Thursday, July 28, 2011

Review of My book "Dot Com Mantra" in The British Journal of Educational Technology

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Arora, Payal (2010) Dot com mantra Ashgate (Farnham, Surrey & Burlington VT) ISBN 978-1-4094-0107-0 190 pp £55 gb&pagecount=1&title_id=9768&edition_id=12842

This book presents an ethnographic study on the use of computers, carried out in a marginalised town in the central Himalayas—hence among a group of remote, new computer users—with the aim to allow new perspectives to emerge and old views to be revisited. The study does not investigate if computers are good or bad, but spots the range of constraints and opportunities entailed by their use. It highlights relations between old and new technologies together with people’s beliefs, perceptions and modes of use, and reflects on the nature and implications of the learning induced. In order to reveal a perspective that is not biased by formal institutional difficulties, the study is concerned with computer use in public contexts outside school settings (cybercafés, NGOs and cyber kiosks), where it is possible to observe how people actually interact with computers for a variety of purposes. Emphasis is put on social learning—seen as a dialectic process enacting human ingenuity—which shapes the use of technology and is shaped by it. The author concentrates on understanding the place and space of technology, its boundaries, frame of reference, interpretation, functionalities and optimisation. The focus in not much on tools, but rather on human imagination, which is the root of people’s activity with the tools. The attention to everyday popular uses helps to de-romanticise and demystify the promise of computers as pathways to change.

The book starts by describing the nature and character of local people and their relationship with a variety of old and new technologies. Then it examines the links with policies related to education and development. Finally, it explores the range of activities that local people car ry out within cybercafés; these seem to be mostly not utilitarian but centred on social and entertainment purposes. What also emerges from the study is that computers are not neutral tools but a social phenomenon, a means of persuasion, seduction and remembrance. What people learn while interacting with them can widely differ from what we may expect them to learn. Multiple literacies entailed by computer use are not a set of universal skills but depend on the context of that use and on the power relations within it. There is an intricate relationship between leisure, labour and learning. Leisure, which is a demand and a necessity for all, can be deeply educative and provide long term accomplishments and deep-rooted skills through gratification. This implies that computers should be re-conceptualised so that they better fuse labour and leisure.

The book alternates descriptive parts, which are easy to read and entertaining, with dense reflections, which are thought-provoking but rather laborious. As you can guess from the above description, this is not the usual study on learning with computers. Traditional readers will likely fail to appreciate the ethnographic aspects of this study. The book, however, makes a pleasant and stimulating read for whoever wishes to reflect on educational technologies from a different perspective.

Giuliana Dettori (received February 2011)
Researcher at the Institute for Educational Technology of CNR, Genoa, Italy

Review of my book "Dot Com Mantra" in The Journal of Education, Community & Values

Dot Com Mantra. Social Computing in the Central Himalayas
Berglund Authority Level 4
Review by Jeffrey Barlow

Dot Com Mantra is an excellent work by Payal Arora, a much-published [1] Indian anthropologist who writes frequently on social computing, that is, the connection between society and the use of computers. This study is an ethnography (a branch of anthropology dealing with the scientific description of individual cultures [2]) done in the town complex of Almora, in a fairly isolated area of Uttrakhand, India, formerly Uttar Pradesh.Dr. Arora is well qualified to write this particular work. She has studied at Cambridge (Certificate in Teaching ESL), at Harvard (M.A. in International Policy, Education) and at Columbia (Doctorate in Language, Literacy & Technology). This work is derived from her Ph.D. Dissertation, Social Computing in the Central Himalayas.

Dot Com Mantra focuses largely on the social, economic, and political aspect of development considered within a global framework. Dr. Arora speaks the language of the area and fully immersed herself in its day-to-day life, moving among farmers’ organization, development groups (non-governmental organizations-NGOs), teachers and students, and even volunteering her time working in an Internet café, from all of which she derived deep understandings. In many cases, Arora’s conclusions are counter-intuitive and the book sparkles with frequent flashes of insight. We learn also that many of the approaches of the non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and of the Government of India are ineffective in the area, because they have ignored the social aspects of technology.It is not that the area is under-computerized; many groups have distributed machines in a variety of settings, but these attempts fall afoul of existing social conditions. For example, schools are given computers, but one-quarter of the teachers never show up to teach. Of those who do, fully half do not teach even when present [3]. Most of them are held personally responsible for the books and machines sent them and will have to pay if they are damaged, so they lock them safely away. Aware of these issues, NGOs and the Government of India previously sponsored a variety of access points—via the Hole-in-the-Wall/HiWel program among many others [4]—to encourage children to teach themselves [5]. These meet with initial success, but in order to be safe from vandalism or theft, the centers have to be placed on school-grounds where the same conditions which vitiate the educational process also impact the use of the “free” computing facilities.

