Friday, May 5, 2017
Thursday, December 6, 2012
Nimmi Rangaswamy from Microsoft Research Labs India and I have been working on creating momentum in shifting the focus of ICTs for International Development (ICT4D) research towards a broader and less utilitarian perspective. Over the years, it has been interesting to see how Nimmi and I through our independent anthropological fieldwork were coming to a similar conclusion on the need to pay attention to "leisure" behavior of Internet users in emerging markets if we are to genuinely understand the multiple dimensions of new media practice in the global South. For instance, her research with Kentaro Toyama on cyberkiosks revealed the following:
From field ethnography, we find that urban youth slang and speech styles do not lag behind in villages. Neither do communication styles and channels. Instant messaging is immediately embraced by younger kiosk operators. Fan clubs of matinee idols bring in youth fashion and trends along with film music. Most popular films and film music are released within a month in hub-towns. Cassettes, pulp-film magazines, and even VCDs are snapped up quickly by rural consumers. We found in one case, that women from a village in Tamil Nadu flocked to a rural kiosk where an online celebrity chat was organized with the director of a contemporary soap opera. (Rangaswamy and Toyoma 2006: 5)
Around the same time, my book "Dot Com Mantra: Social computing in Central Himalayas" (Ashgate Pub) amassed evidence of a range of primarily leisure practices that users engaged in at cybercafes in rural Himalayas challenging notions of how rural people would be driven to use these new tools for mainly socio-economic mobility.
So naturally, when Nimmi and I connected at the ICTD conference in London 2010, we schemed up ways in which we could work together. Since then, she has served as a guest lecturer for my course on ICTs and International Development over the last 2 years. Also, we recently submitted a panel for ICA, a commentary piece for review at the ITID journal and are currently working on a book proposal on this very topic. It is indeed exciting when one finds a collaborator who one can seamlessly work with!
So its good to know that all this effort is starting to pay off with the recent acceptance of our article for publication "Digital leisure for development: Reframing new media practice in the global south" by the Media Culture & Society journal.
Below is the Abstract of this paper and as you can see, this is really a call for a shift in research. We hope its useful to those in this field !
Photoshopping of newlyweds, downloading the latest movies, teens flirting on social network sites and virtual gaming may seem like typical behavior in the West; yet in the context of a village in Mali or a slum in Mumbai, it is seen as unusual and perhaps an anomaly in their new media practice. In recent years, some studies (Ganesh, 2010; Mitra, 2005; Author removed, 2010; 2012; 2nd Author removed 2012; Kavoori, Chadha & Arceneaux, 2006) have documented these leisure-oriented behaviors in the global south and argued for the need to emphasize and reposition these user practices within larger and contemporary discourses on new media consumption. Yet, for the most part, studies in the field of Information and Communication Technologies for Development (ICT4D) have duly relegated such enactments as anecdotal. This is partly due to the fact that much of this research is driven by development agendas with a strong historical bias towards the socio-economic focus (Burrell & Anderson, 2009). Data that is not directly addressing project-based outcomes is sidelined. However, as emerging economies globalize and urbanize exponentially, and their users become more critical consumers and creative contributors of digital content or ‘prosumers’ (Bruns, 2008) and arguably free laborers (Scholz, 2012) instead of classic development beneficiaries, a paradigm shift is needed in approaching this new media audience with a more open-ended, explorative and pluralistic perspective.Thereby, this commentary piece serves as a call to rethink new media practices in the global south by looking at the implications and impacts of ICTs as leisure (entertainment/pleasure/ play) artifacts in the context of developing economies and emerging markets. We believe this line of inquiry is timely and enables a strategic bridging of the new media studies and development communication domain. Despite studies yielding insightful commentaries on ICTs in this arena, we believe resource constrained environments generating rich usages that are not overtly utilitarian have remained hitherto unexplored. A critical movement is needed among scholars focusing on emerging economies to re-conceptualize the mobilization and serviceability of ICTs to extend beyond a conservative understanding of developmental value. This will help in focusing on the heterogeneous and life enhancing aspects of technological use encompassing both experiential and purposive elements of ICT adoption: their interplay with systematic/systemic ecological constraints to provide an analytical and descriptive study of the technology spectrum and use in these contexts.
To illustrate our argument, we offer some critical points of contention that need addressing and new avenues for research if we are to rethink, reframe and refresh our thinking on Web 2.0 enactments in the global south.
