BusinessDay

Crypto & Money: Notes & Arguments (4)

Almost all wealthy Nigerians have assets and bank accounts abroad. So, you would be grossly mistaken to think that the recent raft of government-imposed economic and technological strictures apply to them. There is a fear, I have observed, about the freedom and empowerment new technologies bestow on average citizens. But this tyrannical streak is class-agnostic.

In one gated community I know very well in Lagos, Nigeria, residents with cars have an electronic access card that they simply swipe to go through the estate gates. Do resident pedestrians enjoy similar privileges? You wish. They have the cards too. But if you are on foot, there is almost a 100 percent certainty you are the help. It makes sense though that there should be a pedestrian gate that you similarly only required an electronic access card, doesn’t it?

In this particular example, such a simple modification is actually feasible. There are two gates for vehicles. There are two gates for pedestrians. But if everyone simply swiped a card, what would be left for the numerous “gatekeepers” acting busy at the gates do then? You may actually not need more than one person at the gates in that event.

Now you understand the fear about technology and innovation in many countries and industries, where numerous “gatekeepers” needlessly create encumbrances to justify their utility. I have another personal example, one that I use as an additional metaphor later in the article.

After high school in the northern Nigerian city of Kano in 1997, I sought admission into the University of Cape Town (UCT) in South Africa to study engineering. It was successful. Guess when I received the news?

I got the letter in the mail four years into another undergraduate engineering degree at the Ladoke Akintola University of Technology in the southwest Nigerian city of Ogbomoso. That was how long the “post office” took to deliver the good news.

It could very well be that the post actually took just weeks. But the processs of the mail going through many “gatekeepers” before getting to me was likely what caused the four-year delay. In local Nigerian cultural parlance, we tend to attribute such misfortunes to the “village people.”

In a sweet irony of fate, Prof. Mamokgethi Phakeng, who adorned me with my doctoral regalia, after a successful PhD at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, almost two decades later, would three years on, be appointed to the vice-chancellorship of the University of Cape Town.

So when today you receive important news in an instant via email, do not take it for granted. And pray you never experience how significant the opportunity cost used to be.

There is abundant literature on how some of today’s mundane technological conveniences were resisted with violence and death by metaphorical “gatekeepers” and “village people” when they first emerged.

In his 2019 book, “The Technology Trap: Capital, Labor, And Power in The Age of Automation”, author Carl Benedikt Frey narrates the ordeal of clergyman William Lee, the inventor of the labour-saving and the time-saving stocking-frame knitting machine, the operating principle of which remains in use to this day.

When Lee first sought a patent in 1589, Queen Elizabeth I refused. Why? “Thou aimest high, Master Lee,” was her response. The queen worried her subjects would become jobless and Lee ended up having to leave the country to realise his technological dream.

Technological innovations like the internet, social media, blockchain, and cryptocurrencies are levelers. They make good riddance of the “gatekeepers” and “village people”; the middlemen who feed fat on rents.

Thus, it should not be surprising at all when there is resistance to these technological innovations. It is a phenomenon as old as humanity itself.

Today, you can send electronic mails in an instant. Anyone is just a phone call away. And if there is breaking news, the Lagosians know about it at exactly the same time the New Yorker or Londoner does.

What about sending money across borders? In today’s internet age, it still takes days. And depending on the volume, it takes longer sometimes. Why? The “gatekeepers” and “village people” continue to sit pretty collecting rents at almost every stage of the global payments system.

With cryptocurrencies, you can now do cross-border payments in minutes and hours. Understandably, the “gatekeepers” and “village people” who stand to lose are doing everything in their power to maintain the archaic and inefficient status quo.

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