Saturday, August 04, 2012

Indigenous Australians and ICTs

While writing my last post, (which was really just a place holder for more notes on the idea) I tried to find research publications on the use of equivalent words and concepts to 'please' and 'thank-you' in traditional Australian Indigenous culture. I didn't find much out of a cursory glance, but I did find Cultural Issues in the Adoption of Information and Communications Technology by Indigenous Australians. Written in 2004 by Laurel Evelyn Dyson. Faculty of Information Technology, University of Technology, Sydney.
Abstract. This paper investigates cultural issues concerning Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) and Indigenous Australians. Firstly, it examines whether the low adoption of ICTs by Indigenous Australians derives from a rejection of Western values embodied in the technology. A review of the existing literature shows no evidence for this. Instead, there appears to be an overwhelmingly enthusiastic response, limited only by a difficulty in accessing the technology due to cost, isolation, poor telecommunications infrastructure and low computer skills. Secondly, the paper looks at how ICTs can be implemented to reflect particular Indigenous Australian cultural concerns. Contrary to the view of the technological pessimists, who see computers as a vehicle for marginalizing non-Western cultures, ICTs are shown to be adaptable to other cultures, especially once people from that culture have input into ICT design and management. A number of examples of how this is being done in practice are given.
What interests me about this paper is that it responds to an issue that I have been trying to learn more about - that technology can mediate a form of neo-colonialism and cultural imperialism over non-western cultures. It also relates to work I find myself doing these days - developing online teaching capacity in the Northern Territory of Australia.

Before attempting a review and critique of this paper, I'd like to say I know nothing about the author Laurel Dyson, or the Faculty's work at UTS. I'm merely offering a response on my little blog, to a thankfully open access paper, in an effort to develop my own awareness and position around the issues, and offer something back - hopefully useful, even if critical.

Laurel's paper offers a response to the concern that ICTs embody an ideology that may be at odds with, or further influence and dominate sensitive, non-western cultures, specifically Indigenous Australian cultures. Laurel categorises such concerns as techno pessimism, citing Neil Postman as an example of "extreme pessimism" based on a reference to his book Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology.

I'd never really considered critical perspective such as Postman's as pessimistic, a warning rather, and I'd certainly never thought such criticism might be construed as being " excuse to exclude already economically disadvantaged groups from the power and benefits of ICTs", as Laurel puts it. Unfortunately this startling suggestion does not get any expansion in the paper, but does repeat in the conclusion.

At that, I suppose I might indeed be pessimistic - that criticism of technology will ever get proper consideration by ICT producers, researchers and policy makers - if "pessimism" is deemed an appropriate categorisation of the criticism, and that suggestions of an undisclosed or unrealised agenda do not require further explanation. But I am impressed to have found an open access paper that has a crack at responding to such concerns, I rarely find that!

To establish an appreciation of the "pessimist" view, Laurel refers to Neil Postman to support a pretty good summary of the concern.
There have been many concerns expressed by computer ethicists about the nonneutrality of Information and Communication Technology (ICT). These worries centre around the idea that ICTs, like all technologies, come embedded with the values of the society which produced them.  Associated with this view are reservations about the extent to which ICTs can move away from the dominant culture for which they were designed and be adapted to reflect other cultural values and interests.  
I think Postman was a good choice to support this summary, he was a popular and accessible author on the topic. But to only use Postman was not enough. To have excluded Chet Bowers' Let Them Eat Data, or Ivan Illich's Tools for Conviviality, leaves out significant authors who have worked with people and communities dealing with the mediation of ideology in technology. Inclusion of these author's as references at least, might have offered readers variations, extensions and depth to the "pessimist's" perspective. I appreciate a paper such as this has only limited space, and that any number of major authors could have been used (McLuhan, Foucault..), but the critical theories that lead to the central question of this paper should have been given more support than a reference to a single author.

After the brief appreciation of the critical perspective, Laurel offered a response, starting with researched findings that had been published on Indigenous Australian rates of ICT adoption. In short, it was found that as of 2004 there were low rates of computer ownership, poor levels of computer literacy, low enrolment in IT courses at institutions of tertiary education, and low numbers of Indigenous professionals working with ICTs. To expand on this finding, Laurel then considered what levels of access Indigenous Australians had to ICTs. In short, cost, environment and difficulty in developing skills, were listed as barriers to access.