Sunday, August 12, 2012
My article on INGO organizational culture and its shaping of the microfinance development project is now out in the Development in Practice Journal. Click HERE for the full article:
Title "Your kool-aid is not my kool-aid:" ideologies on microfinance within an INGO culture
Development investigations focus on synergies of institutional cultures for policy and practice. International non-governmental organisations (INGOs) currently enjoy a privileged position as harbingers of world culture unity. While there is contestation on INGOs as monolithic entities, few studies delve into the voices of actors within INGOs to provide for a more pluralistic perspective. This paper separates the actors from their institution by examining their different socio-cultural takes that drive them. This emphasises that as projects and visions come and go, institutional actors draw on their own philosophy that does not necessarily mirror their institution’s stance. Here, the focus is on one of the most important current development initiatives – microfinance – revealing individual understandings of what is sustainability, the role of external actors, indicators of success, exit strategies, and ethical action. In spite of situating this in the microfinance area, what is revealed is that actors are motivated by their own constructed ideology, often alluding peripherally to the specifics of microfinance. This opens another avenue of enquiry as to why organisational ideologies and popular development visions such as microfinance take on such diversity of forms and outcomes. Contrary to the world culture unity model, such communication disjunctures can be useful in understanding diverse development outcomes.
Tuesday, June 19, 2012
Title of Paper: The folksong jukebox: singing along for social change in rural India
Abstract: In designing digital literacy content for marginalized demographics, we need to garner local resources to structure engaging and meaningful media experiences. This paper examines the socio-cognitive implications of a novel edutainment product in rural India on learning, stemming from an e-development initiative funded by Hewlett-Packard. This product encapsulates a multiplicity of media forms: text, audio and visual, with social-awareness folk themes endemic to the locality. It uses the karaoke ‘same language subtitling’ feature that won the World Bank Development Marketplace Award in 2002 due to its simple yet innovative application that has proven to have an impact on reading skills. The product strives to combine cultural regeneration, value-based education, incidental literacy and language practice through entertainment. The paper investigates how this product addresses engagement and empowerment simultaneously, based on elements such as emotional appeal, multimodal stimulation, interactivity, contextual content and local representation. This is useful for practitioners and scholars interested in the design of novel edutainment content for international, underrepresented demographics.
Saturday, February 25, 2012
New Paper out "Leisure Divide: Can the poor come out to play?" by The Information Development Journal
My paper on "The Leisure Divide: Can the poor come out to play?" has just got published by the Information Development Journal Here's the Abstract: As billions of dollars are invested in mitigating the digital divide, stakes are raised to gain validity for these cost-intensive endeavors, focusing more on online activities that have clear socio-economic outcomes. Hence, farmers in rural India are watched closely to see how they access crop prices online, while their Orkuting gets sidelined as anecdotal. This paper argues that this is a fundamental problem as it treats users in emerging markets as somehow inherently different from those in the West. After all, it is now commonly accepted that much of what users do online in developed nations is leisure-oriented. This perspective does not crossover as easily into the Information and Communication Technologies for Development (ICT4D) world, where the utilitarian angle reigns. This paper argues that much insight can be gained in bridging worlds of ICT4D and New Media studies. By negating online leisure in ‘Third World’ settings, our understandings on this new user market can be critically flawed.
Saturday, December 17, 2011
The Australian Journal of Anthropology (ISI/SSCI Indexed journal) Dot Com Mantra: Social Computing in the Central Himalayas P. Arora. Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2010. xv + 172 pp. Illustrmap, bibliog., index. ISBN 978-1409401070. £50.00 (Hc.) Arora’s book offers an ethnographic answer to a common question in development studies: can new technologies transform other cultures effectively and for the better? Not surprisingly for an ethnographer, her answer is a critique of the technological determinism inherent in this question. She focuses on the introduction of computers in Almora, a town in rural northern India where a long-standing web of Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) has steadily tried to influence people’s behaviour. Computers are but one of the technologies that NGOs hope will transform these farmers’ and villagers’ lives. A pastiche of types of organisations are introducing computers in the central Himalayas—some strikingly hands-off educational NGOs, some government-sponsored projects for farmers and some for-profit cybercafes. Each merit a chapter in this ethnography as Arora turns to different sites throughout this village where computers have been introduced by NGOs or entrepreneurs. One might expect that farmers would find computers, and in particular the Internet, very useful tools. After all, the internet can allow them to see how people are pricing the items the farmers are growing over a much wider geographic area than word of mouth reveals. The Indian government decided to provide computers in the name of village empowerment and introduced one-stop shops to make available a wide range of agricultural information to local farmers. For a variety of reasons, these government computer kiosks proved too cumbersome to use for farmers. Without mediators between the farmers and these far-flung markets, the farmers cannot turn this information into action. The kiosks were placed in inconvenient locations, forcing farmers to travel to even more places to complete all their errands. They could print out government forms, but still had to wait in line to hand in the forms. And the computers often broke down, with only the private cybercafe owners, that is, the kiosks’ rivals, equipped to fix them. For all of these reasons, the government computers never became widely used. In addition, Arora deftly illustrates a tenet familiar to science studies scholars: it is not the objects but the networks they condense that shape efficacy and whether the object