Software Studies, rethinking computing for development in Africa
The field of computer science builds on the lifetime work of people like Vannevar Bush and the Western industry, military and government interest he represents. Most of what has been developed post 1940 is built to serve these basic interests. Modern day computing has almost wholly emerged out of a western context and with a western user in mind. The subsequent ‘computing age’ is thus an artifact of the same culture, embedding its values at different stages of its development. Recognizing the historical roots of the computing phenomena, and the culture it embodies, helps us to understand its odd shape when placed in other parts of the world. Only by recognizing these points of intersection are we able to see viable alternatives.
At the same time, software’s growing role in society makes it an important component of any ICT4D debate. Software increasingly acts as the glue that holds society together. It is the middle layer that collects, organizes and distributes our data and information. It is the organization of code that increasingly controls our systems and manages our actions. As Mathew Fuller explains in his book Software Studies, a Lexicon, ‘as software becomes a putatively mature part of societal formations (or at least enters a phase where, in the global north, generations are now born into it as an infrastructural element of daily life), we need to gather and make palpable a range of associations and interpretations of software to be understood and experimented with.’ It is the pervasiveness of software and its critical function that makes it an important point of study. At the same time its relevance is not exclusive to the North but is increasingly part of African life too. It is only a matter of time before each person on the African continent owns or has access to a mobile phone and is thereby subject to the same ‘infrastructural element of daily life’ experienced elsewhere. Software is increasingly pervasive the world over, also in Africa, and it is exactly in the fringes of the global information society that the questions need to be asked most.
As Matti Tedre and Ron Eglash argue in their article Ethnocomputing, ‘there are two central arguments: a design/social justice argument and a theoretical/academic argument. The first argument is that a better understanding of the cultural dimensions of computing can improve the design of computational devices and practices in disadvantaged groups and third world populations. The second argument is that an understanding of the cultural dimensions of computing can enrich the disciplinary self-understanding of computer science at large.’ Both arguments open up a new space for analysis that not only better serves the needs of marginalized populations but demands a better understanding of computer sciences at its core foundations.
This line of thinking aims to break down the historical mantra, the idea that solutions come from the north and problems from the south. The challenge in creating a ‘paradigm of equals’ stem from our own definitions and the intrinsic belief that knowledge is localized in developed countries. Matti Tedre and Ron Eglash make the point that, ‘one of the most difficult barriers to the research of Ethnocomputational ideas is the unequal assessment of knowledge in locations of high social power (e.g., Western, first-world, high-tech) and knowledge at the margins of social power (e.g., indigenous, third-world, vernacular).’ To this extent Ethnocomputing moves to encompass both worlds meaning neither is given preference over the other. To this extent, there is reason to believe cultural variation should be celebrated as opposed to the technology that too often precedes it. We fail to recognize our cultural differences as important sources of ideas, alternative lines of thinking that lead to new forms of problem solving. If anything, it is cultural diversity that puts oneself, and the technology we use, into its proper context.
Andrew Pickering argues science builds on a history of adaptations. This is not a process of complete replacement. Out of experiments society receives critical feedback needed to improve a design or modify a system. He makes clear that this process builds on technical, social, and natural relations. As cited in Ethnocomputing, ‘there are undoubtedly universal physical laws that govern the operation of computational devices, but only through a multiplicity of experiments – whether carried out by silicon chips, carved African game boards, or the generation of theorems and proofs – can one learn those disciplines.’ It is this learning process that is critical to understanding, using, deconstructing and building effective technologies. Unfortunately, and as seen with the OLPC project, this process too often occurs without the input of the very stakeholders who ultimately depend on a technology. A greater value should be placed on the cultural feedback loops otherwise too often ignored. Whether it is a computer hacker living in the global north or a young .net artist living in the global south its clear knowledge builds from the scientific process the world over.
By studying the role of software in a place like Africa it becomes possible to reflect on the subject of software itself, and in a dialectic turn, steer its further progress. It is important to look beyond its use and into its local production, where applications are deconstructed and designed for a local context. Otherwise the individuals who have the knowledge, skills and motivation needed to translate modern technologies to the needs and desires of their local surroundings. This approach looks beyond the technical and places a new focus on these ‘cultural bridge figures’ instead. By understanding the ways in which they connect to the global information society we are able to better understand how technologies need to be modified and adapted to meet the needs of the cultures they represent.
Given the rapid spread of mobile communication and growing Internet connectivity, it is only a matter of time before the entire global population is connected, the reality being that most of the new users live in the developing parts of the world. This phenomenon requires us to rethink computing and forces us to recognize a rapidly changing context in which it is applied. More specifically, it means we need to appreciate the perspective of new users and thereby broaden our historical perspective. As these new digital populations become part of an increasingly powerful economic base, as seen in countries such as China, India and Brazil, alternative versions of the information society are bound to appear.