Arora’s insights are deeply rooted in a close knowledge of both practical and theoretical pedagogy and anyone interested in education could benefit from understanding this aspect of her research. Part of her progress here might be said to be “unlearning,” as she finds that many of her assumptions are simply irrelevant in the social context of village India. For example, after working in the Internet café, she comes to understand the limitations of Western attitudes toward plagiarism. Arora has focused closely on gender issues in her previous research. In her ethnographic research in Almora, she also derives a new understanding of gender issues. This comes about when she watches female students, usually treated in the critical literature as deliberately marginalized in the world of technology, ably manipulate not the machines so much as those who work in the cafes (including the author), on the model of traditional Indian mistress-servant relationships. She concludes that choosing not to work directly with technology is also a means of using technology, and a valid choice in many situations. The author also begins to understand the complexity of globalization when she assists two local girls prepare school papers on “Western” art by selecting a variety of graphics, including cowboy-style horse paintings done by a contemporary Chinese artist, side by side with the Mona Lisa and the works of a noted Indian painter [6].

The weakness of NGO and governmental assumptions about the link between development and I.T. development are treated directly in a section on farming. Farmers are given access to computers by the government in the belief that, with better information about markets and prices, they can avoid exploitation by traditional middlemen.However, the author learns, the middlemen are also a critical element in farming practices, advising farmers of how to develop new crops, for example. And even with perfect knowledge of the market, the farmers are still producing on such a small scale that they cannot take any better advantage of the information.Dot Com Mantra really comes alive and makes a significant contribution when Arora begins to reconceptualize the Internet cafes and their most frequent use as places not of learning so much as of recreation. Here she undermines one of the major assumptions of developmental economics: that the poor are so desperate that given the opportunity they will always choose to look first after basic needs and that idling away time is the province only of the wealthy. Arora concludes: “There is an assumption that the poor will somehow behave differently from their wealthier counterparts. Herein lies a deep bind of contemporary ICT development thinking [7].”

As with the issue of plagiarism, however, when the author situates the recreations of the Internet cafes in the local social context, she comes to see the play as also a valid social choice for the use of computing. We learn, for example, that due to widespread broadband access in Almora, local children and teens are now fully conversant in many elements of Indian urban culture, their rural dialects are now inflected by urban usages, and they are also fairly aware of international pop culture. These may seem to a developmental economist to be an inadequate result for billions of dollars of investment in I.T., but in fact, as Arora points out, in their own way, these consequences represent considerable progress. The work betrays its origins in that it is extremely dense and steeped in academic jargon. However, it should be of interest to a variety of audiences, including most especially those concerned with development, with I.T. investment, with teaching and pedagogy (in any context—many of the weaknesses she spots in constructivist practices in education are as relevant in London or New York as in village India—and generally interested, as are we, in the impact of the Internet). But given its cost ($99.95) most readers should probably seek it out in an academic library, where it properly belongs.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Paper presentations at the IAMCR Conference 2011 in Istanbul

I'll also be presenting on the following topics at the IAMCR conference 2011 in Istanbul, Turkey:


