ICT4D: Seeking the spaces in-between

Author: Mark Oppenneer, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (2009)
Original URL: https://www.ethnosproject.org/ict4d-seeking-the-spaces-inbetween/


There is a story from the Turkish tradition about Nasruddin Hodja who at the time was serving as the kadi of Aksehir. Two men came to visit seeking resolution in a dispute. After listening to the plaintiff, Hodja said, “You are right!” He then listened to the defendant. After hearing his side, Hodja said, “You are right!” The audience in attendance was confused by Hodja’s remarks. One stood and said, “Kadi effendi, you have said that both sides are right. The dispute cannot be settled in that case.” After a thoughtful pause, Hodja said to the man, “You are right!”

Such is the case between critics and proponents of information and communication technology for development (ICT4D). The critics argue that ICT4D signals a new computer-mediated colonialism (Ess, 2002) that seeks to erase traditional or indigenous knowledge and replace it with Western modernity. Proponents see it as a key step in reducing poverty and improving the lives of marginalized peoples in developing nations.  As Hodja would tell us, both sides are right. Gilbert Rist writes, “How could one possibly resist the idea that there is a way of eliminating the poverty by which one is so troubled? How dare one think, at the same time, that the cure might worsen the ill which one wishes to combat?” (1). The implementation of ICTs in service to indigenous peoples in development settings is a double-edged sword.

If we accept Hodja’s verdict, what are we to do about the collision of seemingly irreconcilable perspectives? Should we chalk up the loss of traditional culture as a casualty of saving human lives? Should the moral dilemma of ICT implementation keep us from doing what we can to reduce poverty? These are not new questions. Much has been written about development, globalization, the digital divide, and so on. However, much has also been written about the fact that much of what has been written comes from a Western perspective. Embedded in the Western perspective is the tendency toward what Haraway calls a “suspect technology for the production of meanings – binary dichotomization” (209). Lines are drawn between what are considered opposing poles: West vs. East, North vs. South, colonization vs. transnational capitalism, modern vs. traditional, white skin vs. dark skin, rich vs. poor, developed vs. developing, us vs. them. This essay argues that we might find something of value if we look for answers in the spaces between, or that don’t fall into, the well-worn wagon ruts of binary dichotomization.

Brief Overview of Development History

To understand the depth of our conundrum – and to fully appreciate the role ICTs play in development – we must first explore the history of development in general to its roots in the Western tradition. These historical snapshots reveal the origins of the binarism that creates the contested spaces of our debate.

Rist follows his lineage from Aristotle through Augustine up to Leibniz, Buffon, and Condorcet who divides human history into ten stages, the last of which would introduce the abolition of inequality between nations, the true perfection of mankind. Gunaratne presents a version that shows how Hegel’s Enlightenment philosophy established a foundation for Weber’s theory of modernization and traditionalism. In his Philosophy of History lectures, Hegel claims the supremacy of humankind, led by Europeans, over Nature. Hegel dismissed African and Asian ways of knowing as “more or less congruent with Nature” and argued that the enslavement of Negroes was justified because they were essentially “Things” – objects of no value (63). Gunaratne, citing Nabudere, connects the dots from Hegel to Weber, whose Enlightenment ideologies reflect how scientific methodology, specifically the idea of ‘progress’ modeled after Newtonian physics, would allow the modern age to rid itself of inherited superstitions and prejudices (62).

Gunaratne and Unwin both recognize the importance of Rostow’s five economic stages to the modern concept of development, although Unwin arrives at Rostow along a different path. Unwin starts his lineage before the Enlightenment through the works of Locke, Descartes, Bacon, and Hobbes which were “essential to later discourses about rationality, empiricism and the rights and duties of individuals” (8).

