Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Negative Measure

Built to solve problems.  List deficiencies.  Map crises.  The ICTs for conflict management aggregate the negative and forget to leave a space for the positive.

In the survey I devised to collect descriptive information about a video scene my experiment participants watched, I followed the models of several other ICTs for conflict management and collected information about the individuals perpetrating the actions, the location, the level of damage inflicted, and the level of insecurity participants observed.  However, when I compared the structured answers with oral descriptions, participants often spent time detailing the involvement of bystanders.  Did people offer help?  There seemed to be an expectation of community intervention to calm a situation.  Also, participants were measured in their consideration of the guilt or innocence of the perpetrator.  They offered more than one explanation for the scenario they watched so as to place the motivations, culpability, or even the justification for involvement in mild violence into doubt.

The categories of perpetrator and victim, villain and target were not delineated in the same way as I expected.  The core conceptualization of the event as a 'problem' may in fact be the problem.  This is the initial premise for taking the report.  We want to learn more about it (the problem), about its components, its actors, locations, moving parts, so we can design a solution and prevent its re-occurrence.  What if the local population doesn't perceive a problem?  Or what if they understand the maladjusted components in a manner that is undetectable, or conceptually invisible, with the current ICT approach?  I think it's a matter of the wrong model, not the wrong impulse to improve.

From my experiment, I asked individuals to identify 'the attacker,' the person hitting another man about the head and chasing him through the scene.  Most took this to mean 'who is causing the problem?'  And they identified the man I would have called 'the victim.'  Moreover, several individuals told me they came to this conclusion because this problem-causer/victim was not fighting back but being chased and hit while offering no defense.  This meant he was guilty.  For me, this meant he was in need of help.  This model for recognizing justice, cause-effect, and culpability was foreign to me.  It would be worth doing more experiments around just this concept (perhaps conceptual transfer experiments) and sampling more than just me.

Is it just a matter of thinking up better names for categories?  Better questions to ask on surveys?  It's more than an issue of gathering information quantitatively or qualitatively.

Take for example the issue of the egg, the spear, and the egg-water.  Context is key for meaning.  This is true for any language.  In Luo, tong means spear and egg depending on tone, depending on context.  (The phrase tong pii means 'clean water' in Ethiopian Anuak, but 'egg water' in Kenyan Luo, two closely related Nilotic languages.  Although with negotiation, the phrases could mean water for eggs in either language.  So that's funny.)  The thing about tone and context is that they are reliant on a speaker-listener interaction, a volley, an exchange, a non-solo communication act.  Not like writing.
"Hope" is the thing with feathers—
That perches in the soul—
And sings the tune without the words—
And never stops—at all—.... E. Dickinson, (not a Luo).  
Much of our communication tech has evolved to capture, facilitate, speed and streamline writing, an individualistic form of expression.  It simply can't convey a type of communication with an essential, reverberative quality in which semantic content is as much (or more?) tied to the speaker-listener relationship as it is to anything that can be captured with text. 

Yes, these tools are meant to increase our ability to go into the field and gather information from 1000 individuals instead of 30.  This is great for researchers and polling and participatory governance and all sorts of reasons, but only if the tool is a good tool, that is, it assists us in doing a task we are already doing, makes it simpler, faster, easier in some way.... but if instead it brings us speedily to the wrong results, then what good is it?

The problem comes from the the fact that the tools being used now were built to capture western narratives (or logical constructs, conceptualizations of events) and communicate among NGO staff after disasters.  These same tools have been only slightly modified and then redeployed for conflict use such as post-reconstruction governance surveys, violence reports for election monitoring, etc.  All the while not recognizing the new users have new needs.  New conceptualizations of the events they are describing (and new ways of linking them) may be the key to empowering locally driven solutions and disengaging externally mandated ones.

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