My key question here is: in what ways do we use ICTs in low income contexts?
Development vs entertainment
When I started my PhD in 2005, my interest was in public ICT centres – at the time called telecentres (see also my entry in the The International Encyclopedia of Digital Communication and Society). Namma Dhwani – the community radio and telecentre where I spent eight months in rural South India – was funded by UNESCO and led by the community (self-help groups or sanghas largely comprised of women) as part of an “ICTs for poverty reduction” project across south Asia. The main questions I had when doing the fieldwork were:
- In what ways are listeners of the community radio and users of the IT centre using ICTs?
- In what ways does the use contribute to “development” (economic, social, political)? And who defines “development”?
- What kind of skills are necessary and what skills need to be developed further for ICT use? What is the role of formal and informal intermediaries and networks in teaching these?
- Who is being left behind in ICT use and what implications does this have?
I answer these questions in a few publications on Namma Dhwani, including situating it in broader telecentre, community radio and socio-materality literature, but these days my questions continue in the context of mobile phones and mobile internet. In particular, I’m interested in the debate in development between instrumental use (what people “should” use ICTs for) versus what they do use it for. At Namma Dhwani, the project manager made a remark which has always stayed with me. He said:
“In the first few months, they [the villagers] put a lot of energy into the project. These days you have to keep telling them what to do… development, development, development [bold added]. We can either approach community radio as what the community wants … if you make it that, it will only be music. In UNESCO, we can’t justify all this equipment just for entertainment, there has to be a development angle. You have to keep pushing programming in a certain direction. Relevant programming, serious programming”.
In other words, the donor agency (UNESCO) knew better what was “good for the people” rather than what they wanted (music) – although it wasn’t that clear-cut of course. So I would like to do more research on this content balance as well as who decides what is “good” or not. Part of this is temporal – how do users duck and dive and weave together all their tasks, devices and networks in a 24 hour period? Do uses vary between weekday and weekend? To understand this, we developed a Digital Day graphic in our Ghana, Kenya and Uganda research, such as this for 24 year-old Samuel from Ghana (p. 62 in the report):
We find user strategies to maximize utility from digital devices – what Jonathan Donner calls digital repertoires but we still need much more research on how this happens.
Ludic skills – learning through having fun
Challenging the notion of development or instrumental value of ICTs, Sey and Ortoleva wrote a great paper on how skills are learnt through “ludic” use, like browsing, entertainment videos and music and gaming, which might not necessarily be seen as “developmental” but indeed are. We also saw this reflected in our Digital Lives research in Ghana, Kenya and Uganda when many respondents (aged 18-25) said they enjoying gaming because it gave them a sense of achievement and reward, or they liked following politicians on Facebook or Twitter because they liked hearing their opinions. Listen, for example, to this interview with the 19 year old student Kafero (pseudonym) who we talked to in Uganda for the Digital Lives work, who first starts with his use of Facebook, and then explains why he really uses it (listen to the end):
Kafero’s reason for using Facebook
These are the “developmental” aspects I would like to do more research on, particularly with female users and the prejudice they may face. Equally, how does use shape identity and self-esteem? If women are less likely to use ICTs, they are also likely to be abused or scolded for using them “as a distraction” – particularly a mobile rather than a desktop, as the latter is considered more instrumental and useful. Consider this statement from Andrew, in our Digital Lives study. He says of his sister: “when it comes to time of playing games on phone; she even forgets cooking. So, we are like; “tetuulye? Won’t we eat?””. See also this short clip from Brasil on “the plague of WhatsApp“.
Radio and empowerment
Community radio and radio in general still continues to be a passion for me. In the rush for the next hi-tech answer to “development”, we overlook the one medium which is still the most accessible and affordable for most in the developing world. In fact, hybrid use of the internet and radio may be one solution in under-served areas – i.e. where the radio DJ has access to the internet and uses it to answer questions from listeners. Yet, radio also faces challenges of exclusion, powerplay and elites dominating the airwaves, not to mention inciting hate crimes or life-threatening situations, such as in Mexico when radio station staff are killed. How does empowerment occur in these contexts of fear and intimidation?
Skills and intermediaries
And finally, I’m interested in informal learning – most of us learn by trial and error or being shown something by a family or friend. Inter-generational learning may be particularly the case when a daughter shows her mother how to use Skype or how to set up a Facebook account (here’s an amusing clip from India on that). How does this learning happen and who might be excluded? I’m also interested here in the role of intermediaries – those who teach these skills – what is the kind of power they hold, how do they negotiate various networks, and how biased might their teaching be? All critical topics in the research on ICT use.