will be adopted or not. Computers presuppose infrastructures and networks, and when these do not exist, the computers will not be useful in anticipated ways. For similar reasons, an educational aid project failed in Almora as well. An NGO had convinced the Indian government and World Information Technology and Services Alliances to support a Hole-in-the-Wall project—computers would be placed in public walls available for any child to play on them. The idea behind this is that without teachers or schools, the children would be able to learn a large number of computer skills through experimentation. If instruction is discipline, as Foucaultian scholars of education would have it, no instruction is putatively freedom. While this project appears to have been successful in other locations around India, it was a resounding failure in central Himalayan towns. Arora argues that the failure is because of a complex absence of infrastructure. ‘In other words, the act of learning without conventional school constraints is contingent on the support of institutional, social and other factors, making it less ‘‘free’’ in that sense’ (p. 103). The public computers required supervision, not to assist curious children, but to prevent vandalism and to make any necessary repairs. In other Indian communities that could afford to provide such support, the computers were sought out by children over time. When Arora turns her attention to the entrepreneurial computer centres throughout the town, she finds relatively thriving businesses, in part because the owners are eager to provide the repairs and support lacking for the other projects. But what precisely are the services these cybercafe´s provide? After volunteering for a month at one of these centres, Arora determines that these computer centres are often extensions of the nearby schools for the students who enter. Yet in what sense are these centres extensions? The students learn how to produce documents that are collages produced by cut and paste. School projects are fulfilled through practices that in other contexts would be seen as plagiarism. Arora wants to put this label aside and focuses instead the skills one must develop to create these collages. She discusses how the upper-caste school girls convince the computer centre employees to manipulate keyboards on their behalf (perhaps so they can avoid touching caste-contaminated keyboards). Creating these documents require skills and coordination, a considerable degree of social coordination. Yet by sticking resolutely to only what takes place within these computer centres, she ignores the other ways in which this social coordination takes place. How are these documents received within the school grounds? Do teachers approve of these pastiches? Are some pastiches considered better than others? If Arora had not been writing so resolutely for a development studies audience, she also might have addressed questions about plagiarism that anthropologists invariably explore these days, that is, what ideas about authorship circulate among these school girls, within the school and within the town itself to accommodate this type of contextualisation? Dot Com Mantra can be used effectively in upper-level development studies courses and technology studies courses to explore how technologies such as computers travel. The sentences are a bit too dense and unwieldy for lower division students, at least in my university. Another caution: the price of the book is a bit steep, which course instructors should take into consideration. Ilana Gershon, Department of Communication and Culture,Indiana University
Monday, December 13, 2010
The ICTD conference for 2010 goes all Harry Potter on us, hosted by Royal Holloway, University of London. This university, started in 1886 and financially backboned substantively by Thomas Holloway who made his millions from patent medicine, is a fascinating site to hold the conference in. While we're immersed delightfully within the history of this educational space, we're confronted with the future of this relatively newly created ICTD conference space. Its a response to the persistent frustrations of the disconnect between academia and practice. It's about making "relevant" academia, to network these seemingly disparate groups in a fruitful manner and create sustainable thinking through interdisciplinary means.
So it is of little surprise that the conference launches with a panel of practitioners and moderated by Tim Unwin from Royal Holloway, University of London. In true academic self-flagellation, Tim remarks that only practitioners can truly "guide the next decade of academic research." Invited on the panel is Erik Hersman, co-founder and director of operations of Ushahidi, Anriette Esterhuysen, executive-director of the Association for Progressive Communications, Tony Salvador Senior Principal engineer, and Director of Research, Emerging Markets Platform Group, Intel Corporation, Anita Gurumurthy, IT for Change, Ken Banks, founder of kiwanja.net and creator of FrontlineSMS, and Indrajit Banerjee, Director of the Information Society Division, UNESCO. They were invited to speak their mind on what they think should be researched on in the near future, look deeply into certain issues and question certain dominant assumptions in the field. Of course, as predicted, the debate starts of with the usual practitioner-academic debate, with an underlying bias of making the "practitioner" very current, reflexive, insightful and "close" to the beneficiaries. Academics however, need a new PR agent apparently as they're viewed as parasitical creatures, feeding off on the "brain food" of practitioners as Anriette states. Banerjee, an ex-academic fuels this further with his comment that "“academics are talking to themselves while development is out there." Of course, there is some noise on who is this "practitioner" anyway? Aren't all academics, if genuinely effective, are practitioners too ? - as such, all "good theory is good practice too," as Anita states. So is that really true?
While this ritual perhaps is essential, given the role of rituals in general as markers that indicate that we're all part of this community that shares common tensions that at once divide and unite at the same time, there were more interesting points that were brought up by this panel, namely from Erik, a technologist who astutely asks why do we pigeonhole technologies as tools for development? Its like saying Mozilla Firefox is for development just because it's being used by emerging market demographics! So why do we naturalize certain tools as “empowerment tools” and does this really have a particular advantage for the ICTD field or does it long term do more damage as we exoticise typical tools and thereby create barriers on intergrating "exotic" populations into the typical user-interfacing group?
fodder for thought for sure...