From show in Critical Community Debate

Miren

[blog] Growth for Critical Studies? Social scholars, let’s be shrewder

Author: Miren Gutierrez
This is a response the call for a critical community studies  ‘Tech, data and social change: A plea for cross-disciplinary engagement, historical memory, and … Critical Community Studies‘ by Kersti Wissenbach and the first contribution to the debate  ‘Can We Plan Slow – But Steady – Growth for Critical Studies?’ by Charlotte Ryan.
Commenting on the thought-provoking blogs by Charlotte Ryan and Kersti Wissenbach, I feel in good company. Both of them speak of the need in research to address inequalities embedded in technology and to focus on the critical role that communities play in remedying dominant techno-centric discourses and practices, and of the idea of new critical community studies. That is, the need to place people and communities at the centre of our activity as researchers and practitioners, asking questions about the communities instead of about the technologies, demanding a stronger collaboration between the two, and the challenges that this approach generates.
Their blogs incite different but related ideas.

First, different power imbalances can be found in scholarship. Wissenbach suggests that dominant discourses in academia, as well as in practice and donor agendas, are driving the technology hype. But as Ryan proposes, academia is not a homogeneous terrain.

Always speaking from the point of view of critical data studies, the current predominant techno-centrism seems to be diverting research funding towards applied sciences, engineering and tools (what Wissenbach calls “the state of technology” and Ryan refers to as a “profit-making industry”). Talking about Canada, Srigley describes how, for a while, even the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada “fell into line by focusing its funding on business-related degrees. All the while monies for teaching and research in the humanities, social sciences, and sciences with no obvious connection to industry, which is to say, most of it, began to dry up”(Srigley 2018).  Srigley seems to summarise what is happening everywhere. “Sponsored research” and institutions requiring that research can be linked to business and industry partners appear as the current mantra.

Other social scholars around me are coming up with similar stories: social sciences focusing critically on data are getting a fraction of the research funding opportunities vis-à-vis computational data-enabled science and engineering within the fields of business and industry, environment and climate, materials design, robotics, mechanical and aerospace engineering, and biology and biomedicine. Meanwhile, critical studies on data justice, governance and how ordinary people, communities and non-governmental organisations experience and use data are left for another day.
Thus, the current infatuation with technology appears not to be evenly distributed across donors and academia.

Second, I could not agree more with Wissenbach and Ryan when they say that we should take communities as entry points in the study of technology for social change. Wissenbach further argues against the objectification of “communities”, calling for actual needs-driven engaged research and more aligned with practice.

Then again, here lies another imbalance. Even if scholars work alongside with practitioners to bolster new critical community studies, these actors are not in the same positions. We, social scholars, are gatekeepers of what is known in academia, we are often more skilful in accessing funds, we dominate the lingo. Inclusion therefore lies at the heart of this argument and remains challenging.

If funds for critical data studies are not abundant, resources to put in place data projects with social goals and more practice engaged research are even scarcer. That is, communities facing inequalities may find themselves competing for resources not only within their circles (as Ryan suggests). Speaking too as a data activist involved in projects that look at illegal fishing’s social impacts on coastal communities of developing countries (and trying hard to fund-raise for them), I think that we must make sure that more possible for data activism research does not mean less funding for data activist endeavours. I know they are not the same funds, but there are ways in which research could foster practice, and one of them is precisely putting communities at the centre.

Third, another divide lies underneath the academy’s resistance to engaged scholarship. While so-called “hard sciences” have no problems with “engaging”, some scholars in “soft-sciences” seem to recoil from it. Even if few people still support Chris Anderson’s “end of theory” musings (Anderson 2008), some techno-utopians pretend a state of asepsis exists, or at least it is possible now, in the age of big data. But they could not be more misleading. What can be more “engaged scholarship” than “sponsored research”? I mean, research driven and financed by companies is necessarily “engaged” with the private sector and its interests, but rarely acknowledges its own biases. Meanwhile, five decades after Robert Lynd asked “Knowledge for what?” (Lynd 1967), this question still looms over social sciences. Some social scientists shy away from causes and communities just in case they start marching into the realm of advocacy and any pretentions of “objectivity” disappear. While we know computational data-enabled science and engineering cannot be “objective”, why not accept and embrace engaged scholarship in social sciences, as long as we are transparent about our prejudices and systematically critical about our assumptions?

