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This is a response to the conference Subversion, Conversion, Development: Public Interests in Technologies took place at CRASSH (Centre for Research in the Arts , Social Sciences, and Humanities) at the University of Cambridge, 24-26 April 2008. The organizers included James Leach, Lee Wilson, Robin Boast, and Anna Malinowska.

Over three sunny spring days at Cambridge University, scholars, museums professionals, leaders of indigenous groups, designers, and technology developers came to debate a single question: how does diversity matter for information and communication technology (ICT) development?  This question, and the various presenters who attempted to answer it, continues to occupy my mind. What I keep going back to is the way the terms of conversation that took place over those three days were so very different from the ones I am used to having. In my day-to-day work, a central question is how to can design for those less wealthy than ourselves. It is a hugely important question, but only now I fully appreciate just how constraining it is.  

The conference was framed around the notion that users of ICTs might subvert the intentions of their original designers, or otherwise exercise agency in expanded ways. The question that loomed in our minds, was what this might mean as a more systemic matter: that is, what would it take to think of technology use not as a case-by-case situational reworking, but what would have to change about systems of production in order for there to be expanded possibilities for people and communities to use technologies with real agency. In the end, there was less talk of subverting original producer's intentions, and more of a concern for creating possibilities for dialogue building.    There was, for example, a system of museum archives that incorporate both the ontology of the collectors and the indigenous people from whom artifacts were collected, creating an occasion for interaction between the two.  There was also an account of a GPS system designed with the help of people in the Congo, to enable locals to work with loggers to preserve parts of the forest that are most meaningful to them.  People who were literally invisible from aerial pictures of the forest were able to resist the worst effects of logging while still accommodating its presence. 

Brokering dialogue between different kinds of actors in this way was a radically different strategy than that of the telecenters that litter ICT for development projects. Telecenters promise access—to government services, to agricultural prices, to jobs. Yet rarely do the things accessed undergo any transformation. Here, however, logging companies changed their practices, and museums changed their systems of archiving. Accommodations were made on both sides.   Perhaps this itself was the subversion--an openness to change one's own processes rather than simply 'design for' someone else?

Repurposing technology, of course, does not necessarily have to involve physical reconfiguration.  The people we heard about have purposes for technology that far exceed the limited imagination of technology developers. Ritual emerged as an important theme. For example, the spinning of harddrives and DVDs is for some a necessary physical action to deliver content, and for others is a ritual repetition of devotional text, and an excellent means of merit making.  Indeed we learned that it is possible to fill software code with Buddhist mantras, which in turn are enacted when the software code is executed.    The conference itself opened with a ceremony conducted by gkisedtanamoogk, an indigenous leader from Maine. Conducted over video conference, both the technology and the ritual mediated participants' relations between one another.

Ritual and ceremony provides a way of thinking about what emerged as a central theme of the workshop. Ritual, of course, is an old technology of social configuration.  While objects do, to some extent, carry the values of their producers,  redesigning them to suit a broader range of constituents appeared to have less to do with technologies themselves than redesigning the social configurations around them. That is, social relations themselves can be, and perhaps should be, 'designed.' As was pointed out in the discussion, the very notion of designing a social context is at once utterly frightening, and yet something that we all do constantly in our daily affairs as we interject our own intentions in social relationships.  

Some explicit means of doing social relationships 'by design', as it were, were being developed. One example involved 'hacking' partnership law to encourage trustful collaborations without beginning a relationship through the divisive area of intellectual property. There are less direct ways as well, such as finding new ways of engaging multinational corporations, or changing design practices to include greater opportunity for reflexivity.  All of these were attempts to create the institutional and social contexts to better support openness to the unexpected, and to create possibilities for new social arrangements.

The urge to do something 'new' at all, which is compounded by the focus on 'new' technologies, was rightfully called into question. Indeed, the opening keynote compared this urge to something quite unexpected—exogeny. That is, one reason diversity may matter, and one reason why the unexpected uses of technology in unexpected quarters is so captivating, is that this fascination may itself be a kind of kinship system, where life is sustained through embodying, and incorporating, difference.  Just as people have the potential for many different kinds of combinations through partnerships, marriages, and children, so too with the ways that we engage with our material world.   It is a very human capacity.

And difference IS captivating!  Applications to design schools, graduate courses in information systems, and even public policy programs are awash with people wanting to do "design for the bottom of the pyramid" or "the next billion" or "ICT4D."  As if collectively creating our own (exogenous) kinship ties, designers and technology developers increasingly have so-called developing regions in their sights.   I find this both hopeful, and deeply unsettling.   Kinship, even the exogenous kind, involves actual people and actual relationships.   Yet this captivation has come through the frame of the
"bottom of the pyramid," "the next billion", etc. which converts the urge to make kinship into something far more dangerous.  As an anthropologist in a non-traditional setting, I have seen many intelligent, well-meaning people take trips to exotic locales to talk to 'real people' (a phrase I have critiqued elsewhere) only to come back home and use phrases like 'people in those countries.' This meaningless phrase is all too often repeated as a shortcut for defining people by what they lack.  At times I have even caught myself doing this, wrapped up in the urge to make kinship between the people I do research amongst and the people who make technologies. This is why 'bottom of the pyramid' is so destructive: it is only when this framing is prefigured that an indigenous group in Mexico has anything whatsoever to do with rural farmers in Zambia. Calls to specify, to define, and understand diversity amongst these groups can easily be found in relation to bottom of the pyramid discourse. However, what was so interesting about this conference is that participants in this gathering did not even need to make this kind of call. Instead each in their own way offered up alternatives, bypassing this discourse entirely.  

Five or ten years ago talk of bottom of the pyramid made sense, to the extent that elites in technology development were blissfully unaware of a world outside a San Francisco/London/Tokyo bubble. That bubble needed bursting. However, it created a burden by creating a new class of designers, technology developers and policy makers whose primary point of entry into dealing seriously with difference is through an imagined singular category of People Who Lack. Instead of deploying this discourse, and attempting to deconstruct it, the projects showcased at the meeting created transformations which took place not just amongst people seemingly in need of development, but involved changes in (for example) how museum artifacts get archived or how collaborators come to an agreement. Instead of solving the world's problems with the aid of powerful technologies, the projects engaged with technology through people's capacities. This says to me that a different social imagination is in fact possible.