13 March 2012

ICT4R (Information and Communications Technologies for Relationships)

It is a rare honor to be present at the Information and Community Technology for Development (ICTD 2012) conference in Atlanta, Georgia, USA. What a privilege it is to be 10.000 miles from home and share unique papers from rural Zambia, for the first time presenting facts on the locality of traffic in a rural African village and how technology could facilitate local African content generation!

When taking in this conference, mulling over its significance, I wonder how to harness the significant sacrifices made by all that are present, both in body and spirit. Here we sit in the shadow of overarching, imposing sky scrapers, in facilities that give me and my two neighbors already a combined internet bandwidth that equals the total of all available bandwidth in the country of Zambia.

I attend presentations of reports on (research) projects in developing countries, many in Asia and Africa, while being part of an interesting mix of passionate persons from both 'the North' and 'the South'. Of course, presentations entice the ubiquitous questions about sustainability and academic rigor. However, David Kobia's opening remarks on the 'D' in ICT4D - the academic space for most participants at this conference - still ring in my ears. He blamed the the ‘D’ - that stands for Development - to polarize and sustain cognitive dissonance between the institutional (western) organizations that seem to seek to bring technologies to marginalized environments, while such environments call for encouragement of locally relevant expressions of technology. His position was earlier posed by Erik Hersman in “the subtle condescension of 'ICT4D'” which did invoke an insightful discussion that was well summarized by Linda Raftree.

There is clearly an Elephant in the Room that is called 'Who Says?'. Whom is talking from which cultural and contextual perspective, and under which authority? In my view, one should pose tough questions to any ICT4D activity that is not guided by, and embedded in, local culture and context. Activities that are clearly designed and planned from a western industrialized culture, with solutions emerging from western individualistic and hedonistic thought, and implementation done according to western rational planning, cannot be considered for just verdicts of 'success or fail' as per western evaluation. It is presumptuous to think that a foreigner from foreign lands offering foreign things in an other context and culture can be effective. Then academic research appears as a take-away text written in academic English appropriating local culture for private, foreign profit. The local community remains objectified and exploited, with real and potentially disturbing social consequences.

In fact, we all undergo development. It is a human and extremely complex endeavor, heavily depending on relationships. Any form of communication involved is constantly changing and emergent. Undoubtedly, doing review on technology from within, and to the benefit of people in severely resource restrained environments, is challenging. However, as culture is the context in which things happen; out of context, even information and communications technologies can lack significance.

My daily experience in the rural Africa is that cross cultural knowledge is hard to come by. Its apprehension takes much effort and time, and, when known, its consequences often baffles foreign people involved. Although ICT4D practitioners can argue that integrated technologies have a logic of their own that are not affected by culture, the objective dimension of technologies, including Information and Communications Technologies, do have totally different meanings that different local human cultures read into them. Thus, in any presentation of ICT4D activity, a multidisciplinary, ethnographic description of the context and culture is imperative, as ICT4D is a subset of ICT4R, Information and Communications Technologies for Relationships, which can only be researched as a complete human experience.