Fourth, data activism scholars have to be smarter in communicating findings and influencing discourses. Our lack of influence is not all attributable to market trends and donors’ obsessions; it is also our making. Currently, the stories of data success and progress come mostly from the private sector. And even when prevailing techno-enthusiastic views are contested, prominent criticism comes from the same quarters. An example is Bernard Marr’s article “Here’s why Data Is Not the New Oil”. Marr does not mention the obvious, that data are not natural resources, spontaneous and inevitable, but cultural ones, “made” in processes that are also “made” (Boellstorff 2013). In his article, Marr refers only to certain characteristics that make data different from oil. For example, while fossil fuels are finite, data are “infinitely durable and reusable”, etc. Is that all that donors, and publics, need to know about data? Although this debate has grown over the last years, is it reaching donors’ ears? Not long ago, during the Datamovida conference in Madrid in 2016 organised by Vizzuality, a fellow speaker –Aditya Agrawal from the Open Data Institute and Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data— opened his presentation saying precisely that data were “the new oil”. If key data people in the UN system have not caught up with the main ideas emerging from critical data studies, we are in trouble and it is partly our making.

This last argument is closely related to the other ideas in this blog. The more we can influence policy, public opinion, decision-makers and processes, the more resources data activism scholars can gather to work alongside with practitioners in exploring how people and organisations appropriate data and their processes, create new data relations and reverse dominant discourses. We cannot be content with publishing a few blogs, getting our articles in indexed journals and meeting once in a while in congresses that seldom resonate beyond our privilege bubbles. Both Wissenbach and Ryan argue for stronger collaborations and direct community engagement; but this is not the rule in social sciences.

Making an effort to reach broader publics could be a way to break the domination that, as Ryan says, brands, market niches and revenue streams seem to exert on academic institutions. Academia is a bubble but not entirely hermetic. And even if critical community studies will not ever be a “cash cow”, they could be influential. There are other critical voices in the field of journalism, for example, which have denounced a sort of obsession with technology (Kaplan 2013; Rosen 2014). Maybe critical community studies should embrace not only involved communities and scholars but also other critical voices from journalism, donors and other fields. The collective “we” that Ryan talks about could be even more inclusive. And to do that, we have to expand beyond the usual academic circles, which is exactly what Wissenbach and Ryan contend.

I do not know how critical community studies could look like; I hope this is the start of a conversation. In Madrid, in April, donors, platform developers, data activists and journalists met at the “Big Data for the Social Good” conference, organised by my programme at the University of Deusto focussing on what works and what does not in critical data projects. The more we expand this type of debates the more influence we could gain.

Finally, the message emerging from critical data studies cannot be only about dataveillance (van Dijck 2014) and ways of data resistance. However imperfect and biased, the data infrastructure is enabling ordinary people and organised society to produce diagnoses and solutions to their problems (Gutiérrez 2018). Engaged research means we need to look at what communities do with data and how the experience the data infrastructure, not only at how communities contest dataveillance, which I have the feeling has dominated critical data studies so far. Yes, we have to acknowledge that often these technologies are shaped by external actors with vested interests before communities use them and that they embed power imbalances. But if we want to capture people’s and donor’s imagination, the stories of data success and progress within organised and non-organised society should be told by social scholarship as well. Paraphrasing Ryan, we may lose but live to fight another day.