Rather than use these findings to suggest some confirmation of the concerns of the "pessimists" (such as a suggestion that Indigenous Australians were seeing little relevance in ICTs, perhaps because they did not recognise the "power and benefits of ICTs"), Laurel moved to looking at where Indigenous Australians were (and are still today) said to be accessing and adopting ICTs - the schools (in many ways another form of ICT said to embody and mediate a dominant ideology...)

In the section on ICT use by Indigenous Australian school children, one reference went to a 2003 project in Redfern, Sydney, where kids had access to a computer centre after school, and could surf the web, listen to music and play games, and that centre measurably improved the kid's computer literacy and skills. The other references went to projects reported on in 1987, 89, and 92.

I'm skeptical of the significance of the findings in the 1980s projects, in supporting ideas of successful engagement in ICTs up to 2004. Computing in Australian society in the 1980s was niche to say the least, and resembled very little of the personal, in-the-home, Internet connected computing that was undergoing rapid growth in Australia in 2004.

Furthermore, I don't think the enthusiasm of Indigenous kids in schools can be used as evidence to counter the concerns held by pessimists. ICTs neither had the time, nor the cross generational influence to know if concerns were developing in Indigenous Australian communities about the culture they encouraged. The projects cited by Laurel were working with children, who were no doubt negotiating a challenging tension between the dominant culture and their own, in school environments where the dominant culture had the proportion of power.

The section on ICT use by Indigenous Australians engaging in tertiary levels of school education made reference to one project, reported on in 1993,
Henderson, L.:  1993, Computers:  A Tool of Empowerment in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education, in N. Loos and T. Osanai (eds), Indigenous Minorities and Education: Australian and Japanese Perspectives of their Indigenous Peoples, the Ainu, Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, Sayushi, Tokyo.
where an acknowledgement of the concerns of the pessimists is offered:
Henderson warns of the necessity for computer software and its deployment to be culturally appropriate.   She notes the dependence of much computer teaching on drill and learning of facts,  rather than discussion of complex issues, and sees computers as having the potential to  reinforce the existing power hierarchies rather than challenge them on behalf of less  privileged groups if used inappropriately.
Given that open source software and hardware has made next to no in roads into schools, or across Australian society generally, I struggle to see how it has been possible to address these concerns, such as to modify commonly used software or "deploy" that software in culturally appropriate ways... hat tip to the APY Lands Project, and the One Laptop Per Child Australia project - a project I have had reservations about however.

Finally, Laurel lists a range of examples where ICTs are said to be empowering Indigenous Australians. Here I offer a critical response to a few of them.

Information systems for cultural maintenance
The file serving of digitised elements of culture does not necessarily serve to "ensure its survival". If digital repositories are neither accessed or engaged with by the majority of people who own that culture; and given that those repositories aren't able to convey the more complex meanings in language, song, stories, iconography etc; and if nothing is done to stem the dominant culture overwhelming efforts to pass on traditional culture to younger generations, how is a digital repository "ensuring the survival of culture"? At best, I can see that it might help reduce ignorance and a sense of stigma toward traditional culture in the dominating culture, but preserving and maintaining living culture seems to me to be an over statement...

Language learning
What I have learned about Northern Australian languages is that they are very complex, where names and objects embody dense meaning and association. I'll have to assume that living languages down south carry the same complexity. The non indigenous people who speak some of these languages admit that although they are fluent, having not grown up with the language they misunderstand much of the meaning, and they may never be fully functional members of the culture they speak the language of. Having access to recordings and language learning resources through computers and digital media will have the same limitations if not more.

In saying that, I attended a presentation of the Country Lines project where a team of media producers are working with a non Indigenous fella who is a fluent language speaker, to develop 3D animated depictions of stories in Indigenous Australian songs. The result is reportedly an enthusiastic response from the kids and elders alike, because the stories are appearing in a contemporary (dominant culture?) medium, which is helping to reduce a local sense of stigma for culture and so helping to maintain an audience for the elders in the younger generations. But it must be a bitter irony, to see that through the processes, artifacts and consumer economics of a dominating culture, is the hope of retaining some interest in some traditional culture.

Protection of Indigenous intellectual property
Laurel described a technical development in XML to mark and technically "protect" Indigenous intellectual property. Never mind the idea that intellectual property might be a concept being foisted onto Indigenous Australian culture here, despite its very problematic existence in the dominant culture, there are of course numerous examples of crass appropriation of Indigenous Australian culture by art dealers and tourist souvenir producers, and many others. I can't see how rights management software will do anything to prevent this, just as the music and entertainment industry is always on the back foot with digital recording and reproduction technologies.

