Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Science, Technology and Socio-Cultural Perspective

Reflecting on some of the topics I nearly wrote my undergrad thesis on, I recently recalled that one of the things that initially interested me most about Africa was the interesting consequences of convoluting modern technology and science with Euro-American cultural bias in the context of colonial/postcolonial Africa. What so often has passed for "science" introduced in Africa by Europeans (and Americans) has also had implicit or overt socio-political meanings as well. In some cases this has created an ambivalence towards medicine and science (perhaps less so technology, although often this goes together with the other two). There is an incredible advantage for Africa in adopting new technologies and scientific and medical methods. However, the socio-cultural aspect of these adoptions play a somewhat complicated yet influential role in the benefit provided.

By coincidence, I just picked up on a GVO link to a blogger who attended a recent social activist conference in Nairobi dealing with the use of mobile phone technology. This blogger pointed out the lack of African involvement on the technology side:

The issue of how to deal with the ownership of technology and technological expertise was also discussed. All the technologists where white and tended to be white males. Why are African technologists not involved in development technology? And technology in general. These questions remain to be answered but definitely something that crops up repeatedly in any discussion on technology in Africa whether mobile phones or the internet.

Hmmm... how to address this...

Friday, May 25, 2007

Avaaz, YouTube, and a Clash of Meaning?

Stop the Clash of Civilizations? A new YouTube clip, produced by a NGO called Avaaz, cought my attention the other day. Interesting for a number of reasons. First, do they mean to perpetuate the bankurpt theories of Samual Huntington? The "Clash of Civilizations is the idea that the conflicts of the perceivable future will be centered around irreconcilable differences between stagnant regional civilizations. This of course would make sense to certain global figures who view the world in these black-and-white terms. However, for most of the sane world the premises of the idelology hold no water. I wonder why then this group would use this title to contextualize their message? I see it as not really preventing a clash of civilizations, but more deconstruting a faulty theory about clashing civilizations.

Avaaz is apparently backed by two goups, and a group called Res Publica. I've worked for, so I know a little about the organization. They were behind broad movements in 04 and 06 to help Democrats win US elections. In 06 they did this mainly through a vast telephone campaign aimed at getting "progressive" voters out to the polls. Unsurprisingly, the clip itself points to these huge telephone trees as the (only mentioned) reason for the Dems victory in 06. A nice little pat on its own back. MoveOn has always been internet savvy, but it looks like they are looking to utilize it even more through popular sites like YouTube. They are known to have a large and growing email base, an attractive aspect for many political organizations and candidates. There's no question that they are trying to position themselves as the leading internet activist group, as their hand in the broadly defined agenda of Avaaz indicates. Despite Republican efforts to thwart its growing influence, I'd look out for MoveOn in the next election. Personally, I'm interested in how closely they link themselves with an increasingly centrist Democratic party.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Wild Frontiers

A conversation with an old acquaintance earlier this week sparked a series of meditations on some strangely connected topics. We were talking about the “lawlessness” of the internet, with its disjointed structure and relative lack of overriding governance. Hackers, thieves, and disreputable people roam the web, making it a modern day wild (wild) west. The two features that truly popularized the internet, porn and ripped music, reveal how lawlessness has characterized the internet phenomenon since its popular beginnings.

Yet, how long will this last? Is the wild wild web, just like its 19th century predecessor, an ephemeral phenomenon? Even now issues of government oversight and internet neutrality seem to hint at the solidifying trajectory of the web. Governments such as China, Iran and Singapore seek authoritarian control over how the internet is used, and by whom. At the same time in the US and other capitalist countries regional and national internet service providers are lobbying for more control over access and marketability of the web. While these two efforts might have divergent goals and motives, they essentially signal the effort to control and manipulate this heretofore relatively open space (notwithstanding the obvious inherent private, elitest nature of access that cannot escape noting). I believe that there is still amazing potential for the internet to evolve into a tool that continues to help inform, educate, and facilitate socio-political equality. However, I fear that there is also the very real threat that this wild frontier will be destroyed by an overbearing urge to control.

* * *

On a seemingly divergent note- but one that shares a similar theme- I recently finished Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee, a revisionist historian’s (Dee Brown) look at the taming of the wild west from a Native American (or Native Indian, or just plain Indian, depending on who you are talking to) perspective. This book, first published in the 1970s, covers the American government’s conquest over the native peoples who originally inhabited this land. Proceeding both in chronological order and (roughly) by tribe, it is in essence the same story of greed-induced deceit, unimaginable cruelty, and devastating tragedy told in more than a dozen different contexts.

