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Open access: Contradictory Connectivity: Spatial Imaginaries and Technomediated Positionalities in Kenya's Outsourcing Sector

One of my papers is newly open access. The paper takes a case study of changing connectivity in East Africa, and by probing the spatial imaginaries of economic actors in the region, is able to ask questions about what digital connectivity actually is, means, and does.

Graham, M. 2015. Contradictory Connectivity: Spatial Imaginaries and Techno-Mediated Positionalities in Kenya's Outsourcing Sector. Environment and Planning A 47 867-883

Abstract:

East Africa has traditionally been characterized by stark barriers to nonproximate communication and flows of information. It was the world's last major region without fibre-optic broadband Internet access, and until the summer of 2009 had been forced to rely on slow and costly satellite connectivity. This all changed when the first of four fibre-optic cables was connected in Kenya: bringing with it the promise of fast and affordable Internet access for the masses, and the ability of the country to move towards a knowledge-based economy. Within the context of this moment of change, this paper explores the ways that managers of outsourcing firms envisage ‘connectivity.’ Over the course of forty-one interviews, contradictory spatial imaginaries were discovered. When describing their perceptions of the country's new technomediated positionalities, many interviewees repeated visions that allowed geographic frictions to evaporate. But when managers were asked about their actual mediated positionalities, they presented a very different world: one of barriers, frictions, and the very real role that distance continues to play in the world's economic peripheries. The goal of this paper is to interrogate why we see such stark disconnects between perceptions and practices of connectivity. The contradictions could be seen as an exposition of a scalar schism between internationally operating regimes of truth (ie, powerful discourses that have their origin nonlocally) and local experiences and practices in Kenya. Alternatively, we can think about the contradictory accounts of connectivity as emergent from strategic spatial essentialisms that are practised to achieve particular goals. By focusing on the contradictions embedded into the ways in which people speak about connectivity in the Kenyan outsourcing sector, we can learn much about how arguments about the entanglement of connectivity, growth, and development are operationalized. ‘Connectivity’ is offered as a necessary, and sometimes even sufficient, condition from which growth and economic development can be brought into being: a set of spatial imaginaries that conveniently support a national development strategy of remaking Kenya in the contemporary knowledge economy.

Related work:

Graham, M. 2019. Changing Connectivity and Digital Economies at Global Margins. In Graham, M. (ed) 2019 Digital Economies at Global Margins. Cambridge MA: MIT Press. 1-18.

Graham, M., and Anwar, M. A. 2019. The Global Gig Economy: Towards a Planetary Labour Market? First Monday. 24(4). doi.org/10.5210/fm.v24i4.9913.

Mann, L and Graham, M. 2016 The Domestic Turn: Business Process Outsourcing and the Growing Automation of Kenyan Organisations. Journal of Development Studies 52:4, 530-548, DOI: 10.1080/00220388.2015.1126251.

Graham, M., Andersen, C., and Mann, L. 2015 Geographical Imagination and Technological Connectivity in East Africa. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 40(3) 334-349.

Graham, M. 2013. Geography/Internet: Ethereal Alternate Dimensions of Cyberspace or Grounded Augmented Realities? The Geographical Journal 179(2) 177-182.

Graham, M. and L. Mann. 2013. Imagining a Silicon Savannah? Technological and Conceptual Connectivity in Kenya's BPO and Software Development Sectors. Electronic Journal of Information Systems in Developing Countries. 56(2). 1-19.

Digital Economies at Global Margins
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I am happy to announce that my new edited book 'Digital Economies at Global Margins' is now out!

It was a pleasure working with so many brilliant thinkers and scholars who produced the critical and cutting-edge research you’ll find in the book. A huge thanks to all of the authors who contributed.

Below you can find a brief summary. To see the table of contents, head over the the IDRC or MIT websites where you can also download it for free or buy the paper version.

Digital Economies at Global Margins
Over the last five years, more than one billion people became new Internet users. Once, digital connectivity was confined to economically prosperous parts of the world; now Internet users make up a majority of the world’s population. In this book, contributors from a range of disciplines and locations investigate the impact of increased digital connectivity on people and places at the world’s economic margins. Does the advent of a digitalized economy mean that those in economic peripheries can transcend spatial, organizational, social, and political constraints—or do digital tools and techniques tend to reinforce existing inequalities?

The contributors present a diverse set of case studies, reporting on digitalization in countries ranging from Chile to Kenya to the Philippines, and develop a broad range of theoretical positions. They consider, among other things, data-driven disintermediation, women’s economic empowerment and gendered power relations, digital humanitarianism and philanthropic capitalism, the spread of innovation hubs, hackathons, the gig economy, and a rethinking of how a more progressive politics of connectivity could look.