It has taken the past decade to commonly acknowledge that cyberspace is tethered to real place. From euphoric conceptualizations of virtual space as novel, unprecedented and revolutionary an entity, the dust has settled, allowing for talk of boundaries and ties to real world settings. Metaphors have faithfully followed this scholarship; there is a clear mission to architect Net spaces, be it chatrooms, electronic frontiers, homepages, to information highways. This metaphorical approach allows for concretization and comprehension of Net spaces for policy regulation, private sector practice and pedagogic instruction. This paper focuses particularly on the pedagogic angle, providing a rubric of guidance for university professors to address the critical relationship of the real and virtual in new media studies programs. This paper proposes a conceptual framework of applying metaphors to systematize the connect between online and offline spaces. The design of spaces can be conceptualized into 5 typologies: utilitarian-driven, aesthetic-driven, context-driven, play-driven and value-driven, making explicit the diversity of online spaces and its innate characteristics. This framework applies lessons learnt from the architecting of real space to virtual space. In doing so, it spans the field of urban planning, architecture, and new media studies. Currently, there is little guidance for instructors in new media on how to teach this relationship of the real and virtual. Thereby, this pedagogic framework will allow professors and students to engage in the comprehension of cyberspace through a more sophisticated and interdisciplinary avenue.

(Under the Program: Between Security and Privacy. Understanding the Balance be-tween Surveillance and Data Protection as
Local, Regional and Global Policy Issues)

In this Web 2.0 era, contemporary leisure is dominantly situated within the online sphere. It is now commonly believed that much of what users do online is of a social nature and if we are to understand their enactments, online spatial analysis of these cyberleisure spaces is a good starting point. This paper thereby proposes that if the Internet can be seen as a “digital city,” its online leisure spaces need to be seen as its virtual parks. Social network sites and parks share much rhetoric in common- they are both perceived as free, universal, democratic and non-utilitarian in nature. Yet, if we are to take on this metaphorical comparison through a historical and comparative analysis, we will discover the ongoing politics of keeping these leisure spaces “public.” For instance, the making of parks in the 19th century involved a significant struggle to shift from the State to the masses. Also, parks across nations and cultures, although one of the seemingly least regulated public spaces, is in fact bounded by social, cultural and economic constraints that shape its very nature. Furthermore, an interesting discussion can stem from the fact that contemporary leisure spaces are finding themselves more within “gated communities,” both online and offline, highlighting an interesting and important dimension of the semi-private nature of cyberleisure spaces. This paper leverages and re(situates) Habermas’s theory on the public sphere, essential for our understandings on notions of ownership, authority, regulation, class, inclusivity/exclusivity in relation to leisure. The tensions of the public and private can be revealed through this parallel as we delve into questions of current importance in relation to online leisure: can we equate “public” space with “free” space? What are the trade-offs involved in keeping a social space “free?” How do we understand the notion of access to these cyberleisure spaces in relation to its current socio-cultural and economic boundaries? How “open” are contemporary leisure spaces and what are its determining factors? Overall, an analysis of the public versus private nature of cyberleisure spaces, both online and offline can shed light on what regulates and shapes contemporary leisure.

IAMCR Conference 2011 in Istanbul: Theme: Cities, Creativity, Connectivity

Istanbul, here we come! The International Association for Media and Communication Research (IAMCR) will be starting next week from the 12th to 18th of July with papers surrounding the theme of Cities, Creativity, Connectivity.

I'll be Chairing a Program session on the "Second Wave of the Digital Divide" as well as presenting a paper on the following topic:

The leisure divide: Can the Third World come out to play?