Cited work
Anderson, Chris. 2008. ‘The End of Theory: The Data Deluge Makes the Scientific Method Obsolete’. Wired. https://www.wired.com/2008/06/pb-theory/.
Boellstorff, Tom. 2013. ‘Making Big Data, in Theory’. First Monday 18 (10). http://firstmonday.org/article/view/4869/3750.
Dijck, Jose van. 2014. ‘Datafication, Dataism and Dataveillance: Big Data between Scientific Paradigm and Ideology’. Surveillance & Society 12 (2): 197–208.
Gutierrez, Miren. 2018. Data Activism and Social Change. Pivot. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
Kaplan, David E. 2013. ‘Why Open Data Isn´t Enough’. Global Investigative Journalism Network (GIJN). 4 February 2013. http://gijn.org/2013/04/02/why-open-data-isnt-enough/.
Lynd, Robert Staughton. 1967. Knowledge for What: The Place of Social Science in American Culture. Princeton: Princeton University Press. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1525/aa.1940.42.1.02a00250/pdf.
Rosen, Larry. 2014. ‘Our Obsessive Relationship With Technology’. Huffington Post, 2014. https://www.huffingtonpost.com/dr-larry-rosen/our-obsession-relationshi_b_6005726.html?guccounter=1.
Srigley, Ron. 2018. ‘Whose University Is It Anyway?’, 2018. https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/whose-university-is-it-anyway/#_ednref37.

Still from Incoming (2017), by Richard Mosse - http://www.richardmosse.com/projects/incoming

[blog] Making ‘community’ critical: Tech collectives through the prism of power

Author: Fabien Cante

In her recent blog post, Kersti Wissenbach expresses her frustration with the field of “civic tech,” which, as she puts it, remains far more focused on the “tech” than the “civic.” This resonates with me in many ways. I write as someone who is possibly more of an outsider to the field than Wissenbach: my previous research was on local radio (all analog), and as my DATACTIVE colleagues have found out, I am clueless about even the basics of encryption, so anything more technically complex will leave me flummoxed. In agreeing with Wissenbach, then, I do not mean to diminish the wonders of tech itself, as a field of knowledge and intervention, but rather underscore that the civic (or “the social,” as my former supervisor Nick Couldry would put it) is itself an immensely complex realm of knowledge, let alone action.

Wissenbach proposes that our thinking efforts, as scholars and activists concerned about the relations between technology and social change, shift toward “Critical Community Studies.” By this she means that we should ask “critical questions beyond technology and about communities instead.” I strongly agree. The research projects around data, tech and society that most excite me are the ones that are rooted in some community or other – transnational activist communities, in the case of DATACTIVE, or marginalised urban communities, in the case of the Our Data Bodies project. However, like Charlotte Ryan (whose response to Wissenbach can be read here), I would also like to be a bit cautious. In what follows, I really emphasise the critical and contextual aspects of Critical Community Studies, as envisioned by Wissenbach. I do so because I am a bit sceptical about the middle term – community.

I am involved in urban planning struggles in south London where the word “community” is frequently employed. Indeed, it serves as a kind of talisman: it invokes legitimacy and embeddedness. Community is claimed by activists, local authorities, and even developers, for obviously very different aims. This experience has shown me that, politically, community is an empty signifier. Bullshit job titles like “Community Manager” in marketing departments (see also Mark Zuckerberg speeches) further suggest to me that community is one of the most widely misappropriated words of our time.

More seriously, and more academically perhaps, community denotes a well-defined and cohesive social group, based on strong relationships, and as such self-evident for analysis. This is not, in many if not most circumstances, what collectives actually look like in real life. Anthropologist John Postill (2008), studying internet uptake in urban Malaysia, writes that researchers too often approach tech users as either “communities” or “networks.” Neither of these concepts captures how technology is woven into social relations. Where community presumes strong bonds and a shared identity, network reduces human relations to interaction frequencies and distance between nodes, flattening power differentials.

As Wissenbach rightly notes, people who use tech, either as producers or users, are “complex [beings] embedded in civil society networks and power structures.” It is these power structures, and the often tense dynamics of embeddedness, that Wissenbach seems to find most interesting – and I do too. This, for me, is the vital question behind Critical Community Studies (or, for that matter, the study of data activism): what specific power relations do groups enact and contest?

