Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Like it's 1899


        When we talk of bridging the gap, the technology gap, the ubiquitous construction metaphors make it seem as though we are in the Age of Victoria building train tracks across every known expanse and into the depths of continents, clearing the way for the new age, for industry, speed, access to modernity.  Every aspect of this approach to getting people online and engaged with technology should come with a top hat and monocle because it’s right out of the 19th century.  Most solutions to access focus on translation, getting interface scripts or keyboards to register languages besides English.  This seems like a job for a linguist in 1899. . . .To go off and chart, transcribe, and translate foreign languages so they could become part of the world of knowledge.  (That world has changed.) As if nothing exists, can truly progress, get organized, move forward, until it is written down.

Software engineers tell me anything with software is possible.  So let’s leave the horse and buggy behind.  Divorce ourselves from writing.  Throw out the keyboard.  Lose the map.  Unlock the individual user password profile.  There is another way.

Every engineer I tell this to says, 'Fine, so now what?'  Well, I am still working on that part, but essentially, it's up to indigenous (that is to say local) developers to create what makes sense where they are.  My research is an experiment which will quantify a few points where the current ICT design is 'pinching' the most.  Where it is preventing oral cultures from sharing narratives, from organizing information, from conveying concepts in the way which seems most natural in their thoughts.  (The thought/pre-language moment is contested and debated within philosophy, psychology, and linguistics.  It defies definition.)  The areas where I have seen the current ICTs 'pinch' and where I think we should be looking to make some changes are as follows:

3 Guiding Points to shift out of chirographic and into oral cultural design mode:

1. Information is gathered, collected, and moved.  But only what we can carry, in sound and echo.  It moves through repetition.  It is stored in our minds and in our retelling, over and over in the sound our retelling makes.  It does not have the permanence of writing, the ownership of authorship.  It forms by accumulation, being born from many sources; it is fluid, varied from omissions and additions.  Recursive.  How is this different from US culture?  It’s something to do with how we experience time.  And something to do with maps.

2. Group.  There wasn’t a word for group in Acholi until it was borrowed from English.  Gathering, yes, such as a formal occasion like a wedding.  But group, no.  My contribution in the Group project. Women’s Group.  Book Group.  He left the Group to become a Solo artist.  Groupthink.  In English, we call attention to the group phenomenon, the crowd.  But for a communal culture, the group is the norm.  As the religious scholar John Mbiti explained using Descartes’ terms:  
“I am because we are, we are therefore I am.”   
There is a word for alone, the exception.  And technology is a tool of isolating, individualizing power.  S. Turkle writes extensively about this phenomenon at MITs Initiative on Technology and Self.  The question of how a tool that is inherently isolating will impact a fundamentally communal culture should be as much of a design consideration as the interface language. 

3. There is no word for map in Acholi or any of the languages in the region.  It was borrowed from English, but seems to carry the meaning: list, unnecessary things white people must write down to read, e.g., menu, see ‘vegetarian map.’

More about maps...  First, in Fez, among ethnically Tashelit (Berber) friends speaking Moroccan Arabic driving looking for a cousin’s new house where none of us had previously visited.  In the US, if I were on my way somewhere for the first time, I would perhaps have a gps system in my car, get written directions from the person I was visiting, or consult the internet.  I would also consult a map and probably print all of these things or have them available on my phone.  Not in Fez.  There, in the back seat,  I listened to the driver call ahead and ask where to turn then hang up.  We drove a little way, came to the roundabout, made the turn, then pulled over.   Another phone call.  Another instruction.  Singular.  Not a series.  The phone was not passed to a passenger who could write things down nor were several directions said out loud so we could all help remember.  This pattern of calling for one step, one instruction at a time continued turn by turn, landmark by landmark, through the old city and out into a suburb until we reached our destination. The cousin talked us there.  Step by step.  In real time.  (Isn't there a device you can buy that does that?  What's the difference?  See #1 and 2)

Again in Gulu, Uganda in Acholi.  Because there are no maps and not so many signs (and the ones that exist don’t reflect the information you hope for) you have to ask directions... frequently.  When you do, the most common answer, in English is,  ‘Just go along and then you’ll see it there.’  Or, with an arm outstretched, pointing at four buildings, ‘It's that building there.’   So I was curious if there was some part of 'there' which didn't translate from Acholi, maybe there was a tone which imparted more information.  And upon comparison, there is certainly more than one 'there,' but also it's connected to memory and experience.  Extensive research describes how bi-/multilinguals remember things differently in different languages.   And this would be an entire project in itself, but my impression is that the landscape and experiential memory, the sensory data we collect to know a place, to create detailed mental maps, this has been created in Acholi not English.  So if you get directions in Acholi, there are many, many details.
"The white building by the tall tree next to the butcher, be careful of the road there it's not been repaired... and not far from the little road you take to get to the flower shop, have you been there?  It's very nice my daughter works there."  
But to get back to designing ICTs, when a user must shift into English mode, either through interface language or through other visual cues which say to the user unconsciously, 'this is an English space, go into English-mode in your brain,' then their ability to convey details about their environment diminishes if they are shifting out of Acholi and into English, even unconsciously, at the conceptual level.
These 3 points-- information flow, self/group, and maps-- illustrate what I will write more about in later posts and what I hope to bring to light with my experiment here in Gulu, the interconnectedness of time, space and language.  So far, I am pleased to report that these ideas seem to resonate with people here in policy-making, in ICT, and basic users of the current tech. (To my surprise in fact, my research seems to be better understood here than in the US/EU, almost as though I was explaining something very obvious that everyone here already knew.)