Putting aside the remarkably saddening picture the book paints of the interaction between whites and natives, an important lesson gleaned is the role socio-cultural perspective plays on interaction between different groups. In this story the idea of ownership and productivity play an incredibly important part in the conflict. These two pinnacles of capitalist idealogy serve as the backbone of misunderstanding between inhabitant and invader. From the native perspective, land was something that could not be bought or sold at any price. It did not belong to anyone in the sense that it could be bartered with or commodified. Inhabitants had a responsibility to the land, to ensure that it continued to sustain those who depended on it. This turned out to be a much more ecologically forward-looking perspective than that of the white settlers and government officials who came to dispossess these native inhabitants. What US government and white prospectors, farmers and merchants saw was the misuse of valuable natural resources by an ignorant group of people. Progress, the watchword of the 19th century industrialization era, dictated that land that wasn’t maximized for humans’ short-term benefits was ipso facto a waste. From the perspective of these Anglo invaders, the land’s bountiful resources were there to be exploited, and the land itself destined to be possessed, bought and sold.

Whites’ perspective on land and land use, along with their own greed for wealth, informed their opinions of the native tribes, who they saw as lazy, ignorant and undeserving of the land. The pressure to attain this land and properly utilize it necessitated the formulation of a doctrine, embodied in the 19th cenury idea of Manifest Destiny, which lent justification to the dispossession of Indian land by Anglos. The psychology needed to accompany these devastating and inhumane acts sprang from the differences in understanding of the relationship between civilization and nature. Hence, at the same time during which the worst of these atrocities were being committed by the US government, the development of the stereotype of Indian savagery also came into focus. This perspective can best be summed up in the words, later popularized, by US Army General Philip Sheriden to his Comanche prisoners: “The only good Indians I ever saw were dead” (Brown, 170. Interestingly, the idea of the “noble savage” only came about after this period when native tribes no longer posed any real threat and the memory of the “wild west” began to be romanticized by nostalgic whites).

The psychology of domination in the mid to late 19th century American West draws many similarities to imperial and colonial ideology exhibited by Europeans throughout much of the rest of the world at the same time. This was especially the case in Africa, where the conquest of the entire continent was taking place, and the introduction of Europeans and European culture was just beginning to impact indigenous tribes. In many ways, I believe Africa served as the European “wild west,” a vast expanse of “uninhabited” land, potentially rich in natural resources and needing only to be cleaned out and cleaned up. Religious conversion and salvation also played an important role in both conquests, and helped form the ideology of superiority needed to justify the conquest. Ultimately, the colonial psychology, much like the psychology of Manifest Destiny, eventually condoned incredible atrocity- today we would call it genocide- against native cultures, some of whom were driven to near extinction.

* * *

Looking back at the stories of 19th century imperial and colonial conquest helps bring perspective to today, where we continue to wrestle with issues of cross-cultural conflict. At the end of my diatribes I often ask myself where I fit into this picture. Am I working to deconstruct or perpetuate the present-day heirs of these ideologies, neo-imperialism and ethnocentrism? Does my well-intentioned belief in the positive power of technology and the internet merely mimic the well-intentioned beliefs of former religious and secular zealots who, through the imposition of their world views, destroyed the social and cultural fabric of many an unfortunate indigenous group? What am I doing but perpetuating Progress with a capital ‘P,’ facilitating the entry of previously unaffected people into a consumerist society, where their thoughts will be increasingly distorted by a degredated Euro/Ameri-centric capitalist frame. Do I want to perpetuate the tragedy of the American Indian, who have long exhibited the scars of forced assimilation and continue to be the foremost forgotten victims of American success? I believe there are some important differences, yet I acknowledge that there is a slippery slope when it comes to righting legacies of injustice in a modern world. Having a personal connection to the plight of the American Indian, and a significant interest in the search for post-colonial equality and justice, I find the crisscrossing of historical and sociological narratives that inform these situations distinctly interesting. Three different stories of wild frontiers- American, African and virtual- coalesce disjointedly in a disjointed world.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Recycling Computers in Kenya

This is exactly the type of work I think I might want to be involved with on my travel, although on a more integrated and grass-roots level. Computers are an area that I have (admittedly somewhat limited) knowledge of and access to. As I think I've said before, I'm thinking of bringing some computers over when I travel and use them as part of a computer education training course. Linking up with efforts already there will definitely help, however. But I think it would be a great project to get local bloggers and students involved. Definitely more brainstorming needs to be done.

