What Computer Networking has to do with Boko Haram

The Islamic sect Boko Haram and their leader Abubakar Shekau are all over the news. The terrorist group from Northern Nigeria has been active at least since 2009.  Most recently the group has garnered international attention after it abducted 230 schoolgirls on April 16th.  Only 43 have escaped.  Nigerians have been very vocal, protesting their government’s lack of effectiveness in finding the schoolgirls and subduing Boko Haram.

In reading news clipping from this story, I realized that what we see happening in Nigeria is one particular example of a phenomenon that will in all likelihood be repeated globally over the next several years.  There will be more attacks from terrorist groups.  There will be more bombings.  There will be more abductions.  And it is not because of Islam.  It is because of what computer networks have done to societies in the 21st century.

The Space of Flows and The Space of Places

One of the most prominent thinkers of the Digital Age is Manuel Castells.  His seminal three volume Information Age Trilogy, packed with data and diagrams, is not for the faint of heart.  It is an Internet scholar’s version of Ulysses – displayed prominently on everyone’s shelf, but most of the pages have not seen sunlight.  Some of the ideas explored in that trilogy shed light on groups like Boko Haram.

Castells explains our modern society through who is connected to computer networks and who is not.  Castells argues that certain areas of the world – New York, Tokyo, London, Taiwan, and all their neighboring suburbs – are more connected than other areas.  More information flows through these urban agglomerations.  More businesses set up shop there.  More computing power is there.  More deliveries by UPS and FedEx (yes, that is a type of data flow!) are shipped to and from there.  In addition, a disproportionate number of knowledge workers are congregated in these areas, with their shiny new MacBooks, overpriced Beats headphones, and wealth generating bright ideas.  These areas are hotbeds of opportunity because of their connectedness to flows of information.  Castells argues that these areas and people, while having their root in the physical world, are able to transcend their geography through computer networks.  Through computer networks a new space is produced that is cosmopolitan and global.  When trying to wrap my head around this idea, I think of a rainforest, where trees may be spaced many meters apart, but their branches stretch out, connect, and form a canopy far above the forest floor.  Sociologist Elijah Anderson uses a similar metaphor in his ethnography of Philadelphia, The Cosmopolitan Canopy.  The cities and people in these information flows make up what Castells calls “the space of flows”.

But many groups are not in the “space of flows”.  They live in areas that are not connected, and they do not have easy access to the Internet.  They may be networked via their mobile phone, or have slow or sporadic access to the Internet via a cybercafe, but that is nothing like the perpetually connected Westerner or East Asian swimming in data packets.  Groups that are outside of the “space of flows” are in what Castells calls the “space of places”.

And here is where it gets interesting.  People in the “space of flows” are dominant over people in the “space of places”.  Being perpetually connected, interacting with people from all over the world, being a part of rapid technological change, gaining new wealth and adopting new consumption patterns, leads to a discarding of tradition.  The “space of flows” is a global and homogenizing space, creating a world (read: Western) culture.  Big Macs and reality shows for everyone!

But people who live their lives in the “space of places” are not under these influences, and have more regard for the way things used to be.  They see their language, their traditions, and their way of life as just fine, thank you.  Moreover, they are not benefiting from the wealth generation spurred on by computer technologies.  They resent multinational corporations striking deals with their governments to come in and sell the same products they themselves have been selling in carts and on street corners for centuries.

The material reality of poverty and the connection of this poverty to Western influences is a recipe for trouble.

Boko Haram in the Space of Places

And so this gets me to Boko Haram.  This is a group firmly ensconced in the “space of places”.  They live in the most impoverished area of a country that, while steadily improving, is still understood to be a poor, underdeveloped country.  Most of the wealth in Nigeria is concentrated in its Southern areas.  These Southern areas – more educated, more global, more likely to speak English, more likely to get educations abroad, and predominantly Christian – dominate the private sector, the media, and its universities.  They have a disproportionate influence on the country’s culture.   Thus we have the basic ingredients needed for problems to occur –  poverty and a context where this poverty, rightly or wrongly, can be blamed on Western cultural influences.

Nigeria – and especially the Northern part of that country where Boko Haram originates – is on the periphery of the digital revolution.  Information does not flow through Northern Nigeria.  Businesses do not set up shop there.  There is little computing power there.  UPS and FedEx do not make a brisk business delivering packages to that part of the world.

This poverty can easily be blamed on Western influences by anyone looking to develop a following.  Boko Haram can be loosely translated into “Western education is forbidden”.  The media may try and build a narrative painting this group as existing solely to combat Christianity.  This would be inaccurate.  In early 2012, the radio show The Global Journalist ran an episode about Boko Haram featuring journalists from Nigeria.  They reported then that more Muslims had been victimized by Boko Haram than Christians, and that the country does not see this as a conflict rooted in religious differences.

This makes sense to me.  Because the problem, as Castells points out, is a broad based rejection of an imposed Western culture – of which only one component is Christianity.  Muslims who have adopted what Boko Haram sees as Western ways are just as likely to be victimized as Christians.

“Boko Haram promotes a version of Islam which makes it “haram”, or forbidden, for Muslims to take part in any political or social activity associated with Western society.  This includes voting in elections, wearing shirts and trousers or receiving a secular education.” – BBC News Africa, May 7th, 2014

Closing the Digital Divide

Castells is world systems theorist.  He sees the world’s countries as interconnected in a system that inherently creates conflict, and by  its very design produces inequality.  Indeed, Castells coined the term “fourth world” to describe people completely excluded from the modern, computer networked world.  Having a fourth world is necessary, as the logic goes, for their to be a first world.  In order for us to be rich, others need to be poor.  In order for Americans to have cushy jobs as knowledge workers, they need to work in companies that make large profits via low wage labor in underdeveloped countries.  A rising tide lifts all boats, but some people are in yachts and others are on rafts.

There is a lot of international attention on this specific terrorist group at the moment, meaning that they will likely be pacified.  The United States has offered (minimal) help, and the Nigerian government has offered a $300,000 reward for information leading to the capture of the  group’s leader, Abubakar Shekau.  As I write this, Fox News reports (yes, I read Fox News occasionally) that the captured schoolgirls are “holed up in abandoned military bunkers deep inside a remote forest eight times larger than Yellowstone and teeming with “wicked and poisonous” snakes”.  My hope is that there is a happy ending for those schoolgirls and their worried families.

But taking a world systems approach means that by the very nature of our world economy, there will be more groups like Boko Haram.  If we are able to rescue those schoolgirls and capture Shekau we can breathe a sigh of relief knowing that so many innocent lives have been saved from unspeakable horrors.  But the problems that led to Boko Haram still remain.

So what can be done?

One way of stifling the growth of terrorist groups is to narrow the gap between rich and poor by getting as many people out of the “space of places” as we can.  For Nigeria this means building Internet infrastructure in the Northern region  – preferably using indigenous companies.  We have to close the digital divide between developed and underdeveloped, rich and poor.  This is very different than coming in and setting up factories, extracting resources, and then arguing that it helps the country because some small portion of the population is hired at low wages.  This, we know, has never worked.   The purpose of building infrastructure is to put down roots.  These roots (I’ll go back to my rainforest metaphor earlier), will allow indigenous people and businesses to contribute to the cosmopolitan canopy.  The way to ensure that we do not see another uprising of a group like Boko Haram (or Al-Qaeda for that matter)  is to get as many of their people into the “space of flows”.

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