Tag Archives: digital

Interview with Teledifusão de Macau on ICT4D

It was so good to be in Macau and Shenzhen recently in my role as a member of the Advisory Board of the United Nations University Computing and Society Institute.  During my visit, colleagues at the Institute had arranged for me to participate in Teledifusão de Macau (TDM)’s prime time Talk Show with Kelsey Wilhelm.  This was a great opportunity to share some of my current thinking about the interface between digital technologies and humans, and Kelsey made sure that it was a lively and fun half hour discussion – really grateful to him for this!

The show is now available on YouTube, and begins with an overview of the current state of ICT for development, before going on to discuss

  • ways through which people with disabilities can be empowered through the use of technology,
  • the importance of new technologies being inclusive, because otherwise they lead to new inequalities,
  • working “with” the poorest and most marginalised rather than for them,
  • the role of new technologies such as AI and blockchain in serving the interests of the rich rather than the poor,
  • cyborgs and the creation of machine-humans and human-machines, and finally
  • some of the ethical issues that need to be discussed if we are to balance the benefits of new technologies whilst limiting their harm.

I very much hope that what I have to say is thought-provoking and interesting.  We need much wider public debate on these issues!

Leave a comment

Filed under ICT4D, Inequality, poverty, United Nations, Universities

The gendered language of ICTs and ICT4D

I have long pondered about writing on the gendering of language in the field of ICT for Development (ICT4D), but have always hesitated because of the sensitivity of the subject matter.  However, I feel that the time is now right to do so following the recent launch of our initiative designed to change the attitudes and behaviours of men in the ICT/tech sector (TEQtogether).  This post may offend some people, but I hope not.  It is an issue that needs addressing if we are truly to grapple with the complexities of gender in ICT4D.

The way we use language both expresses our underlying cognition of the world, and also shapes that world, especially in the minds of those who read or hear us.  My observation is that in the ICT field most writers and practitioners have been blind to this gendering of language, and thus perpetuate a male-dominated conceptualisation of ICT4D.  Four very different examples can be used to highlight this:

  • The gendering of electronic parts. For a very considerable time, electronic parts have been gendered.  Take, for example, male and female connectors.  This is summarised graphically in the populist but communal Wikipedia entry on the subject: “In electrical and mechanical trades and manufacturing, each half of a pair of mating connectors or fasteners is conventionally assigned the designation male or female. The “female” connector is generally a receptacle that receives and holds the “male” connector … The assignment is a direct analogy with genitalia and heterosexual sex; the part bearing one or more protrusions, or which fits inside the other, being designated male in contrast to the part containing the corresponding indentations, or fitting outside the other, being designated female. Extension of the analogy results in the verb to mate being used to describe the process of connecting two corresponding parts together”.  Not only are different electronic parts gendered, but such gendering leads to an association with heterosexual intercourse – mating.  Interestingly, in digital systems, it is usually the male part that is seen as being “active”: keyboards and mice (male) are the active elements “plugged into” a female socket in a computer.  Yet, in reality it is the processing IMG_3261power of the computer (perhaps female) that is actually most valued.  Moreover, the use of USB “sticks”, often phallic in shape, can be seen as a clear example of this male/female gendering associated with heterosexual sex.  The use of such sticks to infect computers with viruses can also, for example, be likened to the spread of sexually transmitted diseases in humans.  The shift away from the use of such male and female connectors to the increasingly common use of WiFi and Bluetooth can in turn perhaps be seen as one way through which this gendering might be being broken down, although much more research needs to be done to explore the gendering of all aspects of digital technologies.
  • The use of language in ICT4D.  Far too often the language associated with the use of technology in international development carries with it subconscious, and (hopefully) usually unintended, meanings.  In the light of the above discussion, the DIGITAL-IN-2018-003-INTERNET-PENETRATION-MAP-V1.00widely used term “Internet penetration” is, for example, hugely problematic.  The “desire” to increase Internet penetration in poorer parts of the world can thus be interpreted as a largely male, north American and European wish sexually to “penetrate” and “conquer” weaker female countries and cultures.  Whereas normally countries are “seduced” into accepting such Internet penetration, the forceful and violent approach sometimes adopted can be akin to rape, an analogy that is occasionally applied to the entire process of imperialism and its successor international development when considered to be exploitative of “weaker” countries or economies.  The implication of this is  not only that great care is needed in the choice of particular words or phrases, but also that the complex subconscious and gendered structures that underlie our understanding of technology and development need to be better understood.   For those who think this too extreme a view, why don’t we just talk about the spread of the Internet, or Internet distribution?
  • Digital technologies represented by male nouns. At a rather different level, languages that differentiate between male and female nouns often consider ICTs to be male.  Thus, a computer is un ordinateur in French, ein Computer in German, un computer in Italian and un ordenador in Spanish.  Likewise a mobile phone is un téléphone portable in French, ein Handy in German, un cellurlare in Italian, and un celular in Spanish.  Not all ICTs are male (it is, for example, une micropuce for a microchip in French), but it seems that in languages derived from Latin the majority are.  The implications of this for the mental construction of technologies in the minds of different cultures are profound.
  • Computer code: bits and qubits.  Computer code is usually based on a binary number system in which there are only two possible states, off and on, usually represented by 0 and 1.  Binary codes assign patterns of binary digits (or bits) to any character or instruction, and data are encoded into bit strings.  The notions of male and female are similarly a binary distinction.  However, it is now increasingly realised that such a simple binary division of gender and sexuality is inappropriate.  The recognition of LGBTIQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, and questioning) identities challenges the traditional notions of binary distinctions that have long held sway in scientific thinking.  In particular, it can be seen as being closely isomorphic with many concepts of quantum computing, most notably the use of quantum bits (qubits) that can be in superpositions of states, in which any quantum states can be superposed (added together) to produce another valid quantum state.  This fluidity of gender, paralleling new notions in quantum computing, is particularly exciting, and may be one way through which the traditional maleness of ICTs and digital technologies may be fragmented.

