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Technology as an Agent of Economic and Social Change in Africa? Connecting Historical and Contemporary Debates (call for participation)



Call for participation

CAS@50 : Cutting Edges and Retrospectives, 
Centre of African Studies, University of Edinburgh
6th June 2012 09:00 – 8th June 2012

This panel aims to address some of the ahistoricity of the Information and Communication Technologies for Development field (ICT4D). It does so by focusing on experienced, enacted, and imagined changes in African economic relationships and positionalities due to technologies of connectivity in a contemporary and historical perspective.

ICT4D is a term used to denote a collection of activities that have framed electronic technologies as being useful for socio-economic development. Such technologies (and technologically mediated practices) may incorporate computers, mobile phones and the Internet, and may be used for a variety of developmental ends including health, education and economic activities. Much of the ICT4D literature tends to depict these technologies as ‘revolutionary’ and frames the changes that they engender as unique to our current age. This outlook neglects the longer history of the notion that economies in Africa can be ‘revolutionised’ through technologies – ideas which have been seminal both to the ‘civilising missions’ of the European colonial empires and in the development programmes of colonial and post-colonial states.

This dialogue between historical and contemporary perspectives has a number of approaches and theories to draw upon, including among others Kapil Raj’s ideas about ‘Relocating Modern Science’, Helen Tilley’s notion of ‘Africa as a Living Laboratory’, David Edgerton’s use orientated approach to technological development and Timothy Mitchell’s contributions to post-colonial theory. What these approaches have in common is that they forcefully challenge any simplistic notion of technological diffusion and economic development. As Timothy Mitchell writes, “the practices that form the economy operate, in part, to establish equivalences, contain circulations, identify social actors or agents, make quantities and performances measurable, and designate relations of control and command”. This panel will use these theories as building blocks on which to understand how technological change reshapes our understandings about how the economy operates, the way in which the economy is measured and the way in which economic space is territorialised, both socially and spatially. It will therefore look critically at how contemporary ICT diffusion compare with earlier technological and economic ‘revolutions’.

Themes may include:

  • past and current aspects of control over and use of new technologies of connectivity
  • the relations between newly introduced technologies and existing technologies and material culture
  • shifting perceptions of the benefits and beneficiaries of new technologies  
  • patterns of communication and imagined social, economic and political identities within, between and beyond African border
  • changing ideas and conceptualisations of technology as a driver of economic change and development
  • comparative studies of different forms of technologies in relation to economic development and economic theory
  • the role of technologies in the territorialization and de-territorialization of economic space
  • shifting roles of state and non-state agents in contemporary ICT4D and its historical predecessors
  • the diffusion of technology as a justification of wider political or social projects
In order to best provoke discussion, we would like participants to prepare short papers (4-5000 words) that will be circulated ahead of time and to prepare short presentations (5-10 minutes) so as to maximize discussion and debate during the roundtable. We ultimately hope for participants to expand their papers into contributions for an edited volume.

Panel Organizers:
Casper Andersen, Department of Culture and Society/Aarhus University, Laura Mann and Mark Graham, Oxford Internet Institute/University of Oxford

If you are interested in taking part, please send abstracts to Laura Mann (lauramann82@gmail.com) by February 31st, 2012.
New course on ICT and Development offered at the OII
I recently put together the outline of an MSc/DPhil course on ICT and Development that I will be teaching at the Oxford Internet Institute in Hilary Term 2011.

A brief outline is below, but follow this link for the full course description. I’d be happy to hear any thoughts on how to improve it.

This course will introduce students to the debates and practices surrounding the uses of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) in both the Global South and Global North. It will draw on resources from Anthropology, Development Studies, Economics, Geography, and History in order to examine the theoretical and conceptual frameworks that underpin development (as a practice, as a subject of research, and as a discourse). The course will also draw heavily on case-studies in order to ground theory in practice and will introduce students to a range of projects that have employed ICTs as a solution to problems in Africa, Asia and the Americas.

ICTs have the power to fundamentally transform the economic, social and political relationships in poorer parts of our planet. However, potentials often do not translate into realities, and it is important to be aware of not only the promises, but also the perils of the transformative nature of communication technologies. As such, this course will provide an opportunity to reflect on local appropriateness, social inclusion and the range of arguments for and against any ICT for development project in a variety of contexts.

Neogeography and the Palimpsests of Place: Web 2.0 and the Construction of a Virtual Earth

My article accepted to the Journal of Economic and Social Geography (Tijdschrift voor Economische en Sociale Geografie) entitled “Neogeography and the Palimpsests of Place: Web 2.0 and the Construction of a Virtual Earth” has just been published online. The print version should appear in volume 101 or 102 of the journal early next year. A pre-publication version is available at the following link, and feel free to email me for the final version of the article. The abstract is as follows:

Places have always been palimpsests. The contemporary is constantly being constructed upon the foundations of the old. Yet only recently has place begun to take on an entirely new dimension. Millions of places are being represented in cyberspace by a labor force of hundreds of thousands of writers, cartographers, and artists. This article traces the history and geography of virtual places. The virtual Earth is not a simple mirror of its physical counterpart, but is instead characterized by both black holes of information and hubs of rich description and detail. The tens of millions of places represented virtually are part of a worldwide engineering project that is unprecedented in scale or scope and made possible by contemporary Web 2.0 technologies. The virtual Earth that has been constructed is more than just a collection of digital maps, images, and articles that have been uploaded into Web 2.0 cyberspaces; it is instead a fluid and malleable alternate dimension that both influences and is influenced by the physical world.