Monday, 17 December 2012

A voice in the Crowd

 A colleague of mine developed a marvelous theory she calls traducture which describes the power relations inherently constructed through translation.  For instance, when you hold a meeting and decide one language will be the primary language of communication and other languages will use translation, the primary language and meanings in that language move to the top of a hierarchy.  A power structure forms.  There are many subtle ways in which translation influences power, some of which are quite obvious like this example, others may be less apparent.  Having done some very informal, if-no-one-else-can-then-I-will-try sort of translation (it's a very challenging skill that I do not possess), but more often working as a cultural translator in tandem with professional translators, I have seen the impact of these power dynamics first hand.  

A recent article in the New York Times explored this topic with the example of sign language used by scientists.  The concluding remarks reflected both the cultural and cognitive divide in communication between the deaf community and hearing community.
Such elegant personifications of tricky scientific concepts leave some deaf students feeling sorry for those who rely on their ears. “One of my students was telling me recently that she can’t imagine the difficulty that hearing instructors must have in describing concepts through spoken English, because of the linearity of spoken language,” Dr. Braun said.

Listening to other communities and cultures express sentiments such as this drives me to look at how technology (ICT) captures communication.  Is it only able to capture 'the linearity of spoken language' because the organization of interface objects and the databases they connect to presumes a linear narrative pattern?

Recently, I had an article accepted for publication on the topic of crowdsourced translation, specifically used in the context of crisis and disasters.  My intent was to reflect on the process of designing the technology and consider how the broader context and long-term use of the translated (and raw untranslated) information could drive design change.

you can read a pre-publish copy here

Both International non-governmental organizations and government actors have embraced the technological union of humans and software, known as crowdsourcing, to manage the flood of information produced during recent crises. However, unlike a business solution, the task of translation is unique during a crisis situation; the costs are human, and the impact is social and political. This paper follows four crises in which different crowdsourcing applications were developed by a range of actors. In each instance, the design approach failed to incorporate the unique circumstances of the conflict context resulting in a translation application which removed authorship, dissolved intentionality, and shed contextual markers from original sources. This flawed application prevented the original contributors from interacting with the information directly related to their own life-threatening situation, and the information it amassed formed an unsound basis for decision-making by international actors. The associated consequences during: post-earthquake Haiti 2010, Libya and Egypt 2011, and Somalia 2011/12 are intended to provoke process improvement among all stakeholders.

Saturday, 1 December 2012

China's ennui

A response to a piece in the Atlantic, "Why Chinese People Are Getting Sick of Chinese Social Media" by Natalie Thomas.

Just as I was beginning to recover from the siege of American election media, I read this article tracing the 'ennui and resignation' of Chinese Sina Weibo users.   I found myself nodding in agreement to the description of feeling overrun by reports of malfeasance. It seems that in the pre-social media era, the Chinese population had suspicions about wrongdoing, but had not been burdened by proof (proof in the 'trending on Twitter' sense).  And, according to the article,  pre-social media, they righteously dreamed that if they gained the freedom of speech to report corruption and criminality, then justice would prevail. 

The 'ennui of established democratic societies drives the marketplace of outrage.  It takes expert maneuvers to redirect the public's attention away from cute kitten videos and toward one of the countless injustices.  Take for example the organization called Enough.  The name says it all, referencing both the focus of the campaign, anti-genocide, and the fatigue with campaigns generally.  The name and platform promise that this will be the last time you will be bothered, and finally, your effort will make a difference.  That's where the Chinese Sina Weibo users are becoming frustrated.  Their eyes have been opened equally to the problems around them and to their relative inability to affect change in the world.  The opportunities or rather the free marketplace for action lags behind the demand.

Take another example from Uganda,  'MPs Link State House to UIA's Dubious Deal'.  The author writes about the how a blow was struck for transparency against corruption with tools such as written reports, testimony, and quantitative evidence imbuing neutral objects with democratic powers:
"The report observes that when the query...."
"According to statistics, UIA is reported to have...."
The corrupt official was not literally taken down by a piece of paper nor by numbers and ratios.  The presence of reports and written documentation is clearly powerful.  Just as in China, social media users are witnessing events and not staying silent; they are committing their testimony to text.  Having a report, a text, proof, means action must be taken; someone must be held accountable.  The wheels of justice have been set in motion.  But neither the Chinese nor the Ugandans seem optimistic.  It is not enough to bear witness.  It is not enough to quote numbers.  Democracy demands citizens taking action.  In both countries, the punitive measures against taking action are still very great.  Hoping the flood of social media discontent will sweep away corruption or putting faith in documents without attaching an author who might face retaliation are all these citizen can do without the other pieces of a democratic system behind them.

The dissatisfaction is the result of unmet expectations. Theirs and ours, the Western reader of these events.  Perhaps they did buy into the idea of digital empowerment; transparency as one step closer to democracy.  But this interpretation supposes a Western notion of democracy.  One which is built on multiple freedoms and institutions supporting our culturally ingrained ideals. As Western observers, I think we also read and interpret the unfolding events as part of a script, the first act in 'Democracy.' Stay tuned.