Wednesday, 12 February 2014

For your eyes only

While I write constantly about adapting technology to other cultures, to make software which is more useful as a tool for information gathering and analysis especially when the information comes in the form of communication or narratives, I may not write enough about how these culture have already adapted.  One of my colleagues who researches security in the Great Lakes Region (DRC/Rwanda) reminded me about the frighteningly sophisticated system which grazes on the western-made media sources, but does not itself rely on them to organize, store or analyze what it finds.
I had experienced similar things in North Africa when giving a police report.  An efficiency of information collection and tracking untethered to computers, or for that matter, text-based record keeping of any kind.  The speed was jaw-dropping to witness.  And a bit scary.  The role of computers, mobile phones, and online platforms was purely to connect with the outside, the west, as an audience.  It was a strategic and sophisticated media manipulation.  I have written a bit about this as a political tactic during the revolution in Tunisia and Egypt during 2011 ; a time when group leaders were rapidly improving their skills for targeting audiences and crafting language-specific messages.  I was also part of projects aimed at using new media to target domestic audiences.  By comparison, these were lackluster in the amount of political energy they generated.  Photo-sharing and film were much more popular than text-based mediums.  I didn't find the 'revolutionary' media strategies to be very rousing for domestic audiences because they didn't work within preference communication modes, i.e., orality.  In sub-Saharan Africa where more languages are tonal, I predict this phenomenon would be even more pronounced (hence my research).  And perhaps one reason there has not been an African Spring similar to the Arab Spring (worth considering among the myriad of reasons....)

In Uganda, where I recently did fieldwork, the profusion of mobile phones is hard to ignore.  If everyone has one and is eager to use it in some fashion, why not get the most out of it rather than remain a data donor?  The responses from participants in my experiment reflected an attitude toward technology as though they engaged with it as partial selves.  As bilinguals, they are able to choose their mode of communication, and for them ICT was not connected to their Acholi-selves. 
“The Europeans are the ones who brought all this. It was not ours,” said a skilled laborer, male age 40+
Using the novel approach from the field of cognitive linguistics, I was able to highlight deficiencies of ICT software from a perspective that could change this sentiment.  Indigenous software could be developed which felt like it spoke to and worked with their Acholi-side rather than forcing them to switch over to their English side.  The advantages of this type of adaptation in design have implications for economic development, information security, and political participation.  Besides retaining non-technology based channels for information which are already efficient, it is imperative that cultural groups address the inherent power imbalance created by perpetually importing foreign methods for capturing information by developing their own.  Controlling the information (by controlling the software codes) could mean changing the power dynamics behind how that information is leveraged in policy-making.