Signal and Noise: Media, Infrastructure, and Urban Culture in Nigeria

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Larkin, B. (2008). Signal and noise: Media, infrastructure, and urban culture in Nigeria. Durham; London: Duke University Press. 313 pages.

The rise of Nigerian media, especially the cinema, is not something that came suddenly from the sky. It was a long and winding road of the media to become something significant, not only in Nigeria but also on the African continent. However, there are only a few explanations about how the media evolution happened in this area of the world. Brian Larkin, through his book Signal and Noise: Media, Infrastructure, and Urban Culture in Nigeria (2008), explores how society reacts to the media as something sublime, and in return they are also evolving alongside with the media. Using ethnography, Larkin’s description is very detailed in portraying the media as a controversial issue at its first arrival, and how it influences the society in dealing with modernity.

Larkin arranged his book into seven chapters. At first, he discusses about the colonial’s role in introducing the media to Nigeria, then moves on to the radio, cinema, Nigerian films, and ends with the piracy issue. He explains the media evolution using an analogy where he describes the media transmission of the message as signal and the obstacles from the political, social, cultural and religious values as the noise. Media are also considered more as infrastructure or hardware, and the society’s values as the software.

With the focus on the Hausa region in the Northern Nigeria, Larkin’s analysis mostly explains how Islam influences how the people interpret the media existence within their daily life. Islam is considered as a value judgment. In addition, this value acts as ‘gatekeeper’ in selecting which part of the media is tolerable and which is not.

Media is one of the significant infrastructures that were built by the government in order to change Nigeria into a modern society. This infrastructure is a major aspect in developing the country along with the building of roads, bridges, railways, which can allow the people to travel outside their neighborhood. Larkin uses the words travelling without moving when he refers to the media as infrastructure. Rather than bring the people outside their home, media can transport them into a different experience and permit exploration of the outside world without having to go away from their village. The global world now comes to them through the media infrastructure. Larkin explores the media development starting from radio, cinema, video films to Video Compact Disc (VCD).

In its earlier era, similar with the radio, films have been enjoyed only by the upper-middle class which are often predominantly foreigners. The Nigerian lower class depends largely on radio and mobile cinema. Mobile cinema is a van equipped with a screen projector to show the movie. This vehicle drives through different rural areas each week. Another significant feature applied to the mobile cinema is the role of the narrator before or after the screening. His main function is to give explanation of the movie since the audiences are considered to have low cinema literacy. However, many cases showed audience rejection of this narrator interpretation since they lack agreement or they speak different languages.

This mobile cinema usually showed documentaries with some comedy such as Charlie Chaplin within two or three movies. Since these documentaries were influenced by political or state messages, people tended demand entertainment and comedy movies. As a result, propaganda through the mobile cinema might not always be effective in the Nigerian media context at the present.

At first, Film, along with other modern and Western technologies like the airplane, was seen as magic (majigi), scary, and unbelievable. Therefore, it cannot avoid social and cultural critics from the society. On the one hand, the traditional Muslims considered this new technology was part of the persuasion from kafir to degrade their Islamic faith and values. Parents in Hausa usually considered the cinema as something immoral or against Islam since it provides alcohols, unseparated space between men and women, and also prostitutes. On the other hand, many younger generations viewed the media as something fascinating and modern.

Before the independence, there were also efforts of colonial intervention in the media introduction to the society which involved a power relationship with the local Islamic leaders in Hausa that made the media development not seen as something neutral and linear. After the independence, the role of these local leaders were still considered as important, though not as powerful as in the past. Islamic values remained as the key factor in identifying the role of the media for Hausa society. Therefore, Hausa society is more open to Bollywood movies since its content is seen more reflective of the traditional values and share less-contradictive values with Islam compared to Hollywood films.

In the last part of his book, Larkin examines the role of piracy infrastructures in developing Nigerian films into the third largest movie producer in the world. Rather than criticize piracy as a legal issue, he claims piracy actually creates the massive level of production, distribution, and consumption of Nigerian films along with other media. Larkin points out a key finding about this phenomena when he mentioned, “Piracy means that Nigerian media production and circulation no longer depend on the intervention of the state (colonial or postcolonial) but are captured by the logic of privatization and gradually extend over differing areas of social experience” (p. 240). This interpretation of the media practices also considered to be a significant part of the media evolution in Nigeria in the recent decade.

This book reminds me about the media development in Indonesia. Both Nigeria and Indonesia share similar experiences as colonialized country where the media were first introduced as part of colonial efforts to bring modern and ‘Western’ ideas into their colony. The difference is that in Indonesia the media were used as a tool for fighting for independence. However, after the independence, the media become controlled by the government as a propaganda tool. When I was at elementary school I still experienced the mobile cinema coming to my village to show national films that promoted the development ideas from the government agents. Similar to Nigerian, people in my village were more attentive to the commercial movies rather than those “education/political” ones. Based on my opinion, Larkin’s attempts to analyze how changes in the Nigerian society influences the media infrastructure resulted in a more general application when his theory not only is applied strictly to the Nigerian context but can be adapted to other developing country like Indonesia.

In addition to Larkin’s discussion on Nigerian media development, Mark Fackler (2003) offers communitarian media theory to examine media roles in African society. He suggests Western media theories may not be adequate in explaining different historical, social and cultural context of the society and the media in Africa. He proposes the idea of communitarian media theory since communitarian practices have been explicitly applied in African society in their daily life experience (Fackler, 2003: 318).

Communitarian media theory can explain Larkin’s finding about why Nigerian films for example, gained massive celebration from and within the society and were exported to the whole African region. Fackler (2003: 321) states that communitarian theory allows the possibility to have an equal access to the media channel. In the early 1990s when the rise of popularity in video films, people in Nigeria found the momentum provided equal opportunity to be involved in Nigerian cinema both as producer and consumer. This phenomenon increases rapidly when the infrastructures of piracy contribute to the massive circulation of Nigerian films. Communitarian-based media activity explains how this circumstance happened in the region.

In my opinion, Larkin’s interpretation of Nigerian media development is missing one important point especially if he tries to explain the situation with media theory. A few years ago, Marshal McLuhan (2003) has promoted the concept of “the medium is the message” when he argued the main message from the media is not its content but its own existence within the society. Furthermore, what makes the difference is how the media evolves along with the society in a reciprocal way rather than in a linear direction. Media as infrastructure is a message in its very own right which is need to be interpreted by the society wherever they live with their own shared-culture and values. In the Hausa context, the media is a message that has to be interpreted by their Islamic values in order to maintain their relationship with the modernity and also with the globalization of information.

Despite several difficulties in reading the book without previous knowledge about African media, this book provides a deep and insightful ethnographical discussion about media evolution in Northern Nigeria along with its obstacles. By giving emphasis on considering the media as infrastructures, Larkin brings a better understanding to reading the media discourse in its historical, social and cultural context. In addition, this book is also considered a significant academic work in order to introduce the reader to media studies in Africa region.


Fackler, M. (2003). Communitarian media theory with an African Flexion. In J. Mitchell & S. Marriage (Eds.), Mediating religion: Conversation in media, religion and culture (pp. 317-327). London; New York: T&T Clark.

McLuhan, M. (2003). Understanding media: The extensions of man. Corte Madera, CA: Gingko Press.


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