HCI researchers work within spaces of possibility for potential designs of technology. New methods (e.g., user centrism); expected types of interaction (user with device); and potential applications (urban navigation) can extend the boundaries of these possibilities. However, structural and systemic factors can also foreclose them. A recent wide and shallow survey of 116 individuals involved in technology development across 26 countries in sub-Saharan Africa reveals how factors of political economy significantly impact upon technological possibilities. Monopolies, international power dynamics, race, and access to capital open or constrain technological possibilities at least as much as device-centric or user-focused constraints do. Though their thrust may have been anticipated by reference to political economic trends, the structural constraints we found were underestimated by technologists even a decade ago. We discuss the implications for technology development in Africa and beyond.
The political scientist Charles Tilly analyzed what he called “repertoires of contentious politics,” from “rough music” to cat torture and of course public marches and riots, but indeed the repertoire is both frighteningly small and mostly familiar. Our bag of tricks looks quite empty. My own work and that from my research groups has taken advantage of, among other things, new network effects and the vastly decreased cost of peer (as opposed to broadcast) communications and coordination….
Social Tech Ecosystems in sub-Saharan Africa
Report for UK Foundations, 2018
The funders of this study took a major chance with commissioning our team. We told them that we saw a large gap between many Western representations of technology in Africa and what we had experienced ourselves; that our backgrounds and training were very different than most of the teams responding to the call, and that they might be surprised by our findings. Our team included five scholars conducting research in Africa; while only one member was in Africa during the entire study, three others had worked there, and three are from Africa (two expatriated). We suspected, then, that our informants' portrayals would largely agree with our own experiences, but not with the “Africa Rising” tech narrative favored by the Economist and the World Bank.
“Gazing into the future and imagining what might be ahead of us. That is what we asked Chris Csikszentmihályi, artist and lecturer, to do for this jubilee issue. He has worked in the intersection of new technologies, media and the arts for many years. What might the importance of art be in a future world?
Chris wrote: ‘For me one big importance is how art (and humanities) recognizes that we don’t know everything we know now that we will later, that we ourselves will be different and it encourages an attitude of how to live with uncertainty, but not be frozen. The formal systems that seem to do really well in the world—math and engineering and business and such that never have to justify their existence— mostly conceal art. I think that’s because they value what we know now, assuming that the future will be technically different but we will be the same. Right now the main narrative of that is the ‚singularity’, which posits the obsolescence of people when machines become intelligent. Hey, it’s possible… if I were a smart robot I’d kill us. And if the smart robot is made by the Department of Defense, it probably will... But a really smart robot would not kill us, and would probably look at art as being important.’
RootIO - Platform Design for Civic Media
Research Through Design, 2015
RootIO is a civic media platform and research project in the context of rural farming communities in Uganda. The RootIO project draws from prior work in Civic Media, the design of public goods and information services for communities rather than individuals. This project presents the additional challenge of designing a participatory community information platform in a relatively low literacy, low income area with little access to ICTs. Unlike many “development” projects, it focuses on local peer production rather than top-down “behavior change” messaging. RootIO is in active development and prototype FM stations will go on air in 2015: what follows is a prospective exploration and report of current and future work. RootIO is being developed with an open-ended and iterative method, where use and failure can be tracked and analyzed in real-time.
We begin the paper by defining the context and background of the RootIO project, then present our research goals in building the system. We then discuss some of the methodological techniques that inform our design, including civic media and platform design. Finally, we will introduce the RootIO project. Our submission to the exhibition is a functioning FM “microstation” design of the sort deployed in rural Uganda.
“Engineers make the world, but not always as they please. Chris Csikszentmihalyi recounts how engineers come to be part of one collective or another”