Winta Assefa

When the internet was taken down a couple of months ago, some people my family knew were highlighting the economic losses the country was incurring as a result. We were talking about the vague millions of dollars that vaporized instead of landing in people’s pockets. 

But what many of us didn’t want to admit was that we had withdrawal symptoms. 

I knew that since we got Wi-Fi installed in the house, I grew to depend on my internet supply more than I wanted. But I didn’t know how bad that dependency was until my supply was abruptly cut off. 

I had no black market I could buy my stuff from; no options whatsoever. 

And it wasn’t just a psychological thing either. 

Over the past few months, the internet had been the only way I and many others in Ethiopia could connect with our clients and collaborators. When that was taken away, ‘business’ had to be put on pause. 

Still, the internet is rightfully blamed for a worldwide drop in attention spans. And it’s the newest generation that’s taking the worst hit.

But it wasn’t always like this here.

Most millennials-and even Gen-zers-could recall internet-free childhoods. I’d heard people talk about their near-death experiences and the dangerous improvised games they played with their neighborhood friends. Most of my childhood memories in Saudi Arabia took place indoors. 

But for the most part, my recollections didn’t feature the internet either. 

But you can still argue that even with all the books and maps we had, we had the same depth of knowledge as any child being raised on the internet now. Whenever I had the chance to go to Jarir – my favorite local bookstore – I skipped from one book to another on a whim. With all of the options there, it was a little like surfing the internet. 

We mostly played hide-and-seek and made little dramas with our uncreatively named dolls. 

I don’t remember researching any subject deeply enough to get knowledgeable at it. 

So, while the availability of the internet widened the topics children can look into, learning about anything in-depth requires a level of restraint and dedication that most children-and even adults-lack. 

That lacking quality in itself is not something we can blame on the net alone.

Still, the internet is rightfully blamed for a worldwide drop in attention spans. And it’s the newest generation that’s taking the worst hit.

But things could be especially worse in this context. 

The difference in our case is the state the internet had reached when people were first introduced to it.  

In many countries, ‘the web’ first bit into its citizens’ consciousness with its baby teeth and slowly grew on them. They helped the first budding social media sites evolve from their infant stages to where they are now. Many of them had been abandoned along the way.

The transformation was gradual: Friendster gave way to music-filled Myspace, which in turn was superseded by Facebook. Then, the aesthetic-focused Instagram, casual Snapchat, and revolutionizing Telegram popped into the scene. Many sites had been born, overused, and discarded before they were known here.

Some places experienced varying levels of virtual invasion before the complete takeover. But here, the internet exploded on to the Ethiopian consciousness as a fully baked thing.

So, it’s not just their attention span people are numbly giving up. They had no say in the form the sites they’re logging into ended up taking. People will just have to copy the most popular layouts in use and force their stories and posts into these ‘alien’ templates.

Now, it looks like local creators are overcompensating for this strangeness by almost fetishizing certain aspects of the culture online. 

But social media’s main downfall seems to be in the fact that it’s breeding grounds for information-and misinformation. We’re getting a lot of surface-level knowledge, sinking into rabbit holes, and learning just enough to believe we’re informed, engaged global citizens when that’s not the case. 

But are we equipped with the tools we need to sieve through all manners of information from different parts of the world? 

This is not just an Ethiopian question either. 

Africa is the continent with the youngest average age in the world, and many other African countries are experiencing a similar internet-era invasion at a time when so many of their citizens are not even in high school yet. 

So, as rumors of new telecommunications companies’ arrival abound, we’re wondering what having all of those new options will be like. Citizens all over the major Ethiopian towns will have better internet coverage. Then when electricity from the Ethiopian Renaissance Dam powers new electricity grids all over the country, it’s only a matter of time before millions of citizens log online. 

Therefore, online literacy is going to be even more important looking forward. 

Young people all over the country will join online communities all over the world. The bonds that’ll connect them to their online friends will often be connections that surpass all cultural and political realities. They may feel closer to members of their online groups than they do to people with whom they share a mother tongue; this is already the case with many youths here. 

In late 2018, the French government launched a digital literacy program that would help 6.7 million citizens come online for the first time and equip them with the skills they need to navigate the wild waters of the online universe.

To help the millions here become empathetic, conscious digital citizens, training-or basic literacy programs-could be provided along with the newly provided internet services. Since so many people in the continent are so young, this form of training can be incorporated with school or university programs.

That way, fewer people would be getting lost in a ruthless, corporation-driven, lawless online universe. And more people could utilize it for improving their skills, earning their livelihoods, and engaging in enriching conversations. 

-w

By @wintaassefa1 (on Instagram, Youtube, Telegram)

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