Still from Incoming (2017), by Richard Mosse - http://www.richardmosse.com/projects/incoming
Still from Incoming (2017), by Richard Mosse – http://www.richardmosse.com/projects/incoming

The critical in Critical Community Studies thus asks tough questions about race, class, gender, and other lines of inequality and marginalization. It asks how these lines intersect both in the community under study (in the quality of interactions, the kinds of capital required to join the collective, language, prejudices, etc.) and beyond it (in wider patterns of inequality, exclusion, and institutionalized domination). We see examples of such questioning happening, outside academia, through now widespread feminist critiques calling out pervasive gender inequalities in the tech industry, or through Data for Black Lives’ efforts to firmly center race as a concern for digital platforms’ diversity and accountability. Within the university, Seda Gürses, Arun Kundnani and Joris Van Hoboken’s (2016) paper “Crypto and Empire,” which could be said to examine the “crypto community” (however diffuse), offers some brilliant avenues to think data/tech communities critically, and thereby “re-politicize” data itself. More broadly, a wealth of feminist, post/decolonial (e.g. Mignolo 2011; Bhambra 2014; or Flavia Dzodan’s stellar Twitter feed) and critical race theory (see for example Browne 2015) can help us think through the histories from which civic tech communities arise, their positions in a complex landscape of power and inequality, and the ways in which they see their place in the world.

There is always a risk, when researchers consider community critically, that they put certain communities under strain; that they are seen to hinder positive work through their (our) critical discourse. Certainly, challenging a community’s inclusiveness is hard (and researchers are very bad at challenging their “own” community). But I think this is a limited view of critique as “not constructive” (a crime in certain circles where “getting things done” is a primary imperative). I would argue that collectives are strengthened through critique. As Charlotte Ryan beautifully puts it, Critical Community Studies can be instrumental in forming “a real ‘we’.” She adds: “an aggregate of individuals, even if they share common values, does not constitute ‘us’.” Building a “we” requires, at every step, asking difficult questions about who that “we” is (“we” the social movement, or “we” the civic tech community), who doesn’t fall under “we’s” embrace, and why.

Bibliography

Bhambra, Gurminder K. (2014) Connected Sociologies. London: Bloomsbury Press

Browne, Simone (2015) Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness. Durham, NC & London: Duke University Press

Gürses, Seda, Kundnani, Arun & Joris Van Hoboken (2016) “Crypto and Empire: The Contradictions of Counter-Surveillance Advocacy” Media, Culture & Society 38 (4), 576-590

Mignolo, Walter (2011) The Darker Side of Western Modernity: Global Futures, Decolonial Options. Durham, NC & London: Duke University Press

Postill, John (2008) “Localizing the Internet Beyond Communities and NetworksNew Media & Society 10 (3), 413-431

button life

[blog] Can We Plan Slow – But Steady – Growth for Critical Studies?

Author: Charlotte Ryan (University of Massachusetts, Lowell/Movement-Media
Research Action Project), member of the DATACTIVE ethics board.

This is a response post to the blog ‘Tech, data and social change: A plea for cross-disciplinary engagement, historical memory, and … Critical Community Studies‘ written by Kersti Wissenbach.

To maximize technologies’ value in social change efforts, Kersti Wissenbach urges researchers to join with communities facing power inequalities to draw lessons from practice. In short, the liberating potential of technologies for social change cannot be realized without holistically addressing broader inequalities. Her insights are many, in fact, communication activists and scholars could use her blog as a guide for ongoing conversations. Three points especially resonate with my experiences as a social movement scholar/activist working in collaboration with communities and other scholars:

  • Who is at the table?
    Wissenbach stresses the critical role of proactive communities in fostering technologies for social change as a corrective to the “dominant civic tech discourse [that] seems to keep departing from the ‘tech’ rather than the ‘civic’.” She stresses that an inclusive “we” emerges from intentional and sustained working relationships.
  • Power (and inequalities of power) matter!
    Acknowledging that technologies’ possibilities are often shaped long before many constituencies are invited to participate, Wissenbach asks those advancing social change technologies to notice the creation and recreation of power structures:
    “Only inclusive communities,” she cautions, “can really translate inclusive technology approaches, and consequently, inclusive governance.”
  • Tech for social change needs critical community studies
    Wissenbach calls for the emergence of critical community studies that—as do critical development, communication, feminist, and subaltern studies–crosses disciplines, “taking the community as an entry point in the study of technology for social change.” Practitioners and scholars would reflect together to draw and disseminate shared lessons from experience. This would allow “communities, supposed to benefit from certain decisions, [to] have a seat on the table.”