These are but four examples of how the language of ICTs can be seen to have been traditionally gendered. They also point to some potential ways through which such gendering might be fragmented, or perhaps changed.  For some this will be unimportant, but let me challenge them.  If a largely male ICT or digital world is being constructed in part through the way that it is being spoken about (even by women), is it surprising that it is difficult to engage and involve women in the tech sector?  If we want to encourage more women into the  sector, for all the undoubted skills and benefits that they can bring, then surely we can all rethink our use of language to make the world of ICT4D less male dominated.

Finally, it is good to see that some of these issues are now being considered seriously by academics in a range of fields.  For those interested in exploring some of these ideas further, I would strongly recommend that they also read papers on gendering robots such as:

See also the following interesting article from a UK civil service (Parliamentary Digital Service) perspective on gender and language:

And thanks to Serge Stinckwich for sharing this interesting link from the BBC:

 

4 Comments

Filed under Gender, ICT4D, ICTs, Inequality, language

The damaging mythology of “Digital Natives”

The publication of Ofcom’s latest Communications Market Report, which provides interesting information about significant differences in usage of communications media, has led to a plethora of media commentaries perpetuating the mythology around the usage of the term “Digital Natives”.  A Guardian report  thus comments that “The advent of broadband in the year 2000 has created a generation of digital natives, the communication watchdog Ofcom says in its annual study of British consumers. Born in the new millennium, these children have never known the dark ages of dial up internet, and the youngest are learning how to operate smartphones or tablets before they are able to talk.”.

Ofcom summarised its report as follows: “Ofcom carries out research to help understand people’s awareness of technology and communications. Our research on people’s digital aptitude found that:

  • We’re at our most tech savvy between 14 – 15 years old – with an average score of 113
  • Over 60% of people aged over 55 score below average
  • Six-year-olds show the same confidence with technology as 45 year olds”

In this short post, I do three things: first, highlight the damaging effects that over-simplistic usage of terms such as “Digital Natives” can cause;  second, explore why such terms persist, and hence the notion of mythology; and third, point to  problems with the data upon which the Ofcom report’s conclusions are drawn.