The doctrine of social evolution in the 19th century can be seen as the final extension of these long-tailed arrows pointing toward the modern development paradigm. Comte’s stages move from theology to metaphysics to scientific fact verified by experience; Marx begins with feudalism, then bourgeois capitalism, ending with communist society; and Morgan’s stages bring humankind from savagery, through barbarism, to civilization. Although each set of stages reflects the author’s specific field of interest, they each share three important characteristics:

“[T]hat progress has the same substance (or nature) as history; that all nations travel the same road; and that all do not advance at the same speed as Western society, which therefore has an indisputable ‘lead’ because of the greater size of its production, the dominant role that reason plays within it, and the scale of its scientific and technological discoveries” (40).

This brand of cultural one-sidedness or arrogance is what Latour calls particular universalism: “One society – and it is always the Western one – defines the general framework of Nature with respect to which the others are situated” (105). The ‘natural’ process of development is the “notion of human progress as a continual process of internal and external expansion based on values of rationality, secularity and efficiency” (Castles, 2). Internal expansion in this definition refers essentially to the economic, industrial, and governmental growth “of the modern capitalist nation-state” while external expansion refers to “European colonisation of the rest of the world, with the accompanying diffusion of western values, institutions and technologies” (Castles, 2).

This was the face of development until the time of the Second World War. Until that time, the Western paradigm of cultural primacy stuck to its guns of binary dichotomization: we are civil, the other is savage; we are rational, the other is superstitious; we are meant to lead, the other is meant to follow; and so on. Since the mid-40s, several modern development movements have departed from the explicit hegemony of Western thought, transitioning through stages that focus on “economic growth, to growth with equity, to basic needs, to participatory development, to sustainable development” (Agrawal, 1).

Collision – ICT4D and the drive to embrace Indigenous Knowledge

Over the last two decades, two separate but notable advancements in development have occurred: ICTs have become a critical component and the discourse and practical implementation of development and sustainable practice has grown to accept the need to incorporate indigenous knowledge.

In April of 2000, five months before the adoption of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the United Nations established the ICT Task Force, “intended to lend a truly global dimension to the multitude of efforts to bridge the global digital divide, foster digital opportunity and thus firmly put ICT at the service of development for all” (http://www.unicttaskforce.org/about/). In September, 192 UN member nations and 23 international aid organizations agreed to reach eight development goals by the year 2015. The MDGs entail eradicating extreme poverty and hunger; achieving universal primary education; promoting gender equality and empowering women; reducing child mortality; improving maternal health; combating HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases; ensuring environmental sustainability; and developing a global partnership for development (The Millennium Development Goals Report 2008). In the foreword of the UNCTAD e-Commerce and Development Report 2002, Former Secretary-General of the UN, Kofi Annan, underscored the direct relationship between ICTs and the MDGs:

“If the world is serious about achieving the Millennium Development Goal of halving the number of people living in extreme poverty by the year 2015, ICT must figure prominently in the effort. Everyone – governments, civil society and private sector businesses – has a vital stake in fostering digital opportunity and putting ICT at the service of development.”

The other thread appearing in development discourse was the recognition of the importance of indigenous knowledge to the outcome of development programs. This presented a radical break from the long Western tradition of development in which indigenous knowledge was “discriminated against as hindering progress, outdated, ‘old wives tales’ or simply just unfashionable” (Mkapa, 15). Unwin captures the essence of this movement in development practices:

“Without sufficient understanding of, and adaptation to, these systems, it is unlikely that such interventions will be successful, and the probability of unanticipated consequences will be much higher than if such practices are tailored to the to the specific needs of the communities with whom they are designed” (49).

While such a shift seems likely to bear fruit in terms of effective deployment, in practice, it also creates the same kind of rift identified at the beginning of this essay. How does one negotiate the binary dichotomization between ICTs, which are deeply infused with Western memes, and the indigenous knowledge which promises to make such interventions successful? How does one make effective use of indigenous knowledge without engaging in dubious practices such as biopiracy “whereby Western commercial interests claim products and innovations derived from indigenous traditions as their ‘intellectual property’ (through protections such as patents)” (Carr-Chellman, 6)?

