Community Media Toolkits workshop

Community Media Toolkits workshop

18 March 2013

I attended the community media toolkits workshop at the UCT business school today. The COM-ME toolkit aims to be a flexible ecology for sharing. It consists of a solar powered charging station, a tablet media browser, a microscope camera for display on television and a mobile phone content creation tool.

Their motivation behind this project and its materialization was based in and around the rich oral culture of Xhosa people in the rural Eastern Cape. It consists mainly of interactive voice applications:  which enables to user to record and access content that is produced locally.

As is the case with any technology ethnography, the researchers found a number of power relations that were crucial to consider in the embodiment of their creation.  They cited gender inequalities (for example the freedom phones trialled in Tanzania), and gaps between oral and illiterate people (Avaaj Otalo in India) where participants didn’t share knowledge with others – similar to findings in Delft where knowledgeable patrons of the library used their skills as leverage to make money from less skilled computer users – as examples of such relations.  In a society where skills equates profit, people are hesitant to share their experiences in fear that they are diminishing their importance.  This seems to be quire an anti-intuitive finding in a community such as Mankosi which Bongi describes as a collectivist culture.

Other aspects which were discussed include the communication and cultural difficulties between the researcher and their participants. People like telling their stories in their own tongue, body language, hand signs, slang, humour, etc. For this reason a translator is not necessarily just someone who knows two different languages. You would have a clearer understanding if this person has a sense of nuances of the specific cultural group and how to relay these aspects to the researcher – in a sense a culture-translator.

Furthermore in terms of development: Uses of technology is not necessarily what a euromerican researcher imagines. Should address self-identified necessities (ie. In Mankosi, for example, stokvel is managed with the tablets).

Nic dicussed the audio repository as an example: users login, each person has an account from where they can create voice message and leave it for another person. So when they come around they can come and see what other people had sent them. Furthermore, they can record messages on their mobile phone in the privacy of their own home, and use the tablet to transfer the content to the repository station. As a kind of self-service post office: The station is static and the people are mobile.

Yet the repository itself also showed a number of issues: Search and retrieve function was convoluted with the amount of content created, without any discernable structure.  And they had to quickly adapt the distribution for low electricity conditions.

In order to create for a group of people who are otherwise on the fringes of society, you need to take local views, and designers need to develop locally.

There is a focus on literacies/limitations/behavior people do have. Learn through communicating “their” way. A completely community-based method and a natural flow of accountability.

After the main workshop we had a panel and a number of thorny issues were raised:

1. Questions of intellectual property resulting from recordings – the recorded and the recorder were discussed. Within this context Nic and Bongi had allowed the villagers to create their own sense of intellectual property and did not seek to impose any westernized sense of legality on them.

2. As the ICT4D discourse runs, questions on money and socio-economic development were raised.  I found these considerations almost posed as a zero sum game: wellness and expression: the enjoyment of entertainment VS the up scaling potential of economic empire: aspired to in a capitalist system.  This lead me to question the value of technology? As a node in an ecology that is supposed to enable work, health, school, help etc. or as a means of creation, socialization and any other non-instrumental uses. When asked about progress and whether she could see any improvement in the community, Bongi simply answered:  “people can see themselves in the videos and they are happy for that.”

It was fascinating to see the tensions between those in the room who unknowingly were communicating an underlying rationale that advocated for a globalized culture: the ideas of export and expansion informing their inquiries.  In a sense the isolation of this community, far from the centers of economic production, is perceived as a disadvantage, a tragic condition to be “fixed”.  Bongi and Nic, on the other hand, perceive the Com-Me technology as a means to emancipate the local culture from having to access the outside world. Not needing to send mothers and fathers to work in the city. It functions as both a means of a cheap alternative to western culture and technologies for production. In some ways eliminating the need for disposable income to participate in the needs created by a western way of life – electricity bills, telephone bills, televisions, CDs, books, etc. Simultaneously, they are cultivating a local culture which isn’t a direct replacement to products of western entertainment and technology: a means to collect local stories between generations and settlements, a means to regulate stokvel (for Christmas feasts or burial society), a system for accounting, a means to generate accountability from oral agreements, and passing on a history of culture and moral “lessons” to the young.

Nic and Bongi’s message is underpinned by the attitude that instead of imposing a sense of economic improvement/social mission on people from another culture, we should explore a localized sense of “enrichment”: these might simply lie in non-instrumental uses, happiness, entertainment, lessons, cultural archiving, and family histories/stories for those with absent parents.

3. In response to questions about numeracy and literacy:

Nic says: “Let’s be real – these people aren’t going to get jobs. There are no jobs in the eastern cape.” It is not about the mass exodus of people from the country to the city. Or buying into the idea that poverty and happiness are mutually exclusive concepts.

4. Quite a controversial statement was made by an ethnographer completely slamming the project, painting it as an invasion into a rural community: “introducing technology that might be harmful in the long run. Creating a need where otherwise there might not be a need. Creating an expense that would otherwise not be there. Where do you draw the line?” Her statements revolving around a relatively simplistic view of ethnographic purity vs. intervention culture is based around the naïve assumption that these people did not use any technology before.

Jonathan Donner answered the question relatively diplomatically, and pointed out that it was difficult to start thinking about the cost of telecommunication worldwide. No doubt people are spending a lot of their money on phoning. But at the end of the day, it is a way to keep in touch with a loved one. There is innate value in communication: with the diaspora amongst African communities, mobile communication seems almost tailormade for these individuals. “Yet,  It costs a poor person more for a bit, a minute, than it does for a rich person with  a history of credit, a contract, and so forth”.

5. The question of a “White elephant project” – if you leave what will happen to the project? What will the people be left with?

The project leaders insisted that sustainability was a central concern – they had handed things over after the first year and it just sustained itself.  They sorted it out themselves: “We don’t have a solution for when the tablet breaks yet. But the service stations are sustainable – parts can be replaced.”

for more information on the Community Media Toolkit please visit: http://digitaleconomytoolkit.org/

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