Anyone interested in the potential of civic tech—activists, scholar-activists, engineers, designers, artists, or other social communication innovators—will warmly welcome Wissenbach’s vision of Critical Community Studies. She proposes not another sub-specialty with esoteric journals and self-referential jargon, but a research network of learning communities expanding conceptual dialogs across the usual divides. And, she recognizes the urgent need to preserve and broadly disseminate learning about technologies for social change.

I agree but cautiously. It is just what’s needed. But the academy tends to resist engaged scholarship. We need to think about where to locate transformative theory-building; sadly, calls to break with traditional research approaches may be more warmly received outside academic institutions than within. The academy itself, at least in the United States, is under duress. How would Critical Community Studies explain itself to academic institutions fascinated by brand, market niche, and revenue streams? Critical Community Studies is not likely to be a cash cow generating more profits faster, and with less investment. The U.S. trend to turn education into a profit-making industry may be extreme, but it raises the need to look before we leap.

Like Wissenbach, I entered the academy with deep roots in social movements and community activism. Like her, I want the academy to produce knowledge and technology for the social good. Like her, I want communities directly affected to be fully vested in all phases of learning. Like her, I am eager to move beyond vague calls for participation and inclusion. My experiences to date, however, give me pause for thought.

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Caption: Thirty years in buttons

In the mid-1980’s, I was among a dozen established and emerging scholars who formed the university-based Media Research Action Project (MRAP). We were well-positioned to bridge the theorist-practitioner divide; many of us had begun as movement activists and we had ties to practitioners. This made it easier for MRAP to work with under-represented and misrepresented communities and constituencies to identify and challenge barriers to democratic communication and to build communication capacity.

U.S. based social movements face recurring challenges: our movements hemorrhage learning between generations; we still need to grapple with the legacies of slavery, colonialism and jingoism; our labor movement has withered. Living amidst relative plenty, U.S. residents may feel far removed from crises elsewhere. Competitive individualism, market pressures, and dismantled social welfare programs leave U.S. residents feeling precarious —even if we embrace liberatory ideals.

In light of these material conditions, MRAP wanted to broaden political dialogs about equality and justice. At first, we focused on transferring communication skills—one and two-day workshops. We soon realized that we needed ongoing working relationships to test strategies, build infrastructure and shared conceptual frameworks. But it took years to find the funds to run a more sustained program. Foundations—even when they liked our work—wanted us to ‘scale up’ fast (one national foundation asked us to take on 14 cities). In contrast, we saw building viable working relations as labor-intensive and slow. One U.S. federal agency offered hefty funding for proposals to “bridge the digital divide.” MRAP filed a book-length application with ten community partner organizations, eight in communities of color. The agency responded positively to MRAP’s plan, they urged us to resubmit but asked that we dump our partners and replace them with mainstream charities, preferably statewide.

And so the constraints tightened. Government and foundations’ preference for quick gains could marginalize (again) the very partners MRAP formed to support. To support ourselves, we could take day jobs, but this limited our availability. Over and over, we found—at least in the U.S. context—talk of addressing power inequalities far exceeded public will and deeds. Few mainstream institutions would commit the labor, skill, and time to reduce institutionalized power inequalities. Nor did they appreciate that developing shared lessons from practical experiences is labor intensive. (Wissenbach notes a number of these obstacles).

Despite all of the above, MRAP and our partners had victories. One neighborhood collaboration took over local political offices; another defeated an attempt to shut down an important community school; others passed legislation; and made common cause with the Occupy Movement to challenge the demonization of poor people in America. We won…sometimes. More often, we lost but lived to fight another day. And we helped document the ups and downs of our social movements. It was enormous fun even when it was really hard. As the designated holders and tellers of these histories, MRAP participants deepened our understanding of the macro-mezzo-micro interplay of political, social, economic, and cultural power.

From hundreds of conversations, dozens of collaborations, and gigabytes of notes, case studies, and foundation proposals, came a handful of collaborations that advanced our understanding of how U.S. movement organizations synchronize communication, political strategizing, coalition building, and leader and organizational development, and how groups integrate learning into ongoing campaigns.