Against the notion of “Digital Natives”
I had thought that the mythology surrounding “Digital Natives” had long been debunked, especially by the really excellent arguments propounded by my good friend Mark Weber, in his presentation on “Fear and Awe of the Digital Native“.  For anyone who has not read it, I strongly urge you to do so!  Rather than repeat all of Mark’s arguments, let me merely highlight four of the reasons why he suggests that it is a dangerous concept:

  • “Generational division simplifies picture
  • Assumes that ‘just because’ someone is young they have the necessary skill set to deal with modern economy
  • Presumes a level playing field for the young, ignores economic and social problems & differences
  • Places unwanted pressure on the young”

These are critical issues that must not be ignored, but I would like briefly here to develop four particular points that are in part alluded to by Mark:

  • Not everyone who is young is digitally literate, nor is everyone who is old digitally incompetent! Simply to categorise people in this way can be hugely damaging, not least to their self esteem.  If we wish to encourage older people to use technology, because of its assumed benefits to them, it is decidedly unhelpful to castigate them as being resistant to technology, or unable to learn about it.  Many older people are hugely competent at using digital technologies, and indeed teach younger people how to use them! Using Ofcom’s sample question test, for example, I scored more than 55% above the average score for people my age!!!
  • These differences are in large part structurally determined, rather than merely a factor of age.  Much more research needs to be done on reasons why people use digital technologies in particular ways, but there are very many structural reasons why people in particular age groups might respond to such surveys in particular ways (see below for problems with the actual questions asked in the Ofcom survey).  There are clear reasons why older people might not be as familiar with digital technologies as younger ones, not least because they may consider that they have better things to do with their time!  Moreover, not having access to the technologies, not being able to afford them, or their design being difficult to use can all affect such usage.  Elderly people with visual impairments or motility challenges find small digital devices difficult to use.  Most, although definitely not all, common digital technologies are not designed for use by people with disabilities, and similarly as people become older they too are often actually specifically marginalised by the technologies.
  • It implies that digital technologies are on the whole “good” and “beneficial”; we should all want to be natives! This again is part of the mythology surrounding “Digital Natives”.  However, as needs to be repeated over and over again, digital technologies have both positive and negative effects.  The word “native” is generally seen as being positive, and therefore it focuses attention mainly on the positive aspects of  the use of such technologies.  Sadly, the term “Digital Immigrants”, which is often used to refer to those older people learning how to use the technologies, has become associated with the more widely pejorative usage of the word “Immigrant”.  This is extremely unfortunate, because immigrants are actually often the people who bring in new ideas, and lead to changes for the better in a society! The notion that all digital technologies are definitely good must be debunked.  One need only think of the challenges of cybercrime, child online pornography, or the increased work load cause by e-mails to realise that being a “Digital Native” can actually be hugely damaging and dehumanising!
  • The notion of “Digital Natives” is a simple concept, that is easily remembered, but it is therefore highly dangerous because it implies some kind of causative power. There is nothing necessarily about young people that makes them any more adept at using digital technologies than older people.  The Ofcom report emphasises that, based on their survey, “Six-year-olds show the same confidence with technology as 45 year olds”, but this merely expresses confidence rather than ability.  If six-year-olds regularly play with digital technologies more than do older people, then it is hardly surprising that they have more confidence in their usage.  This does not mean that they are necessarily better at using the technology, or that older people cannot learn how to use it.  Persistence in the use of the term will only encourage older people to think that they are less able to use the technologies than they actually are, and might therefore further limit their potential benefit gains from digital technologies.  This is not to deny the considerable evidence that humans have greater difficulty remembering things, or learning new things as they get older, but it is to decry the arguments that suggest that there is something particularly about digital technologies that makes them harder than other new things for older people to learn.

Why do people still persist in using the term “Digital Native”?
The idea of students as “Digital Natives” and teachers as “Digital Immigrants” as first postulated by Mark Prensky in 2001 is indeed catchy, and it is not surprising that it became popular.  Like many popular concepts, it has an element of truth in it, and it appeals to those who like binary divides and simplicity.  Prensky’s paper concluded, “So if Digital Immigrant educators really want to reach Digital Natives – i.e. all their students – they will have to change. It’s high time for them to stop their grousing, and as the Nike motto of the Digital Native generation says, “Just do it!” They will succeed in the long run – and their successes will come that much sooner if their administrators support them”.  As founder and CEO of a game-based learning company, Prensky was  eager to encourage as many teachers as possible to adopt digital technologies in their learning, and this has been at the heart of the ‘interests’ that have subsequently underlain much use of the terminology.