We're Hiring! Postdoc to focus on 'fair work' on digital work platforms in South Africa

We are about to launch a new phase of the Fairwork project in South Africa with our colleagues at the University of Cape Town, the University of the Western Cape, the University of Manchester, and the University of Oxford. I'll share full details of the next stages of the project next week. But, in the meantime, please help share this job ad. It is for a full-time 29-month postdoc to work directly with Professor Jean-Paul van Belle (UCT) along with Professor Richard Heeks (Manchester), Jamie Woodcock (Oxford), and myself. We hope to have someone in place at the University of Cape Town as soon as possible so that we can start the project in the next few months. Again, please share widely with any people/lists/forums that you think might be interested/suitable.

 

POSTDOCTORAL RESEARCH FELLOWSHIP: EVALUATING DIGITAL WORK PLATFORMS IN SOUTH AFRICA AGAINST DECENT WORK STANDARDS

Closing Date: 31 August 2018
 

The Centre for Information Technology and National Development in Africa (CITANDA) wishes to appoint a Postdoctoral Research Fellow (PDRF) in the evaluation of digital work platforms (Uber, SweepSouth, Upwork, etc.) in South Africa against decent work standards.

The PDRF will conduct research for a multi-disciplinary research project supported by the UK Economic and Social Research Council as part of its GCRF New Models of Sustainable Development programme. The research project aims to (i) improve working conditions for digital platform-workers in low- and middle-income countries; (ii) develop a certification scheme designed to set minimum standards for decent work and actively certify platforms through a newly-created “Fairwork Foundation”; and (iii) create a Code of Practice for South African platforms.

The PDRF will be responsible for a discrete area of research that seeks to understand key structural and individual-level concerns relating to platform work in South Africa; the key issues and obstacles experienced by South African platform workers; and the differentiation of such issues for particularly disadvantaged or vulnerable sub-groups. This will involve both desk and primary field research, most likely conducted in Cape Town and Johannesburg.

The PDRF role is an exciting opportunity to undertake cutting-edge research on a topic that is central to the future of work and to the harnessing of digital technologies for socio-economic development. Working within CITANDA, you will be part of a well-resourced, culturally-diverse and friendly research unit. More broadly, you will be working as part of a collaborative and multi-disciplinary team of world-leading academics from the University of Cape Town (Prof. JP van Belle), University of the Western Cape (Prof. Darcy du Toit), University of Oxford (Prof. Sandy Fredman, Prof. Mark Graham) and University of Manchester (Prof. Richard Heeks) spanning internet studies, law, information systems and development studies.

 

Academic/experience criteria:

Required

  • A PhD, awarded within the previous five years, in a relevant field which could include – but is not limited to – internet studies, information systems, development studies, or work and employment.

  • Strong skills in the planning, implementation, software-based analysis and write-up of primary field data.

  • Practical experience of qualitative fieldwork in a global South context.

  • Demonstrated ability to undertake desk-based evidence reviews.

  • Demonstrated capacity to produce peer-reviewed research articles.

  • Excellent written and verbal communication skills in English.

  • Ability to work independently within a research team and to meet deadlines.

Desirable

  • Knowledge and experience of field research in South Africa.

  • Knowledge of South African official languages other than English.

  • Specific expertise relating to digital platform work.

  • Prior experience of working on research projects.

Conditions of award:

  • Applicants must have completed their doctoral degrees within the past 5 years and may not previously have held a full-time permanent professional or academic post.

  • No benefits or allowances are included in the Fellowship but the fellowship stipend is tax free.

  • As part of their professional development, the successful candidate may be required to participate in a limited capacity in other CITANDA activities such as teaching and/or student supervision.

  • The successful applicant will be required to register as a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Cape Town immediately and will not be considered a UCT employee.

  • The successful applicant will be required to comply with the university’s approved policies, procedures and practices for the postdoctoral sector.

Value and tenure:

  • The value of the fellowship is ZAR 260,000 pa and is tenable for up to 29 months. A performance review will happen after the first year. Any further extension would be dependent on performance, and sourcing of additional funding for the post.

Application requirements:

Applicants should submit (i) an application letter that includes a short description of their expertise and research interests, and how these relate to the position, specifically addressing the required and desirable criteria listed, (ii) a CV including a publication list, iii) a copy of their PhD thesis and up to two published or submitted papers, (iv) copies of academic transcripts and/or certificates, and (v) email addresses of at least two referees directly involved in their PhD and/or previous postdoctoral research.

Applications should be emailed before noon on 31 August 2018 to freda.parker@uct.ac.za with cc to jean-paul.vanbelle@uct.ac.za.

Selection process:

  • Only eligible and complete applications will be considered by the selection committee.

  • Interviews are likely to take place in September 2018 and the successful candidate is expected to start as soon as possible thereafter.

Closing date:

Applications received before 31 August are guaranteed to be considered. Applications received thereafter may be considered if the position has not been filled.