We have begun to upload MRAP’s work at www.mrap.info. But those pursuing a transformed critical research tradition, should acknowledge that the academy has resisted grounded practice, and that the best critical reflections were often led by activists outside the academy rooted in communities directly facing power inequalities. In light of this, Wissenbach’s insistence that communities directly affected “be at the table” becomes an absolute.

Let me turn to Critical Communication Studies more specifically. To maximize publishing, U.S. scholars tend to communicate within, not across, disciplines. Anxious regarding slowing their productivity, they tend to avoid the unpredictability of practical work. For their part, the civic tech networks and communities facing inequalities find themselves competing for resources, a competition that can undermine the very collaborations they want to build. Even if resources are located, efforts may fade if a grant ends or a government changes hands.

So while I welcome the call for researchers to join practitioners in designing mutually beneficial projects, I want to do it right and that may mean do it slow. First off, who is the “we/us” mentioned twenty times by Wissenbach (or an equal number of times by me)? We need a real “we”: transforming institutional practices and priorities whether in academic or communication systems is a collective process. An aggregate of individuals even if they share common values does not constitute “us,” social movements as dialogic communities that consider, test, and unite around strategies. (As Wissenbach underscores, “we” need to shift power, and this requires shared strategies, efficient use of sustainable resources, and a capacity to learn from experience).

In short, transforming scholarly research from individual to collective models will take movement building. A first step may be recognizing that “we” needs to be built. Calling “we” a social construction does not mean it’s unreal; it means it’s our job to make it real.

Conclusion

I share Wissenbach’s respect for past and present efforts to lessen social inequalities via communication empowerment. I agree that “only inclusive communities can really translate inclusive technology approaches and, consequently, inclusive governance.” And I know that this will be hard to achieve. Progress may lie ahead but precarity and heavy work lie ahead as well. A beloved friend says to me these days, “Getting old is not for the faint of heart.” Neither is movement building.

 

Bibliography:

Howley, K. (2005). Community media: people, places, and communication technologies. Cambridge, UK ; New York : Cambridge University Press.

Kavada, A. (2010). Email lists and participatory democracy in the European social forum. Media, Culture & Society, 32(3), 355. doi: 10.1080/13691180802304854

Kavada, A. (2013). Internet cultures and protest movements: The cultural links between strategy, organizing and online communication. In B. Cammaerts, A. Mattoni & P.

McCurdy (Eds.), Mediation and protest movements (pp. 75–94). Bristol, England: Intellect.

Kidd, D., Barker-Plummer, B., & Rodriguez, C. (2005). Media democracy from the ground up: mapping communication practices in the counter public sphere. Report to the Social Science Research Council. New York

Kidd, D., Rodriguez, C., & Stein, L. (2009). Making our media: Global initiatives toward a democratic public sphere. Cresskill: Hampton Press.

Lentz, R. G., & Oden, M. D. (2001). Digital divide or digital opportunity in the Mississippi Delta region of the US. Telecommunications policy, 25(5), 291-313.

Lentz, R. G. Regulation as Linguistic Engineering. (2011). The Handbook of Global Media and Communication Policy, 432-448. IN Mansell, R., & Raboy, M. (Eds.) (Vol. 6). John Wiley & Sons.

Magallanes-Blanco, C., & Pérez-Bermúdez, J. A. (2009). Citizens’ publications that empower: social change for the homeless. Development in practice, 19(4-5), 654-664.

Mattoni, A. (2016). Media practices and protest politics: How precarious workers mobilise. Routledge.

Mattoni, A., & Treré, E. (2014). Media practices, mediation processes, and mediatization in the study of social movements. Communication theory, 24(3), 252-271.

Milan, S. (2009). Four steps to community media as a development tool. Development in Practice, 19(4-5), 598-609.

Rubin, N. (2002). Highlander media justice gathering final report. New Market, TN: Highlander Research and Education Center.

Treré, E. and Magallanes-Blanco, C. (2015) Battlefields, Experiences, Debates: Latin American Struggles and Digital Media Resistance, International Journal of Communication 9: 3652–366.