One might be tempted to think that the MGDs in conjunction with the ICT Task Force would together guard against these dichotomies and to allay the criticisms regarding the potential for computer-mediated colonialism in the execution of ICT4D. However, ICT4D includes a wide range of issues such as “technology policy, connectivity to the internet, low-cost devices, power, and designing services to help the economically disadvantaged rise out of poverty or improve their standard of living” (Brewer, 25). That wide range of technologies and services implies the involvement of multiple stakeholders and various opportunities for systemic abuse which complicates the picture.

So where do we go from here? Does the future of development present us with a stalemate – or is there a way to resolve the conflict inherent in the dual development of ICT4D and the call for the inclusion of indigenous knowledge?

Not Either Or But Both And (Or Neither)

In the last half of this essay, we will explore a variety of approaches from several disparate fields that may offer pathways to answering these questions. In doing so, we must suspend our need to recognize familiar constellations among an array of points and allow for different metaphors and unfamiliar perspectives. Once again, Hodja has something to teach us…

A beggar had only a stale piece of bread to eat. Hoping to get something to go with it, he went to a nearby inn to beg for a handout. The innkeeper turned him away, but the beggar snuck into the kitchen where he found a large pot of soup cooking over the fire. He held his piece of bread over the steaming pot, hoping to capture a bit of flavor from the good-smelling steam. Suddenly the innkeeper came in and accused him of stealing soup. “I took nothing – I was only smelling the soup!” cried the beggar. “Then you shall pay for the smell,” answered the innkeeper. Since the beggar was poor, the angry innkeeper dragged him before the qadi, Nassreddin Hodja. Hodja heard the innkeeper’s complaint and the beggar’s explanation. “So you expect this poor man to pay for the smell of your soup?” Hodja asked the innkeeper. “Yes!” was the answer. “Then I will pay you,” said Hodja taking two coins from his pocket. Rubbing the coins together, Hodja said, “I will pay for the smell of your soup with the sound of money.” And he sent them both on their way.

This story reminds us that sometimes the answers to our questions may be found in unlikely places – in spaces between traditional paths. The following considerations are meant to apply specifically to the problems of incorporating indigenous knowledge in ICT4D programs and more broadly to the philosophical problem of mediating the differences between Western and indigenous ways of knowing.

First let us address Haraway’s “suspect technology for the production of meanings.” Humans are particularly fond of binary dichotomies. Some common examples:

figure | ground
hot | cold
man | woman
dead | alive
vertebrate | invertebrate
man | machine
good | evil

Without much work, we can begin to see why the technology is suspect. By the logic of the chart, both woman and machine are the opposites of man. Some dichotomies are a matter of degrees (hot and cold), others a matter of physical difference (vertebrate and invertebrate), and yet others a matter of moral difference (good and evil). In common usage (not mathematical, for example), they are rarely jointly exhaustive. With this in mind, the idea that Western and indigenous are somehow opposite or critically incompatible is fallacious. They are different to be sure, but as Rist argues:

“To consider modern society as different from others, on the pretext that it is secular and rational, is actually a result of Western arrogance. As there is no society which is not based upon traditions and beliefs, nothing indicates that Western society is lacking them either – even if they are different from those of other societies. It is necessary to reject the ‘great divide’ between ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity’, for modernity itself lies within a tradition” (21).

The title of this subsection is somewhat confusing at first. The idea that something might not be one thing or another but possibly both – or neither, defies the rule of binary logic that cuts in two the world around us. I am not the first to suggest deconstructing dichotomies, nor is it particularly original to discussions of cultural understanding. Recently Pickering (1992) recast science, not as the opposite of indigenous thinking, but as itself, a culture. He explored the ways in which scientific understanding is situated within specific cultural contexts. As Irani notes, invoking Verran and Turnbull, “What this suggests, then, is that the encounters between western science and other cultures is not simply an encounter between different technologies and different capabilities, but between different culturally-bound ways of knowing” (2). If we accept this construction, by what means then can one translate between different ways of knowing?