Contact details for submission of applications: Freda Parker at freda.parker@uct.ac.za

Contact details for enquiries about the fellowship topic: Jean-Paul.VanBelle@uct.ac.za

Additional information on CITANDA and UCT can be found at: www.citanda.uct.ac.za / www.uct.ac.za

The University of Cape Town reserves the right to disqualify ineligible, incomplete and/or inappropriate applications. The University of Cape Town also reserves the right to change the conditions of the award or to make no award at all.

 

Three visions for how information and communication technologies alter positionalities at global economic margins

I'm currently working on a book chapter about our 'digital labour and gig economy' research. The chapter attempts to contextualise plans and projects to expand digital labour schemes by governments, third-sector organisations, and private sector actors. In writing the chapter, I thought it would be useful to outline the three broad perspectives that I have encountered in previous research. 

Imaginaries of the ways that technologies alter positionalities at the world’s economic margins are used to open up or limit possibilities. They are used to drive policies and plans; and they are deployed to shift attention and resources in some directions and away from others. It is therefore worth thinking about the nature of them, and what sort of changes they actually propose to bring into being. 

The three outlined below are taken from the following paper.

Graham, M. 2015. Contradictory Connectivity: Spatial Imaginaries and Techno-Mediated Positionalities in Kenya's Outsourcing Sector. Environment and Planning A 47 867-883 (pre-publicaion version here).

But I'd welcome other directions and other readings as edit this chapter.

The global village

This is one of the most persistent visions underpinning hopes about transformations that the internet can bring about. Built on Barlow’s (1996) vision of the internet as an ontic space in which states ‘have no sovereignty where we gather’. The global village allows any connected economic actor to be brought into a shared digital market space or communications space. Positionalities can be transcended and barriers to non-proximate interactions have technical fixes. The global village imaginary allows for a vision that anything can be done from anywhere.

Shrinking distance

This vision centres on the perceived ways in which technology would shrink geographic frictions with richer, faster, and cheaper connections and those diminishing frictions, in turn, lead conceptions of distance as a unit that can be shrunk. In other words, frictions between places are seen to be significant impediments holding back trade; and information and communication technologies (ICTs) not only eliminate those frictions, but facilitate and mediate a global economy. While this perspective shares much in common with the global village, there are significant differences between the two. Both perspectives attribute significant power and agency to technology and allow it to function as a bridge, intermediary, or tool that can fundamentally transform positionalities. Both highlight how the location of a business or businessperson could be rendered irrelevant: business can now be transacted with anyone, anywhere. However, while the global village perspective explains this change because of access to the Internet, the shrinking distance perspective makes the same argument with a focus instead on the diminishing role that distance plays. In the former, geographic positionality no longer matters (hence the temptation to assign an ontic role to digital spaces), whereas, in the latter, geographic positionalities retain more significance: the world here remains material and augmented (rather than as a dualism between virtual and material spaces), but distance between those material places becomes less important. The shrinking distance perspective ultimately presents a world of potential. The old barriers
of distance and geography, that previously rendered some places as peripheries and some places as cores, have melted away; and it is only a matter of time before people in economic margins can begin to buy, sell, and interact with anyone, anywhere

Digital augmentations

Finally, there are visions of digital augmentations in which economic actors neither imagine a digital global village in which they can interact with their peers, or a world in which distance had become meaningless. Instead, they focus on the incremental changes brought about by ICTs and the ways in which those changes are embedded into existing networks, structures, and positionalities. The primary argument put forward here is that distance is just one hurdle to cross. As such, the ability of ICTs to mediate new types of communication and information flow is of necessarily limited benefit. This recognition of the myriad social, economic, and political challenges inherent to doing business across international borders results in a conceptualization of distance as always socially constructed and always grounded in individual contingencies and positionalities. In other words, we are offered a more modest view of what new communications affordances can achieve. There is no sense that human territoriality can be replaced by communication technologies, and there is a full recognition of the fully augmented and relational links between technology, space, and economic activity.
 

Related readings

Smart, C., Donner, J., and Graham, M. 2016. Connecting the World from the Sky: Spatial Discourses Around Internet Access in the Developing World. Eighth International Conference on Information and Communication Technologies and Development. http://dx.doi.org/10.1145/2909609.2909659

Graham, M., Andersen, C., and Mann, L. 2015 Geographical Imagination and Technological Connectivity in East Africa. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 40(3) 334-349. (pre-publication version here).

Graham, M. 2013. Geography/Internet: Ethereal Alternate Dimensions of Cyberspace or Grounded Augmented Realities? The Geographical Journal 179(2) 177-182(pre-publication version here).

Graham, M. 2011. Time Machines and Virtual Portals: The Spatialities of the Digital DivideProgress in Development Studies. 11 (3). 211-227.

Graham, M. 2008. Warped Geographies of Development: The Internet and Theories of Economic Development. Geography Compass, 2(3), 771-789.