Shifting cultures: ICTD2013 deconstructs development with choice and play

Author's name: 
Shawna Finnegan
Winnipeg, Canada

Cultural imperialism is recognised as one of the most insidious dangers of development projects, reinforcing Western values and relations of power. Creativity and innovation are familiar goals for many technology for development projects, however economic growth and supply-side development continue to dominate much of the development field, including ICT4D.

These critiques were expressed by many ICT4D researchers, practitioners and advocates, as they came together from December 7th to 10th at the University of Cape Town to discuss and deconstruct the ways in which information and communication technologies are used for development.

Using critiques of development as a starting point, many development practitioners have adopted approaches that focus on local agency and creativity. Discussing her new book, Technologies of Choice? ICTs, Development, and the Capabilities Approach, Dorethea Kleine spoke to participants at ICTD2013 about the need to evaluate ICT policies based on a more holistic understanding of development that emphasises freedom and choice. Contrasting the ambitious policies of Chile’s Agenda Digital with an ethnographic study of microentrepreneurs in a rural community in Chile, Kleine examines the ways in which ICT policies, such as the development of online procurement systems, can limit individual and collective choice.

Participants at ICTD2013 also emphasised the importance of non-economic resources, participation and play. A 5 year study on the impact of public access to ICTs found that non-instrumental uses of technology, such as gaming, can build skills and lead to productive outcomes. The study also reinforced growing evidence of the value of online social networking for meaningful economic and social livelihood. At the launch of Feminist Africa 18, organised by the African Gender Institute, participants discussed the ways in which storytelling and art can be used to reclaim space for women, and subvert dominant narratives.

As part of our engagement with ICTD2013, APC, in collaboration with the Web We Want campaign, held a session titled ‘ICT4D & Online Freedoms: Competing Paradigms or Converging Agendas’, in which participants critically examined recent trends in these two spaces, looking particulary at open data and privacy. While there is a general trend towards opening data, such as patient health information, climate data and gun registry mapping, participants agreed that greater oversight was needed in the process of collecting and opening data. As the Snowden revelations demonstrate, if data exists, it will be used, often by those with those most power and resources. Moreover, when data is released, the assumptions and narratives that contextualize that data are often left unexamined.

Discussing individual and collective freedom, participants explored what it means to exercise choice in the current culture of big data and technological development. How are users’ choices influenced and restricted by corporations, State actors, technological design and research priorities? Participants proposed conducting human rights impact assessments for new and existing ICT policies, and developing a color coding system for data. Some urged for a move away from the current focus on principles within internet governance spaces, calling for more strategic engagement with users, decision-makers and media.

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