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Of Fences and Gates

Coen van Wyk

Posted on April 13, 2019 06:45

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Modern life is about fences, gates and who controls them. It is also about ways to get through, over or under fences. But increasingly fences are becoming redundant as technology takes over. Do we still need them?

Our earliest African ancestors knew about fences and ways to control access. The remains of early settlements are found near openings in mountain ridges where migrating herds of antelope could be hunted with ease. Many similar sites are found in Europe. In the wild every water hole is a potential death trap for the unwary, because predators control the access.

Gatekeepers control. Rockpile.blogspot.com


The development of national boundaries is a relatively recent development. A wily bunch of rogues during the South African gold rush in the late 1800’s loosened the stone pillar that marked the border between Portuguese Mozambique, British Rhodesia and the South African Republic. Whenever police from one of the countries came looking for horse thieves they would find them camped at the other side of the border stone.

Technological fences made possible the development of administrative hierarchies and lines of command. Old bureaucrats can sit at node points of the organization table and exercise power by the ability to say ‘No’ to requests, just like ancient hunters at a crossing point.

Classic table of organisation, showing gatekeepers. J S Lewis, Wikipedia


At the border between Uganda and Kenya we saw lines of men on bicycles carrying bags of Ugandan beans to a hungry Kenyan market. But at the border post we saw none being checked or taxed by customs officers. Yet once through the circus of papers, stamps and waiting we saw them rejoin the traffic. An enterprising private sector customs arrangement enabled them to avoid the official border gate and customs dues altogether.

Neat Government structures from 1864. Wikipedia


Telephone systems reinforced the gatekeeper concept: A good secretary could field unwanted attempts to speak to her boss, and had to be appeased. So also Government gate-keepers.

But technology happened: Secretaries became redundant when people found the boss’ mobile number. Computer systems became networks where numerous interconnections enabled users to work around blockages. The power moved to the person who could say ‘yes’ faster, instead of the one saying ‘no’.


Borders vanished: I recently had people offer assistance to a problem from Russia, Argentina and Texas. Electronic trade made district borders and old-style news gatekeeping useless.

Democracy blossoms with a free flow of news and information, as the recent green demonstrations and many other copy-cat events have shown. But everywhere gatekeepers are struggling to regain control. Governments seek, and work to control what we may read on the internet. Big corporations seek to limit access to their data.

King Canute holding back the tide? Or the end of an era of freedom?

Coen van Wyk

Posted on April 13, 2019 06:45

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Source: Bizjournals

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