While George Schaller was doing his pioneering study on mountain gorillas in the Belgian Congo in 1959, he and his wife Kay were living in a small cabin in the Virunga Volcanoes, largely isolated from the outside world.
Supplies and mail arrived perhaps once a week – when someone was willing to spend all day hiking up the muddy trail from the nearest road.
Fifty years later, when we were filming Dr. Schaller in the same mountains, he had a constant reminder of how less isolated he was;
"I'm surprised the trackers here can concentrate on anything with their phones ringing all the time..."
The afternoon the film crew phoned in a “lunch to go order” back to our hotel from within earshot of a troop of gorillas, Dr. Schaller finally knew that the isolated, wild gorilla home he knew as a young naturalist had changed forever...
Like much of Africa, the cell phone network in Rwanda is newer and more reliable than landline phones, and cheap phones and calling cards can be readily purchased from street vendors just about anywhere. Virunga Volcano National Park (home to the largest surviving population of mountain gorillas) has surprisingly good cellphone signal coverage. Not only can park guides and anti-poaching guards keep in touch with their headquarters, they also can keep up a constant stream of text messages with their wives and girlfriends from deep in the rainforest.
This article by the American artist An Xiao Mina suggests that the use of humorous hashtag memes in Kenya and Uganda is becoming a new form of public assembly. Rather than “take to the streets in protest”, internet using Kenyans can “rally ‘round their phones” and re-tweet trending hashtags to make the voice of the people heard(especially if that voice can be expressed in a snarky tone using 140 characters or less). Trending hashtags (like the ones Mina cites around the recent Kenyan elections) can be spotted by digital savvy observers and identified as an "aggerate voice of the people". This does give foreign journalists a window into an alternative narrative of political events, which is certainly useful. But, since only 13% of Ugandans and 28% of Kenyans presently have internet access, this use of sarcastic tweets as a form of public protest may not be THE voice of the people, but it is certainly A voice of a rapidly growing and influential minority.
I can’t help getting the impression that somehow a few taps on a smart phone to re-tweet a clever phrase somehow lacks the “spiritual density” of standing en-masse in a public square linking arms and singing “We Shall Overcome”. Sure, there have been a lot of recent examples of the power of "mobile social media" taking center stage in political events in places like Egypt where we saw evidence of what Howard Rheingold called "Smart Mobs" (in his 2002 book of the same name).
A Twitter hashtag can give one the false impression of taking action with out ever leaving the couch. And, if physical direct action were ever to be actually replaced by virtual group speech, what implications might this have for conservation? Must we resort to laying down our cell phones in the streets to stop the bulldozers?