Sunday, May 6, 2007

Deforestation in Uganda

Digging a little bit more into the Ugandan/Sub-Saharan Blogosphere the last couple of days has been lots of fun! This last post on Living Zach's Utopia was good for me. I had read a little about a deforestation project going in Uganda on GVO, but this put the issue more in the perspective of an environmental issue rather than a social/ethnic/whatever conflict. While I've always been concerned with the environment, having worked as an environmental advocate for the past year has made me more attentive to problems like deforestation. I only got a little way through the rest of Zach's posts, but hopefully I'll have time to get to some more. Zap!- up on my links column (dump).

Saturday, May 5, 2007

Ugandan Blogumentary

Just stumbled on this blog: A Ugandan Blogumentary. It’s authored by a group of Danish students who are working on a documentary about blogging in Uganda. They’d like to show the greater diversity in Africa’s socio-economic makeup, deconstructing the view many outside of Africa have of the continent as a whole. In one post they give some of the terms local Ugandan “blogren” use.

I also liked their post about traveling north to get a different perspective on blogging, away from the yuppie blogging crowd of Uganda. Here they point out that the Diocese of northern Uganda utilizes blogging mainly as a donor tool- quite a change from the purposes of the Kampala bloggers.

Looking ahead at a possible project, I was caught by the insensitivity my vision has towards the much more basic needs of northern Ugandan IDPs. Why would they care about blogging when they live barely a subsistence life-style? Then again, if the Diocese is more successful by using blogging and the internet, then perhaps it is in their interest. If local NGOs can better utilize the internet, then maybe they too can have a better chance at making a difference. How can technology be used in a constructive, local way? Is there space for this in a land where the infrastructure is so limited? I wonder…

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

A Shift Towards Africa

Hello again. After a rather lengthy break I've finally worked up the courage to post an update. There were a number of reasons for the intermission, including lack of time and lack of a clear vision of what I wanted to do with this space. Originally I had hoped to continue my investigation of the Iranian blogosphere. While I am still of course interested in this group, I have expanded my areas of interest. I am thinking specifically of shifting focus towards other geographic locations. Much of this has to do with the fact that I have decided to spend some time abroad traveling/working/volunteering. I'd really like to take advantage of this time to explore various regional blogospheres and the communities that they are created around. For this reason I'm hoping to use this blog as a springboard for ideas about this topic.

The majority of my trip will be spent in several locations in Africa. Right now likely places are Kampala (Uganda), Arusha (Tanzania) and Cape Town (South Africa), although nothing has been set in stone. Most likely I will be volunteering in these locations with groups that I hope to make contact with in the near future. Without much specialized skill my options are both vaguely wide and limited by experience. However, I definitely have some ideas about integrating my interest in blogging and volunteering. I'm specifically thinking of creating some sort of program that would link my hometown community here in the US with the communities I live with over in Africa. I feel that I could optimize this trip by educating both groups about the other and connecting them through the internet.

The obvious limitation on this idea is the fact that Africa is generally very poor, has very limited infrastructure, and lacks easy internet accessibility. I don’t know much about the specifics, but I can guess that the internet is limited mostly to large urban areas, that connection speed and technology are unwieldy, and that only the rich can afford to connect. While I see this as a major obstacle to any sort of internet outreach project, I also see it as a potentially exciting opportunity to increase access for people who might not have a chance otherwise. Thus, much of the work in Africa would focus on increasing this accessibility and training. Possible means of doing this would be by providing the necessary as well as training students and others on how to use computers and the internet (including, obviously, blogs).

I would imagine that there are possibly other projects already going on that are doing what I’m envisioning. No doubt bloggers in countries like Tanzania or Uganda probably work to increase blogging and internet usage in at least a limited way. I definitely would like to link up with these people/groups and learn how I can integrate my effort with them.

Embarking on this quest to explore new blogging communities is daunting. My experience with the Iranian blogosphere has taught me how ephemeral, fragile, and malleable these communities are, not to mention how vast the blogosphere landscape is. It took me months to feel somewhat comfortable with even just the Iranian English-blogging subset. Of course, I’ve begun my investigations by tapping my favorite global blogging index. I think I’ll need to make some further inquiries however.