Sunday, January 27, 2008

Before and After

In the personal reportage in Zero Comments, Geert Lovink discusses the challenges to sustaining international collaborations that use digital media over time and the politics of project management in "Revisiting Sarai" and "ICT after Development." In the section on Sarai, Lovink discussed some of the challenges to the project in that English-centric "programs and keyboards" were often poorly suited to Hindi digital projects and yet the center's Hindi-language projects also wanted to maintain a spirit of international exchange and avoid the obsession with cultural purity associated with the Hindu nationalists. (See the work of Humanities Core Course colleague Vinayak Chaturvedi about the tropes and "politics of naming" of Hindutva for more on this subject.) I found the projects that had been done by the Sarai Cybermohalla as an interesting way to rethink the digital divide. He pointed out the importance of promulgating public writing practices through the centers' "streetlogs," which acknowledged the importance of "listening" as well as authorship in producing responsible social media, and he asked where there might be a "new media equivalent of revolutionary Third World educator Paolo Freire."

Having presented at an international conference devoted to crisis management technologies (at which -- sadly -- participants were confused about why humanists should be part of the conversation to talk about ideologies and cultural imaginaries that have real world consequences for victims), I was sorry not to have been present for the "Crisis Media" event described in the book.

Lovink also argued that Sarai projects that were intended to subvert the hegemony of Microsoft had to acknowledge that free software can't be isolated from "social reality." Unlike those associated with the One Laptop Per Child initiative, Lovink described the uncomfortable realities of how compromises had to be negotiated between stakeholders and how rifts even emerged between artists and hackers seemingly that had to be negotiated by the Indian project managers. He even printed the text of a controversial e-mail from a West German former resident in the project

The chapter on ICT and "The Incommunicado Agenda," Lovink looked much more specifically at OLPC and what he characterized as an agenda of promoting "(Western) subjectivity." However, sometimes Lovink sounded more like Manuel Castells than a digital artist in this chapter, when he grappled with the erosion of the traditional U.S. role of policy making and how large private corporations are filling the vacuum with proprietary technologies. At the same time he uses the fascinating account from the personal digital literacy narrative of African economist Sylvestre Ou├ędraogo to show "the failures of a technocratic approach that only focuses on access."

Although he criticizes "PowerPoint optimism" and encourages more discussion of the "Why did my project fail" question, Lovink gives considerable praise to the projects oriented around civil society initiatives (rather than less sustainable "grass roots" movements). Much of this chapter looks at Incommunicado and the hope that groups of such groups could successfully hold summits on information policy that take the needs of non-Western countries seriously by organizing the equivalent of a "Digital Bandung."

Unfortunately, books on digital media rapidly become dated. I don't know if today, Lovink would assert, as he does in Zero Comments, that NGOs are reluctant "to use blogs, wikis, and social networks," although he may still be rights that "there are no global NGOs like Greenpeace, Amnesty, or Oxfam that critically investigate the Internet and the new media/telecom sector" to provide an international equivalent of the Electronic Freedom Foundation.

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Anonymous Taran Rampersad said...

Thank you. I shall have to get a copy of this... it sounds grounded.

8:41 PM  

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