As someone who researches the social side of technology, I am constantly trying to find new ways to talk to technologists that technology itself does not create social change, rather it’s how technology is socially embedded in a variety of institutions and cultural contexts.
Even though I am constantly trying to avoid the ICT4D literature, I find that I am always coming back to the the field. ICT4D to me is a field that ascribes to interventionists acts where people are led by the belief that a technology system can make social change in less-evenly developed areas. I find that the field has *some* really smart thinkers but overall the people i’ve met so far have been primarily uncritical technocrats. Whether or not these are the intentions of the field, this is my impression based on my few encounters and readings.
A few years back, I went very naively to a conference at the School of Information at Berkeley. It was the first conference I ever presented at and a made a total ass of myself because I didn’t do my homework ahead of time to find out what exactly was ICT4D. I was totally new to academia and academic conference. I had just started graduate school in sociology and was wanting to drop out and when I found a conference that was willing to talk to sociologists about technologies outside of the West - I was so excited! But man was I naive about how I presented my work. I went off on how technology with development agendas were bad ideas and I did this without talking enough about the social aspects of technology use and without giving any recommendations for how to avoid a tech determinist way of thinking. I can imagine how I came off as super arrogant and uninformed. I was pretty mad myself.
So now that I’ve learned more about ICT4D and the field’s epistemological and ontological framework, I feel that I can now contribute my thoughts on this topic in a much more constructive ways. So I’m always on the look out for theories and new ways of thinking that can help me explain why tech determinist ways of thinking are faulty. If my goal is really to work with technologists and leader in less evenly developed areas, I realized that I have to be more critical of the way I am critical about it. I can’t just go off on tech determinism and expect people to listen to me. It’s easy to bitch about ideas, but much harder to pitch alternatives (that rhymes!)
Three resources have been very useful to me lately.
1.) I am in love with Batya Friedman’s work. She is the director of the Value Sensitive Design Research Lab at University of Washington. I saw her talk at Stanford University at Morgan Ame’s conference on Designing for Freedom: Values in Communication Technologies. Her talk, Multi-Span Information System Design, was about how she applied Value Sensitive Design to a project on the Rwandan Genocide. It was seriously one of the best talks I have ever seen. And Bayta was so friendly and approachable!
Some take-aways from her talk:
- what makes sense for freedom of expression in grounded in what socio-political context is in which people are living their lives
- how do we support out info design support freedom of expression as socio-political system evolves??
- Mulit-Span Info Sys Design is about looking at information system to support solutions for problem that can’t be solved within a human life-span
- what happens when we support structure and process in the design of information processes?
- become a “recorded” society , this brings up questions of access, saliencey, fading
- If I want the freedom to make certain expression then I need the freedom to know that it won’t go anywhere else
- the way our human psyche heals has to do with the ideas of forgiving and forgetting - we’re not talking about changing reality but it’s about what allows us to go forward and repair
- our agenda is to provide access, this is DIFFERENT from oral history cuz we’re not seeking truth or trying to control the material
“ He believes that the ICT4D movement is being hijacked by overblown claims about the potential for technology to change situations. His major assertion is that ‘Technology only magnifies human intent and capacity. It cannot substitute for them’.” from Stanford University’s Liberation Tech.
I also find Kentaro’s 10 Myths about Technology and Development to be a really simple way to explain why technology determinism just doesn’t work.
“How do you design user interfaces for an illiterate migrant worker? Can you keep five rural schoolchildren from fighting over one PC? What value is technology to a farmer earning $1 a day?
Interventionist ICT4D projects seek to answer these kinds of questions, but the excitement has also generated a lot of hype about the power of technology to solve the deep problems of poverty. In this talk, I will present 10 myths of ICT4D which continue to persist, despite increasing evidence to the contrary. My hope is to temper the brash claims of technology with realism about its true potential.”
3.) Philip Agre is one of the most brilliant writers on the internet. I love his article on institutions and the role of technology as social amplifiers. Agre’s amplification model of how new institutions don’t necessarily create new social behaviors, rather they amplify existing ones, explains how the internet doesn’t change society but draws out existing social forces.
Abstract: Research on the Internet’s role in politics has struggled to transcend technological determinism—the assumption, often inadvertent, that the technology simply imprints its own logic on social relationships. An alternative approach traces the ways, often numerous, in which an institution’s participants appropriate the technology in the service of goals, strategies, and relationships that the institution has already organized. This amplification model can be applied in analyzing the Internet’s role in politics. After critically surveying a list of widely held views on the matter, this article illustrates how the amplification model might be applied to concrete problems. These include the development of social networks and ways that technology is used to bind people together into a polity. Keywords: Amplification Model; Digital Democracy; Electronic Politics; Institutions; Internet; Reinforcement Model
Agre, Philip E. 2002. “Real-Time Politics: The Internet and the Political Process.” The Information Society 18:311-331.
What I love about Agre’s work is that he shows that tech determinist and socially determinist models don’t have as much explanatory power of real world technology use. In providing an institutional model for techno-social change, he gives an alternative to the social construction determinism model vs tech determinist model. I’ve only read his article 2 times, and I still need to read it 10 more times to really grasp the depths of his argument. His article has already been so helpful in getting me to think through how the internet exists as an institution among many other ones in China.