Transmodern, Trading Zones, and Postcolonial Moments

Borrowing from the field of organizational development, we may call the translation between different ways of knowing knowledge transfer. Several of the challenges of organizational knowledge transfer parallel those of cultural knowledge transfer: the inability to recognize and articulate tacit knowledge (Nonaka & Takeuchi, 1), limitations endemic to ICTs (Roberts, 429), problems associated with misconceptions, language confusion, generational differences, conflicting cultural norms, and lack of trust. Turnbull proposes a solution to problems of knowledge transfer by way of Dussel:

“[M]odernity and its negated altereity co-realise themselves in a process of mutual creative fertilisation. The kind of fertilisation between differing knowledge traditions that Dussel envisions in his concept of the transmodern requires the establishment of a third space. A third space would be an interstitial space, a space that is created through negotiation between spaces, where contrasting rationalities can work together but without the notion of a single transcendent rationality . . . This, I suggest, is not feasible at the purely representational level. For differing knowledge traditions to coexist in a common third space they need to simultaneously agree to build such a space and to perform together” (234).

This idea is akin to the classic Hegelian dialectic model of change by which thesis, countered by antithesis, results in the synthesis of something new. A practical example of this interstitial or third space, introduced by Watkins and Russo, is the use of digital cultural communication (new media) in a cultural museum to allow users to become co-creators of knowledge by providing tools and methods which enable the co-construction of creative artefacts (144). Compare Dussel’s transmodern to Galison’s trading zone. Although Galison is addressing subcultures in the field of physics, his ideas are germane to this discussion:

“In particular, the two cultures may bring to what I call the trading zone objects that carry radically different significance for the donor and recipient. What is crucial is that in the highly local context of the trading zone, despite the differences in classification, significance, and standards of demonstration, the two groups can collaborate. They can come to consensus about the procedure of exchange, about mechanisms to determine when the goods are ‘equal’ to one another” (146).

Turnbull seems to imply that the negotiation of differences will result in the co-creation of the third space, whereas Galison describes an exchange that does not change the individual nature of the donor or recipient. Consider the use of global positioning systems by Baka Pygmies in Cameroon to identify sacred areas within the surrounding forest. The information they collect helps logging companies to respect important cultural landmarks that otherwise might have become casualties of commercialism. In this case, the Baka are not changing their customs or identity by using the GPS devices and the logging company doesn’t change its essential nature (although they do adjust their maps to accommodate the Baka).
Verran offers an alternative to Turnbull and Galison through the concept of postcolonial moments:

“Increasing possibilities for cooperation while respecting difference, postcolonial moments can lead to making amends for past injustice. Elaborating a post-colonial moment involves both making separations, and connecting by identifying sameness. But ‘sameness’ here is not a dominating universalizing. On the contrary, sameness in a postcolonial moment enables difference to be collectively enacted” (730).

Verran illustrates her notion of the postcolonial moment by juxtaposing “a story of Aboriginal landowners demonstrating their firing strategies with a story of environmental scientists elaborating their regimes of burning.”

We can find resonance with Verran’s postcolonial moments in two unlikely places: Eastern philosophy and Western rhetoric. First, take the dynamics of duality and plurality intrinsic to the yin-yang. Kim explains that, “Within this complex structure, the opposite components exist together in a ‘both-and’ mutuality rather than ‘either-or’ reduction . . . This dynamic correlation is not static, but fluid, constantly changing and flowing within the mutual reciprocity” (307). The opposing entities of the yin-yang stand side-by-side as they “coerce, challenge, and correct each other in mutual interaction.” These same words could be used in place of those Bhabha uses to describe culture’s ‘inbetween’: “This ‘part’ culture, this partial culture, is the contaminated yet connective tissue between cultures – at once the impossibility of culture’s containedness and the boundary between. It is indeed something like culture’s ‘inbetween,’ bafflingly both alike and different” (54).

