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  • Shamika Klassen

My Reflections on "Postcolonial Computing: A Lens on Design and Development"

Updated: Dec 2, 2021

Name: Postcolonial Computing: A Lens on Design and Development

Citation: Irani, L., Vertesi, J., Dourish, P., Philip, K., & Grinter, R. E. (2010, April). Postcolonial computing: a lens on design and development. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI conference on human factors in computing systems (pp. 1311-1320).

Authors: Irani, L., Vertesi, J., Dourish, P., Philip, K., & Grinter, R. E.

Institutions: University of California, Irvine and Georgia Institute of Technology

Terms: Postcolonial theory, STS, culture, design methods, ICT4D, HCI4D

In this article, the authors present postcolonial computing and Science, Technology and Society (STS) as perspectives and frameworks for analysis within human-computer interaction (HCI) design and development. In particular, the authors focus on the contexts of HCI for the developing world (HCI4D) and information and computer technology (ICT) for the developing world (ICT4D). At the time of the article’s publication, back in 2010, the authors highlighted several issues HCI4D research faces: “technological cultures, digital divides, multiple stakeholders, economic disparities, and more” (p. 1311). Before explicitly defining postcolonial computing, postcolonial discourse is presented as being “centered on the questions of power, authority, legitimacy, participation, and intelligibility in the contexts of cultural encounter, particularly in the context of contemporary globalization” (p. 1311). The authors go on to characterize postcolonial computing as “an alternative sensibility to the process of design and analysis” (p. 1311).

When engaging with postcolonialism as an approach, the authors insist that it is not simply focusing “on the historical conditions of nations and regions that were once colonies”, as postcolonial studies originally began doing, but “actually the historical transformation of conditions of cultural encounter” (p. 1311). Though many colonial relationships have formally or politically dissolved, there remains a “history of global dynamics of power, wealth, economic strength, and political influence [that shapes] contemporary cultural encounters” (p. 1311). Ultimately, postcoloniality affects us all. The authors note, “We all live in a world shaped by colonial histories; we all find ourselves in postcolonial conditions” (p. 1312). Engaging with postcolonialism in computing and design sounds similar to how positionality and reflexivity in research benefit the researched. The authors describe the process as “...a project of understanding how all design research and practice is culturally located and power laden, even if considered fairly general. This specificity is not a problem to be solved, but a reality that should be central to design practice – seeing the ways that design is culturally specific should allow us to broaden the conversation about what other practices can count as good design” (p. 1312).

HCI4D was not alone in its issues. ICT4D had challenges as well. The authors describe them as “transporting both design conventions and processes of HCI across cultures. HCI’s visual conventions have proven not to be universal – systems effective in the US may fail utterly in Japan or South Africa” (p. 1312). A specific example highlights how particular design aesthetics will actually vary from one place to the next: “taken-for-granted symbolic literacies, such as recognizing an image representing a GUI button, are strange in less computer-saturated cultures” (p. 1312). Turning again specifically to HCI4D, its processes for designing and deployment have had to change in resource poor but socially interconnected contexts from user to community centered design. Instead of one laptop per child with small buttons and bright colors, there could be a laptop per family or other community units designed for everyone to use. The authors note that “[t]he very different social, cultural, infrastructural, and economic situations of HCI4D have required researchers to substantially adapt HCI methods and practices” (p. 1312). These issues are not only relegated to software. As the authors point out, “[h]ardware and connectivity have also produced instructive case studies of technological failure in international encounters” (p. 1312). This exact phenomenon is illustrated in a light bulb designed in Europe and intended for use in a country in Africa:

The lightbulb’s European designers tightly integrated its components, hiding the technology in order to user-proof it. When the lightbulb required adaptation to reach power sources far away from the room to be lit, the bulb proved impossible to hack or adapt. The notion of a hermetically sealed, all-in-one, “plug-and-play” design – seemingly perfectly adapted to an environment without an extensive technological infrastructure – turned out, in fact, to render it useless in the face of local contingencies” (p. 1312).

These examples of failures led to the “Appropriate Technology” movement of the 1970s and 1980s. The focus of AT was “fitness for purpose” and advocated for “smaller technologies that accounted for local needs, infrastructures, skills, and materials” instead of less effective “large-scale engineering efforts” (p. 1312). Attempts to solve the problems associated with translating HCI knowledge involved models that extrapolated the cultural groups into traits and averages but ultimately failed to provide insight into the cultural experience of individuals. The authors believe that instead of such models, STS and postcolonial computing can help to address the issues of HCI4D.

After highlighting four case studies showing connections “of researcher to culturally different users, of rural Indians to transnational NGOs, of Brazilian engineers to Apple, and of aboriginal Australians to California”, the authors suggest a change to the formulation of design work (p. 1312). The three aspects of their (re)formulation are engagement, articulation, and translation. The authors define each aspect as such, “By “engagement” we mean connecting with users or an application domain in order to understand relevant work or activity; since HCI design is primarily “user-centered,” this is most commonly (although not always) a form of engagement with people and their material worlds. “Articulation” concerns how properties of this domain are formalized and transformed into a series of requirements for technological support. Finally, “translation” concerns how these requirements, possibly through a series of steps, are transformed from statements about a domain to statements about technology and eventually into specific pieces of technology designed to support the application domain” (p. 1317). The reasoning behind using these facets in the design process is to place traditional elements of the design process in a context that exposes and makes transparent issues of epistemology, history, and power.

In conclusion, the goal of the authors is to “expand the conversation around cross-cultural technology development by placing it in a broader context” (p. 1319). It is also important to keep in mind to “avoid simple dualisms between developed and developing contexts, traditional and scientific knowledge practices, and so on” (p. 1319).

The authors argue for“...attentiveness to the emergence of hybrid practices in information technology design, coupled with sensitivity to how uneven power relations are enacted in design practice” (p. 1319). Their goal is not to complain about design’s inability to move between cultures well but instead “to understand the diverse forms design practice and contextual reasons for that diversity” (p. 1319). The contributions of this paper go beyond HCI4D. The “concerns of power, mutual intelligibility, and how cultural forms are generated are also relevant to the intercultural encounters between designers and users in traditional corporate or academic contexts” (p. 1319). Overall, I appreciated the real world examples as well as the case studies used to illustrate how postcolonial and STS perspectives can be used to consider power, differences in culture, and design in new ways. Certainly an important text for anyone in HCI4D and ICT4D, but also anyone designing with diverse stakeholders as well.

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