(C) Tess Watson
https://www.flickr.com/photos/tessawatson/384591931/in/photostream/

[blog] Tech, data and social change: A plea for cross-disciplinary engagement, historical memory, and … Critical Community Studies

Kersti R. Wissenbach | March 2018

It has been a while since I first got my feet into the universe of technology and socio-political change. Back then, coming from a critical development studies and communication science background, I was fascinated by the role community radio could play in fostering dialogue among communities in remote areas, and between those communities and their government representatives.

My journey started in the early 2000s, in the most remote parts of Upper West Ghana, with Radio Progress, a small community radio station doing a great job in embracing diversity. Single feature mobile phones were about to become a thing in the country and the radio started to experiment with call-in programs for engaging its citizens in live discussions with local politicians. Before, radio volunteers would drive to the different villages in order to collect people’s concerns, and only then bring those recorded voices back into a studio-based discussion with invited politicians. The community could merely listen in as their concerns were discussed. With the advent of mobile phones, people suddenly could do more than just passively listen to the responses: finally they could engage in real-time dialogue with their representatives, hearing their own voices on air. Typically, people were gathering with family and other community members during the call-in hours to voice their concerns collectively. Communities would not only raise concerns, but also share positive experiences with local representatives following up on their requests. These stories encouraged neighbouring communities to also get involved in the call-in programs to raise their concerns and needs to be addressed.

Fast forward to today and much has changed on the ‘tech for social change’ horizon, at least if we listen to donor agendas and the dominant discourses in the field and in the academia. But what has really changed is largely one thing: the state of technology [1]. In the space of two decades, our enthusiasm, and donor attention, fixed on the ubiquity of mobile technologies, followed by online (crowdsourcing) platforms, social media, everything data (oh, wait … BIG data), and blockchain technology.

Whilst much of what has changed in these regards over the last few decades can be bundled under the Information and Communication for Development (ICT4D) label, one aspect seems to remain constant: change, if it is meant to happen and last, has to be rooted in the contexts and needs of those it intends to address. This is the ultimate ingredient for direct and inclusive engagement of the so-called civil society. Like a cake that needs yeast to rise, no matter whether we add chocolate or lemon, socio-political change in the interest of the people requires the buy-in of the people, no matter what tech is on the menu at a certain moment in time, and in a certain place of the world.

We have learnt many lessons along the way, and we had to sometimes learn them the hard way. Some are condensed in initiatives such as the Principles for Digital Development, a living set of principles helping practitioners engaging with the role of technologies in social or political change programs to learn from past experiences, in order to avoid falling into the same traps – be it of technological, political, and/or ethical nature.

We have observed an upsurge in ‘civic’ users of technologies for facilitating people’s direct engagement in governance, coupled with an emphasis on ‘open government models’. Much of this work emerged in parallel to or from earlier ICT4D experiences, and largely taps into the same funding structures. The lessons learned should be a shared heritage in the field. With various early programs coming to an end, this transnational community of well-intended practitioners, many of which have been involved in what we have earlier called ICT4D work, is now reflecting on the effectiveness of technology in promoting civil society participation in governance dynamics. What puzzles me year after year, however, is how practitioners of civic tech and open government, currently producing ‘first lessons learned’ on the effectiveness of technology in civil society participation in governance, are largely reproducing what we already know, and thus lessons we should have learnt. As critical as I am towards project work driven by traditional development cooperation, all this leaves me wondering what is novel, if anything, in these newest networks – largely breathing from the same funding pots.

New developments in the tech field do not liberate us from the responsibility to learn from what has already been learned – and build on it. The lessons learnt in decades of development communication and ICT4D works evidently cut across technological innovations, and apply to mobile technology as much as to the blockchain. Most importantly: different socio-political contexts call for personalized solutions, given the challenges remain distinct and increase in complexity, as we can see in the growing literature on critical data studies (see e.g. Dalton et al., 2016; Kitchin and Lauriault, 2014).

