing and expanding its vast database for massive-scale facial recognition to millions of Africans. In order to accommodate such fast-paced developments, special economic zones are sprawling through the continent, with several already operative on the Nigerian coastline.

African states are reacting in different ways to the shift in power from the state to the cloud, and attempt to strengthen African sovereignty in the new techno-political power dynamics. Rwanda is developing an African type smart city. Kenya is putting in place its own fintech regulations around the mPesa mobile currency, and Uganda and Tanzania are trying to enforce a profit margin on the GAFA stack through a social media tax. Simultaneously, networks of knowledge across the continent shape not only the way technologies are adopted, but also how future technologies are developed according to different African belief systems and algorithmic thinking.

A composite African technological future will grow out of the old knowledge networks that connected  cities from Timbuktu to Great Zimbabwe, from the Benin empire to the library of Alexandria as well as new networks like the SEACOM cables connecting the continent and the deep economic reach of the mPesa currency. This complex, continental-scaled mosaic of frictions and synergies raises the question: how is an African stack emerging from the continuous clashes of alien geostrategic interests, foreign cloud platforms’ ambitions and African technological developments, multifarious local cosmologies and ancient computational thinking?

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Kévin Bray
Het Nieuwe Instituut, Hivos, Stedelijk Museum
Benjamin Bratton, Arthur Steiner, Leonardo Dellanoce, Klaas Kuitenbrouwer