The fire at Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport on Wednesday recalled an event in the 1960s.
One day, owing to the hearsay that choked Dar es Salaam following the Arusha Declaration, President Julius Nyerere ordered that the Tanzanian capital be renamed “Rumourville”.
Though his tongue was in his cheek, the President was visibly angry. But that was the time that was. A mere 50 years ago, what we call “high tech” was still unheard of in Africa. Against Nairobi today, Dar was not much more impressive than Awendo.
Upon the whole, rumour travelled by word of mouth. Since then, however – as with Neil Armstrong in 1969, when the American astronaut stretched his foot to become the first human being to tread upon the moon – even we, in the Dark Continent, have made “one giant” step in technology.
Yet – as Isaac Asimov warned during World War II – when the American bio-chemist and science fiction writer coined his celebrated “Three Laws of Robotics” – every technological advance is perilously double-edged. More recently, thanks to a certain Mr Julian Assange, even the official society has become increasingly aware of it.
If, in Megatrends, the American media commentator John Naisbitt enthuses over it as “the Information Age”, others have begun to panic about the increasingly painful inroads that technology is making into what we used to think of as “privacy”.
Among other things, thanks to technology, rumour can now travel faster than light. Ever since the arrival of technological contraptions known as “social media”, terrible anti-social propaganda has become even more tachy than the tachyon, the only substance known to astrophysics that can pass light on the way.
When the airport fire seemed to increase in volume, Wajuaji immediately invaded the Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp amenities in our computers. Few of their many claims of arson were presented as opinions. No, they were all assertive – all given as the truth, the whole and nothing but the truth.
It is hard to imagine what mental pleasure or moral reward a considerably educated person hopes to derive from bombarding millions of people with highly irresponsible messages in a manner likely to excite them into panic and street lawlessness. Yet I must affirm that Facebook, Twitter and What’s App are wonderful inventions.
In principle, I never condemn any product of what Walt Disney used to call “imagineering”. Technology (making by hand) is the specific natural vocation of the human intellect; it is its way of life — so that, once an invention arrives on the threshold of history – even if it is as dangerous as the atom bomb — it just cannot be avoided.
That is why – in his “Three Laws of Robotics” – Asimov makes only one demand. It is that, exactly as human beings have always done ever since they elbowed their way into the evolutionary scene, a safety mechanism must be inserted into every tool and weapon that we make.
This was Asimov’s answer to such notorious Western anti-science prophets of doom as the Club of Rome, Barry Commoner, Paul Ehrlich, Jacques Ellul, Paul Kennedy, Lewis Mumford, Paul Paddock, Jeremy Rifkin, Jonathan Schell and – in science fiction – Clifford Simak.
The point is that – as in nature – every product has two sides, a productive as well a destructive one. The atom will prove indispensable to us when we colonise Outer Space. But, unless we manage it with care, it may condemn us to extinction before then. Management – that is what our Facebook, Twitter and other social media require.
In the 21st century, they will be indispensable. But if we do not use them with an unfailing sense of social responsibility – they will be the death of us yet as society. That is why – as Bitange Ndemo used to admonish us – if individuals will not control their own impulses, then the government must intervene to catch and punish all rumour-mongers.