The critical role of proactive communities, their contexts and needs in fostering social or political change has been discussed since decades. Besides, as the Radio Progress anecdote shows, it applies across technologies. Sadly, once again, the dominant civic tech discourse seems to keep departing from the ‘tech’ rather than the ‘civic’. Analyses start off from the technology-in-governance side, rather than from the much-needed critical discourse of the fundamental role of power in governance: how it is constructed, reproduced, and distributed.

Departing from the aseptic end of the spectrum confines us to a tech-centric perspective, with all the limitations highlighted since the early days of Communication for Social Change and ICT4D critique. Instead, we should reflect on how power structures are seeded and nourished from within the very same communities. This relates to issues such as geographical as much as skill-related biases, originating patterns of exclusion that no technology alone can solve. Those biases are then reproduced, not solved, by technological solutions which aim would be, instead, to enable inclusive forms of governance.

For the civic tech field to move forward, we should move beyond an emphasis on feedback allocation and end-users ultimately centring on the technological component; we should instead adopt a broader perspective in which we recognise the user not merely as a tech consumer/adopter, but as a complex being embedded in civil society networks and power structures. We, therefore, should ask critical questions beyond technology and about communities instead; we should ask ourselves, for example, how to best integrate people’s needs and backgrounds across all stages of civic tech programs. Such a perspective should include a critical examination of who the driving forces of the civic tech community are and how they do subsequently affect decision-making on the development of infrastructures. What is crucial to understand, I argue, is that only inclusive communities can really translate inclusive technology approaches and, consequently, inclusive governance.

From the perspective of an academic observer, a disciplinary evolution is in order too, if we are to capture, understand, and critically contribute to these dynamics. The proposed shift of focus from the ‘tech’ to the ‘civic’ should be mirrored in the literature with a new sub-field, which we may call Critical Community Studies. Emerging at the crossroad of disciplines such as Social Movement Studies, Communication for Social Change, and Critical Data Studies, Critical Community Studies would encourage to taking the community as an entry point in the study of technology for social change. This means, in a case such as the civic tech community, addressing issues such as internal diversity, inclusiveness of decision-making processes, etc. and ways of different ways of engaging people. It also relates to the roots of decisions made in civic tech projects, and in how far those communities, supposed to benefit from certain decisions, have a seat on the table. More generally, Critical Community Studies should invite to critically reflect on the concept of inclusion, both for practitioner agendas and academic frameworks. It would also encourage us to contextualize, take a step back and ask difficult questions, departing from critical development and communication studies (see e.g. Enghel, 2014; Freire, 1968; Rodriguez, 2016) , while taking a feminist perspective (see e.g. Haraway, 1988; Mol, 1999).

Since such a disciplinary evolution cannot but happen in dialogue with existing approaches and thinkers, I would wish to see this post to evolve into a vibrant, cross-disciplinary conversation on how a Critical Community Studies could look like.

 

I would like to thank Stefania Milan for very valuable and in-depth feedback and insights whilst writing this post.

 

 

Cited work

Dalton CM, Taylor L and Thatcher (alphabetical) J (2016) Critical Data Studies: A dialog on data and space. Big Data & Society 3(1): 2053951716648346. DOI: 10.1177/2053951716648346.

Enghel F (2014) Communication, Development, and Social Change: Future Alternatives. In: Global communication: new agendas in communication. Routledge, pp. 129–141.

Freire P (1968) Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Herder and Herder.

Haraway D (1988) Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective. Feminist Studies 14(3): 575–599. DOI: 10.2307/3178066.

Kitchin R and Lauriault T (2014) Towards Critical Data Studies: Charting and Unpacking Data Assemblages and Their Work. ID 2474112, SSRN Scholarly Paper. Rochester, NY: Social Science Research Network. Available at: https://papers.ssrn.com/abstract=2474112 (accessed 19 March 2018).

Mol A (1999) Ontological politics. A word and some questions. The Sociological Review 47(S1): 74–89. DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-954X.1999.tb03483.x.

Rodriguez C (2016) Human agency and media praxis: Re-centring alternative and community media research. Journal of Alternative and Community Media 1(0): 36–38.

 

I am consciously not using the innovation term here since I truly believe that innovation can only be what truly features into people’s contexts and needs. Innovation, then, is not to be confused with the latest tech advancement or hype.