Those who advocate the use of the term “Digital Natives” do so very specifically, so as to encourage even greater adoption of digital technologies, not only in the field of learning, but also more widely.  “Immigrants” are encouraged to adopt ever more technology so that they can become as proficient and ‘naturalised’ as are the “Digital Natives”.  Hence, a fundamental driver for use of this terminology is the profit motive of global ICT corporations, eager to ensure that as many people as possible are locked in to the new digital world that they are creating.

In the field of e-learning, a fear that teachers often have, especially in some of the poorer countries of the world, is that their role will be usurped by the machine, and that as “Digital Immigrants” they will be left behind by their students, the “Digital Natives”.  The traditional role of the teacher, as someone with knowledge to impart, rather than as someone helping others to learn, is thus seen as being fundamentally undermined by the use of digital technologies such as computers, the Internet and mobile ‘phones.  In such contexts, the use of an overly simple divide between Natives and Immigrants can be hugely damaging.  Instead, a more sophisticated approach to incorporating digital technologies in learning is required, recognising that it is a transformation for both teachers and students, and that only by working together can they develop a shared appreciation of the benefits that such technologies can bring.

Problems with research based on self-reporting
Interestingly, the Ofcom report itself does not actually use the words “Digital Natives”, but it does provide interesting information about how different age groups self-report on technology usage. Herein, though, lies a fundamental problem with the report, which is that the age-related conclusions are largely based on simple self-reporting questions that do not actually provide a reliable basis for the conclusions drawn.  As the sample questions indicate, the responses to one section require the person completing the questionnaire to give one of the following five answers to the question “Thinking about the following gadgets and services – which statement best describes your knowledge and understanding?”:

  • I use them
  • I know a lot about them, but I haven’t used them
  • I know a bit about them, but I haven’t used them
  • I’ve heard of them but don’t know much about them
  • I’ve never heard of them.

This relies on those responding to differentiate between “not much”, “a bit”, and “a lot”; one person’s “not much” could be another’s “a lot”.  Moreover, there is an inbuilt bias in such questions, because the same amount of knowledge abut technology is actually a much smaller percentage of an older person’s overall knowledge than it would be of a child’s knowledge.  This would tend to lead to younger people thinking that their digital knowledge about something was actually “a lot”, whereas an older person might see this as actually being “not much”!  The gadgets chosen are also somewhat problematic, including smart glasses such as Google Glass, smart watches, and 3D printers, not least because very few people actually use them as yet, and so the results will be biased to particular age groups that use them.

Another set of questions requires respondents to answer whether they “agree strongly”, “agree”, “disagree” or “disagree strongly” with a set of statements that include:

  • I like working out how to use different gadgets
  • My friend and family ask what I think about new gadgets
  • I know how to use lots of gadgets
  • I wouldn’t know what to do without technology

These questions are likely to be more comparable and reliable than the first batch discussed above, but similar challenges of interpretation can be found with most of them.  How, for example, does one quantify “lots of gadgets”? Moreover, agreeing strongly with the last of these would presumably lead to a high score, whereas only some reflection is required to suggest that it is actually deeply worrying for anyone to answer anything other than “strongly disagree”!

A further set of questions invites respondents to describe usage in terms of “regularly”, “sometimes”, “hardly ever” and “never” with respect to technologies such as online TV and text messaging:

  • I watch TV shows online (e.g. BBC iPlayer, 4OD)
  • I prefer to contact friends by text message than by phone call (e.g. by SMS, BBM, iMessage)

Again, these assume that all groups of respondents will differentiate between categories in the same way.  “Regularly”, for example, could be interpreted as “regularly, once a week”, whereas it would seem to be meant to mean very frequently!  Likewise, the difference between “sometimes” and “hardly ever” is not easy to define.

The Ofcom report has certainly provided interesting data about the use of communication technologies in Britain today, and it must be stressed once again it did not specifically use the words “Digital Natives”.  However, it must be emphasised that much of the data upon which it is based is somewhat problematic, and focused very much on perceptions rather than actually how people use technologies.  These are, though, clearly related, and there is no question that people from different backgrounds, cultures, ethnicity, gender and age all use devices in different ways.  The way on which journalists have picked up on the term “Digital Native” is, though, disappointing, and continues to promote what I see as a damaging mythology.  It is great to know I am not alone, and that today “The Herald” in Scotland also runs an article called “Myth of the digital native”!

 

12 Comments

Filed under Development, Education, ICT4D, Social Networking