Terms of endearment: sustainable ICT development

Introducing information and communications technology (ICT) in deep rural areas brought the glaring contrasts between Western and African thinking sharply into focus, says ICT engineer Gertjan van Stam. He shared some observations at a workshop jointly hosted by the Department of Science and Technology, the European Union and the HSRC. In this article he elaborates on his research, concluding that ICT outcomes benefit from interactions aligned with the oral culture.

Development must be conducted on the terms of those being developed. This is the philosophy behind a research project attempting to implement ICT in deep rural areas, which involved making an effort in finding solutions that would ensure the long-term acceptance and use of technology where many other projects have failed.

The goal of the research included identifying and inspiring local talent, and introducing ICT through participatory oral research methodology. It included building capacity through community-led activities that could achieve sustainable progress – not only in economic terms but also in terms of intellectual growth, culture and social wellbeing.

Methods

The research consisted of observations, interactions, assessments, interventions and feedback within the context of the local rural community, while thoroughly immersed in the local culture, utilising oral culture, action and participatory research. The research strived to unearth relevant ways of interaction while simultaneously introducing ICT.

Findings

Data gathering

The collected data was stored in an “oral manner”, that is, residing in the minds of people. The data not only contained the record of evanescent sound, but also contained all nonverbal communication such as the season, place, sun position, mental state of the people present, the seating arrangement, and somatic information such as gestures as well as facial expressions.
Interaction with a specific stakeholder was instantly followed up with interaction with all stakeholders, assuring quick dissemination of information and a level playing field for all involved. Only at a later stage, when the research and interventions were established, did interactions become far more individual.

The use of all verbal communications as per oral cultures is a valuable and valid means of research.

The memories of people in the oral tradition are formidable. The manner in which data is stored can be designated as a remembrance of the meeting as it happened. The existence of data was regularly tested by interviewing the people to retrieve and re-assess the information.

On writing

Due to the existence of barriers to data collection in rural settings, the use of writing and paper was avoided. Community members observed that writing instilled uncertainty and was unclear; texts allowed for word play, whereas verbal communications were regarded as particularly clear. Especially valuable was the idea that whoever was present would know the information as it was communicated. It was felt that writing was difficult to control and thus posed significant cultural challenges.

Carrying written texts, or even paper, into a meeting would completely change the atmosphere of the encounter. Even writings on the contents of the meetings posed difficulties, with apprehension about acknowledging that a written text was an accurate representation of that meeting or that it was being used to shame people (for example, pointing out mistakes, grammatical or otherwise, in the texts). Writings therefore appeared to be seen as a potent means of exercising control.

Data processing

Processing the orally-stored information was done in an oral equivalent of social networks. Networks of community members and stakeholders validated the orally stored data and processed it through meetings and discussions. That way, aggregation and abstraction of information was recognisable, and output was evident in various modes of communications.

Tangible outcomes occur when large numbers of people affirming their support of the change within existing cultural realities, and individual community members displaying explicit comprehension of change and its benefits, each testify about having a hand in the change. This happens through various formats like stories, songs and human interactions. The social networks change with membership and existence. They are inclusive and in constant flux, assuring relevance and efficiency, and they lead to outcomes that empower individuals with the necessary authority to effect the change.

During the data processing stage, which takes place during in-person conversations with leaders, groups of people or other social networks, the community discusses the designation or effect of the matter at hand. Oral culture heavily restricts experimentation or adding new information without the communities’ consent, and the whole procedure of processing new information by itself is a tool for community acceptance.

Conceptualisation of the information emerges naturally through the process of verbalisation, often incorporating aspects of the immediate, familiar environment. As such, the new world is assimilated into the old world.

All high-technology interventions, like the introduction of ICT or an aeroplane, are described in a context of events involving people, like a medical doctor sourcing a car on the internet, a local farmer finding information on a potential new cash crop, and key stakeholders flying on the first aeroplane ride. This correlates with the fact that oral culture does not use counting, statistics or linear facts, but rather keeps track of activities in which humans are involved.

Assessments   

The people involved are intelligent, knowledgeable and keen masters of mental processes. The use of all verbal communications as per oral cultures is a valuable and valid means of research. Local culture primarily validates evidence through oral processing, not through written representation. In practice, oral information can be verified. Validation of written communications is deemed impossible as their contents are not registered, nor are the writings secured.

The assessment of data incorporated aspects of “being together” and while assessing the data, it was always asked: who was present? Another question that came up was: what was the disposition of the inter-actors?

While storing and assessing data in oral cultural formats, assessments of causation include all aspects of the data, including intangibles such as character and authority.

Ironically, what was a simple deduction for the oral person was often a complex assessment for the researcher. Even for myself, I often found that I was overlooking a relevant aspect as soon as I turned to documenting my findings and theories. Further, the process was recognised as highly hermeneutic, searching for meaning and inter-relational messages in the data, and incorporating systems and methodologies involving traditional experience, knowledge and wisdom from history.

The environment does not necessitate work with formal deductive procedures, nor in purely logical forms, but with a more practical thought pattern. It depends on “who talks” to see what is true; not only for the data processing stage, but also during acceptance phases. It is witnessed that even the most experienced people – those who work with ICT on a daily basis – describe technology in terms of its operations, and assess its benefits mainly in the operational context.

Lastly, interventions or activities were never readily accepted. Much time is needed for new occurrences to mature and to be incorporated in the community and culture. When an intervention occurs more or less unexpectedly, the community default is to “wait and see which way the cat jumps” or go back to the default setting.

Author: Gertjan van Stam,ICT engineer, initiator of projects for Worksgroup, Macha, Zambia

This is an extract from a paper, The Journal of Community Informatics. Read the full paper at http://ci-journal.net/index.php/ciej/article/view/871/979

To pursue this discussion further, email Gertjan on gertjan.vanstam@worksgroup.org