But what of the dubious respect given to the moral rights of Indigenous Australians? How many photos have we seen of Indigenous Australian kids happily playing with computers, being used to promote a positive angle on the deployment of say, the One Laptop Per Child project, or the delivery of iPads into remote Indigenous communities? Was an informed consent really obtained for the use of these children's image for endorsement on websites, newspapers, brochures and conference presentations? Or did they simply rely on the blanket release that schools and their departments collect?

ICTs more broadly, could be said to be creating problems in their "solutions", that were non existant, or not so prevalent before. In the case of IP, introducing yet another legal concept with technical complexity, without the communities having much of an opportunity to consider the range of implications and possible alternatives.

Let me finish in saying, I have no experience or expertise with Indigenous Australian cultures, and the projects that Laurel reports on is admirable work. I'm just an arm chair commentator writing to the relative security of my own blog, to a quickly diminishing audience. Perhaps this should be enough to realise I probably shouldn't express an opinion or position on this highly sensitive and important subject at all, but in this instance I've randomly found a research publication that is speaking to an issue I have spent a little time delving into. I admire the work that anyone is doing to help Indigenous societies flourish anywhere, especially in Australia. I'm pretty certain that I don't harbour " excuse to exclude already economically disadvantaged groups from the power and benefits of ICTs".

I think I have witnessed both the empowering and disempowering aspects of ICTs enough to have developed a significant amount of skepticism toward the technology and especially the unnerving tendency of people to use it to amplify our pre-existing conditions rather than solve any problems. I guess I am joining with Illich, Postman, Bowers - not in pessimism, but in pleading with other professionals working with ICTs, to develop much more of a critical, reflective and self conscious appreciation of their work, and find a way out of having to justify work in terms of return on investment, and measurable success.

Friday, August 03, 2012


Sunshine, Eve and I just returned from a week in Ubud, Bali. Despite the seemingly unchecked growth in tourism in Bali - the people and their art, their land and its beauty have retained so much.

Here's an 8 minute video we made on my phone at nights.

Please, thank-you, ownership, attribution

By Steven Depolo
I'm amazed at how relatively difficult it is to teach Eve to say please and thank-you. I bet many people wonder why it should be so difficult, to instill such a concept onto our children. But what is that concept exactly? It's of course much more than politeness.

I think it's about ownership and attribution. Now, just suspend your possible reaction to a negative connotation on the word ownership in relation to politeness. To say "please" to someone (as in to embellish a request, not to ask for pleasure) is to acknowledge that person's sovereignty over something - or ownership. To say "thank you" to someone is to acknowledge their giving something of that to you. (I don't have anything to support that assertion, I just made it up. Any linguists out there want to set me straight?)

So, if it is a common difficulty to teach young children when to say please and thank-you (and I mean difficult in relation to most other concepts and actions at that age) could it be that ownership and attribution are instinctively foreign concepts to grasp for people generally. Might we infer from that some sort of evolutionary meaning? Or that ownership and attribution are ideas and behaviours unique to some cultures and not a ubiquitous across all human culture?

I have heard that many indigenous cultures, mostly hunter gatherer societies, have very different ideas about ownership, especially when it comes to land and personal possessions. But I don't know enough about that to say...

Youtube and copyright

We've all noticed the not-so-subtle changes happening in Youtube. Advertising has almost killed the enjoyment on way too many videos, and copyright clamp downs is making it far less useful for finding recordings of significant TV broadcasting events, and other such things that are in the realm of copyright. On the one hand, it is remarkable, the technology that must be in play to automate Youtube's clamp down. Take this not so remarkable video I shot in Singapore.


It's set in the Far East Shopping Plaza. It's part of a series of mobile videos I shot of my daughter Eve. The audio in the video is the sound system of the shop I was standing next to while making the recording. Youtube has identified that track, and blocked the video in Germany for my alleged copyright infringement.

Naturally, I've disputed the copyright claim, on the grounds of "Fair Use". It is interesting to note that an option in the dispute process is "I'm not using this for commercial purposes". I didn't see educational use as an option, but I suppose that would come under Fair Use as they call it in the US. 

So, if you're in Germany, I dunno why, but you probably can't watch the video I'm referring to here. Don't worry, you're not missing much, but the way Youtube is managing copyright is interesting.