Moving from theory to practice

We know that the UN has created an ICT Task Force and laid out an ambitious 8-part Millennium Development Goals proclamation. We know the history of development (in broad brush strokes) and how the current trends involve the use of ICTs in development programs. What do these programs look like when ICTs are deployed without forethought? How does one distinguish between good and bad ICT deployments? In answer to these questions, let us take a look at some case studies that will serve as cautionary tales and as exemplars.

South Africa has established Learning Centres “intended to empower indigenous peoples by helping them take advantage of the multiple potentials and capacities of ICTs” (Ess, 1). A review of the Learning Centres however shows a steady stream of failure. Why? “[I]n part, because of basic cultural conflicts. Briefly, the Centres reflect their designer’s Western emphasis on individual and silent learning – in contrast with indigenous preferences for learning in collaborative and often noisy, performative ways” (Ess, 1). Since the technologies and social contexts of the Learning Centres favored the communication style and cultural values of the designers, “these values and preferences clash with those of the indigenous peoples the Centres are intended to serve, with almost total failure as a result” (Ess, 1).

Moving from the particular to the general, consider how the following example of conserving indigenous knowledge is doomed from the outset. According to many theorists, “the prime strategy for conserving indigenous knowledge is ex situ conservation, i.e., isolation, documentation and storage in international, regional and national archives” (Agrawal, 4). This is the least expensive and technically easiest approach. And yet, a basic understanding of the nature of indigenous knowledge should guide us to realize that the attempt to “essentialize, isolate, archive and transfer such knowledge” ex situ is an inappropriate conservation strategy.

Both of these examples show the culture blindness that can occur due both to the Western mindset embedded within the implementation of the technology and the lack of consideration practiced in the development process. The following examples show the successful attainment of the transmodern ‘third space’ or postcolonial moment.

In the event that the tacit nature of an indigenous practice doesn’t lend itself to recording and storage within a digital archive or database, “information about locations, individuals or organizations that can demonstrate or teach a practice could be used as a pointer to the source of IK” (Sen 377). Instead of forcing the round peg of intuitive practice into the square hole of an ill-suited archival practice, only the metadata is stored for searching, retrieval, and transmission. “What is exchanged is not the knowledge itself but meta-information: Who has the relevant knowledge and how to contact them” (Ranganathan, 7). The actual knowledge transfer would happen in the traditional way, person-to-person, without the interference of development methodologies inconsistent with cultural ways of knowing and doing.

Ess provides another example of successful development practice that shows how the Malaysian government went about introducing Internet access to the Kelabit, a highland people on the island of Borneo:

“A research team – including an anthropologist originally from the Kelabit community – first developed a base-line socio-economic profile of the community in order to establish the context and content of Internet use most suited to the extant community culture and communication preferences (Harris et al, 2001). This profile – and the subsequent success of the project – demonstrate the importance of structuring ICT content and use to meet the more collaborative and oral orientations of the community” (2).


So, the critics are right: misguided ICT4D implementation that doesn’t take into consideration a wide range of cultural factors and explicitly or implicitly imposes Western processes or structures upon indigenous recipients does constitute a new form of computer-mediated colonialism. And yes, the proponents of ICT4D are right: ICTs, when implemented thoughtfully and respectfully – keeping the needs of the recipients at the fore – can be powerful agents of change in the fight to reduce poverty and improve the lives of marginalized peoples in developing nations. Our friend Hodja – who represents the interstitial spaces where effective practices can be synthesized or co-created? He is right, too.

Works Cited

Agrawal, Arun. “Indigenous and scientific knowledge: some critical comments.” IK Monitor. Vol. 3, Issue 3, 1995.

Brewer, Eric, et al., “The case for technology in developing regions,” Computer. Vol. 38, 2005.

Carr-Chellman, Alison A. “Stealing Our Smarts: Indigenous knowledge in On-Line Learning.” Seminar.net – International journal of media, technology and lifelong learning. Vol. 1, Issue 2, 2005.

Castles, Stephen. “Development, social transformation and globalisation.” Presentation given at a Centre for Asia Pacific Social Transformation Studies workshop, 23-25 June 1999.

