BIEA Annual Lecture: Timing the State
Paper politics and the information revolution in Africa’s Silicon Savannah
For geographers, the state is often seen as only one actor of many in Africa’s information revolution. In Kenya, the state has been at the forefront of an ICT transformation roadmap that was initiated in 2015, with the goal to ‘start a journey to being automated’. The Kenyan state has promised to go paperless by digitising more than 5000 public services in order to improve service delivery efficiency and make Kenya a regional digital hub. Recent stories of Kenya fashioning itself as Africa’s ‘Silicon Savannah’ has made the timing of these state-led initiatives significant and powerful.
In this lecture, Ayona Datta takes ‘timing’ as an entry point to understand how the Kenyan state exerts temporal power through its demarcation of past, present, and future temporalities, and the ways that it loads the present with promises of the future. Temporal power of the state emerges as it orchestrates a multiplicity of actors and actions by – waiting for their turn, involving for the right duration, engaging in unfolding events, and anticipating what might occur in the near or long future. Timing the state means to understand how seemingly disconnected and asynchronous events across UN organisations, global ICT corporations, professionals, intermediaries, and a range of marginal communities produce the digitalising state in Kenya. Rather than seeing these as discrete non-state events and actors, timing enables us to see these as interconnected series of temporalities that set the tempo, speed, and duration of the digitalising state. Timing the state means to understand how the digitisation of paper and automation of governance are interactive sequences that convey temporal information about the spaces where they occur and the actors who make these happen. Taking timing as a verb that is dynamic and oriented towards anticipatory outcomes then enables us to understand the ‘why now?’ of state digitalisation initiatives and the endurance of paper politics in Africa’s information revolution.