In this Web 2.0 era, evidence is mounting on human ingenuity and creativity with and within online spheres. Much has been documented on how users innovate in a myriad of ways, opening possible economic and techno-social opportunities through play. From initially being viewed as “wasteful” and “idle,” cyberleisure is slowly but steadily being recognized as potentially productive, labor intensive and commercially fruitful. In fact, online leisure has stimulated a virtual economy where “dragon sabers,” a cyberweapon of the Legend of Mir III sells on ebay and “Farmville,” an online farming application on Facebook propels users to speed up their virtual harvest with real currency. In this global and information society, such innovation has become fundamental to getting ahead as the rat race moves online. That said, when we look at the world of ICT and international development, a different story seems to emerge. Much focus is placed on how the Net is being used for a range of utilitarian means such as healthcare, education, to employment. An army of commercial ethnographers from Microsoft, Intel, Google and Hewlett Packard as well as the usual INGO suspects, have been unleashed to capture the newly empowered in action. As billions of dollars are being invested to bridge the digital divide in developing countries, much is at stake on amassing evidence that the poor are, in fact, leapfrogging chronic socio-economic barriers through ICT. Hence, visions of the farmer accessing crop prices online, ridding himself of the tyranny of the middlemen infuse policymakers and practitioner discourses, streamlining research agendas even more so on measuring how ICT is being used for utilitarian ends. However, the underlying assumption here is that somehow users in Third World countries are inherently and intrinsically different somehow from the Western world. While there is no pretense on the fact that what most users do online in the West are primarily “purposeless” – social networking, porn, idle browsing and media consumption and production, there seems to be a belief that users in the emerging markets will have a more conventional work ethic online; they will virtuously reach out for ways to get information for healthcare diagnostics and treatment, online education to agricultural best practices. While undoubtedly this happens, this paper argues that there is a possibility that much of what users do even in Third World countries is, in fact, heavily leisure oriented.To build this case, this paper first examines the relationship between labor and leisure, a) historically and b) comparatively, online and offline. After which, we investigate how new information and communication technology usage has been perceived over time in the Third world nations - intentions versus actual practices. Lastly, this paper traces out the commonalities between supposed First and Third world nation’s practices of new media usage, making the argument that we need to stop exoticizing users in ‘emerging markets’ as more utilitarian driven and work conscious. Instead, this paper calls for a conscious inclusion of cyberleisure in the larger analysis of new media usage in supposed Third World countries.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Digital absence: The modern day sabbatical?

When you speak of sabbaticals, you perhaps picture a professor of art history sitting at a café in Florence, trying to come up with a new spin on Uffizi art. It seems that academia has usurped this practice that has been enveloped in biblical meaning for the longest of time. This hiatus from work has had the weight of Ten Commandments backing it up, allowing the masses to justify their temporal ceasing to labor. Henceforth, the weekend was born. Granted, this is a rather simplistic interpretation. Of course one needs to take into account other phenomena such as the industrialization era where leisure began to be viewed as not necessarily a waste of time but actually that which could enhance productivity. In fact, these strategic interruptions have served as a signal of the modern era where a society sees its inherent virtue. So the question is not on whether or not it is advisable to desist working for some time but rather, how long is it acceptable to leisure before it is viewed as unproductive? The weekend is now an accepted notion and serves as a common motivation for the average modern day laborer as they “slave” away in their routines of day-to-day work, keeping in mind the reward of a relaxing weekend with family and friends. However, beyond that, the option of time-off for its own sake is rather an alien concept in most private sectors.

Also, who is allowed to temporarily cease from labor and why? Sabbaticals implicitly bring to mind privileged white-collar workers where this is seen as a strategic incentive to sustain and retain this elite working class. And what happens when blue-collar workers embark on the same path? It will usually be perceived as part-time work or ill health, signals of a poor economic climate perhaps. Much like what makes a foreigner an “expat” versus an “immigrant” has more to do with economics than with other social aspects.

And of course, what constitutes as non-working time as new media infiltrates and blurs boundaries on work and play at a constant basis? Obama has raised our level of awareness of the Blackberry addict, the new drug of the digital and mobile era where we are now victims of our own constant and often involuntary urges to immerse in online busyness. Productivity and labor has never become so obviously disassociated as in today’s Web 2.0 era where being engaged during “work” and “working” have become issues of serious concern to the private sector at large. It’s a double-edged sword really. Companies benefit from this compulsion as they can reach their employees, the junkies of new media, even during the sacrosanct weekend. On the other hand, leisure stealthily creeps in during the routines of work life, enveloping their worker bees with the trivia of social life through Facebook, Twitter and Youtube. In fact, the spatial aspect of work, of being at the office to produce is also being challenged as technical mobility and the nature of work has undergone radical transformation one may argue. It may even seem that this laboring elite are their own worst enemies as they compulsively engage with work regardless of location and time.

Pushing this further, taking a digital absence is currently shrouded in controversy as expectations of instant gratification from customers as well as ones own Net addiction propels one to actively and with much effort, disengage from the cybersphere. There is no discreet way of excusing oneself from techno-laboring. It is yet to be seen how long absences from ones own blog or twitter is perceived and how that impacts ones legitimacy in the Web 2.0 world where ones absence is digitally clocked and paraded for one and all.