Dutton, William H., and Malcolm Peltu. “Information and communication technologies: visions and realities.” Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Ess, Charles. “Questioning the Obvious? Ethical and Cultural Dimensions of CMC and ICTs.” Springfield: Drury University, 2004. Accessed at URL http://www.funredes.org/lc/documentos/Questioning_the_obvious.pdf on 1 May 2009.

Galison, Peter. “Image & logic: A material culture of microphysics.” Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1997.

Gigler, Björn-Sören. “Including the Excluded – Can ICTs empower poor communities? Towards an alternative evaluation framework based on the capacity approach.” Paper presented at the 4th International Conference on the Capability Approach, 5-7 September 2004. University of Pavia, Italy. Accessed at URL http://cfs.unipv.it/ca2004/papers/gigler.pdf on 1 May 2009.

Irani, Lilly and Paul Dourish. “Portability of Design Research Methods: Cultural Differences in the Creation of Technological Knowledge.” Paper presented at the HCI for community and international development workshop at CHI 2008, 5 – 6 April 2008. Florence, Italy. Accessed at URL http://www.cc.gatech.edu/%7Emikeb/HCI4CID/uploads/Irani.doc on 1 May 2009.

Keane, Fergal. “GPS helps Pygmies defend forest.” BBC News, Cameroon. 30 January 2008. Accessed at URL http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/7218078.stm on 1 May 2009.

Kim, H. C. P. “Interpretative modes of yin-yang dynamics as an Asian hermeneutics.” Biblical Interpretation. Vol 9, 2001.

Mkapa, Benjamin. “Indigenous knowledge—a local pathway to global development.” The World Bank, Africa Region: Knowledge and Learning Group, 2004.

Nonaka, I. and H. Takeuchi. “The knowledge-creating company.” New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.
Pickering, Andrew. “Science as Practice and Culture.” University Of Chicago Press, 1992.

Ranganathan, Arvind. “Using ICT to place Indigenous Knowledge Systems at the heart of Education for Sustainable Development.” Unpublished, 2004.

Rist, Gilbert. “The history of development: from western origins to global faith.” 2nd ed. London: Zed Books, 2002.

Roberts, Joanne. “From Know-how to Show-how: Questioning the Role of Information and Communication Technologies in Knowledge Transfer.” Technology Analysis & Strategic Management, Vol. 12 (4), 2000.

Sen, Bharati. “Indigenous knowledge for development: Bringing research and practice together.” The International Information & Library Review, Vol 37, 2005.

“The Millennium Development Goals Report 2008.” New York: United Nations, 2008.

Toure, K., Diarra, M.L., Karsenti, T., and Tchaméni-Ngamo, S. “Reflections on Cultural Imperialism and Pedagogical Possibilities Emerging from Youth Encounters with Internet in Africa.” In K. Toure, T.M.S. Tchombe, & T. Karsenti (Eds.), ICT and Changing Mindsets in Education. Bamenda, Cameroon: Langaa; Bamako, Mali: ERNWACA / ROCARE, 2008.

Turnbull, David. “Masons, Tricksters and Cartographers: Comparative Studies in the Sociology of Scientific and Indigenous Knowledge.” Taylor & Francis, 2000.

Verran, Helen. “A Postcolonial Moment in Science Studies: Alternative Firing Regimes of Environmental Scientists and Aboriginal Landowners,” Social Studies of Science, Vol. 32, 2002.

Watkins, J. and Russo, A. “Digital Cultural Communication: designing co-creative new media environments.” Creativity & Cognition, Proceedings 2005, ed. L. Candy, ACM SIGCHI, 2005.

The Ethnos Project was a research initiative (2008-2018) that explored the intersection of Indigeneity and information and communication technologies (ICTs) such as:

  • open source databases for Indigenous Knowledge management
  • information and communication technologies for development (ICT4D) initiatives
  • new and emerging technologies for intangible cultural heritage
  • social media used by Indigenous communities for social change
  • mobile technologies used for language preservation

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