Friday, February 11, 2005

Global (material) culture

Interesting discussion gathered around Jamais Cascio's recent post on Negroponte's $100 laptops for the developing world.

I read worldchanging regularly and learn all sorts of things, but I've always considered their approach more than a little tech-heavy, especially given the authors' explicit recognition that global needs are complex and often not within the realm of technological fixes. So rather than asking whether Negroponte's vision of making laptops more affordable for the world's poor actually answers a stated need or desire for any of these people, the post focusses on the best form factor for cheap mobile computing. Granted, a laptop may very well not be the best we can come up with, but surely a critical perspective should extend to people's quality of life and not just to the quality of their tools.

The comments on this post are particularly insightful as they focus on just that: the everyday lives of people in so-called developing nations. To give Jamais due credit, he answers their concerns intelligently and tries to temper the equally biased view that the developing world is so inherently different (and yet somehow internally homogeneous) that solutions from the developed world are often meaningless if not downright inappropriate. Lots to think about.

But then I read David Weinberger's comments on the Negroponte announcement:

"Assume for a moment that it works. Imagine hundreds of millions of kids with networked laptops running linux and using open source applications: The outburst of creativity. The sudden change in social connection. The access via VOIP to the voices around the world. The sudden isolating of Microsoft. And, these puppies don't come with DRM burned into their circuits. Negroponte and his colleagues are moving the world forward. The $100 laptop is a platform for emergence."

Never let anyone tell you that technological utopianism is on the decline! To me, this is much more dangerous than gadget fetishism.


I found myself rather disappointed yesterday when only one student of fifty-three in my sociology of science & tech course chose to do their research project on global issues. I am careful to teach them that our understanding of scientific research and technological development on a global scale must acknowledge and account for unequal political and economic power relations, and the organisation of cultural difference. And while I seem to have found some success in getting them to appreciate these issues at local and national scales, I just can't seem to find the way to get them to look beyond that. Or even to understand that the local and the global are connected in more ways than just climate change. But I think all of this is related to something that troubles me much more: their too often completely uncritical acceptance of the authority of science and the neutrality (or worse, the superiority) of technology. I'm also beginning to sense that in our desire to teach students the importance of ideas and words, we have neglected to teach them the importance of material culture. They all understand the communication issues related to mobile phones, but none seem to be able to identify the material culture of mobile tech: from the sourcing of raw materials, to manufacturing, distribution, and eventual disposal or recycling.

I should have assigned John Law and Kevin Hetherington's Materialities, Spatialities, Globalities (pdf).


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