Co-construction through complex adaptive system

Salil Sayed
Aalto University

Abhigyan Singh
Aalto University

Joanna Saad-Sulonen
Aalto University

Lily Diaz
Aalto University


The term User in the literature on co-construction of users and technology often implies the represented user rather than the person in question. A representation of the user, or the user as representation has instrumental value. At the beginning of the volume 'How users matter', Oudshoorn & Pinch's (2005) review  various theoretical perspectives within which the user is discussed in literature. In each of these perspectives we can see how representations of users serve the purpose of a particular agenda. Whether it is Woolgar's idea of user as a configuration activated by designers when they design the products which at some point meet the real users, or the users in Social Construction of Technology (SCOT) approach who are a social group participating in the construction of technology; every approach makes certain commitments to how the users should be ascribed agency in relation to technology. The very notion that agency is being ascribed to the users by the theoreticians makes it clear that we are talking about generalized representations of the users and not the living persons themselves. Even when the stress is on the multiplicity of the users as it is in the above-mentioned volume, what are being discussed are conflicting representations.

This is of course not a mistake or naiveté. The awareness that we are talking about representations is explicit. In the same book, Lindsay (2005) does raise the question about making a move from representations to real users, specially when the researchers have direct access to the users and their self-descriptions. Her case-study is about TRS-80, a computing platform developed at the beginning of the personal computer industry but later discontinued in favor of other platforms. Some of the users of these machines, enthusiastic about their simplicity, continued improving the software and supporting each other through Internet forums. Lindsay found that these users float a representation of 'the user' of these machines which are based on the nostalgia for a time when simple machines were used efficiently. This idea is emphasized with an opposition to the current era when powerful hardware runs bloated software for simple tasks. Her conclusion is that these self-descriptions are ideas about current users and serve a useful purpose in public forums. In all these valuable discussions what is left out is the individual person and the relation of the rest of her life with the use of technology.

The users in the ethnographic data that we present in this paper cannot be adequately theorized as representations. If we reduce them to an abstract concept of users, non-users or resisters of technology we loose the process of co-construction. The political representations of users if there are any, are inalienable from the material lives of individuals. The degree of heterogeneity in the community that we studied strains an attempt to theorize any abstract representation of these users. As we observe in the text that follows the granularity of their heterogeneity is so fine that every body, human or non-human, and every relation between them has its own significance in the historical life of the community. For example, a girl has a different relationship with each of the different coin-operated telephone booths. These distinct relations not only manifest the way the booth is used but also affect both ways other human-to-human relationships such as in this case with the booth operator and his sale of other merchandise. This scenario also poses a problem in locating the agency. The users are not simply motivated by the need. The causal relation between need and use of technology is not of a classical mechanical nature. This dataset therefore calls for a different approach to the explication of co-construction of users and technology and to understand agency.

We propose therefore to examine co-construction within the life of an individual. The analysis of our field data shows that it is not just a representation of the user that gets constructed but also the person herself evolves. In doing so we propose to adopt a slightly different perspective namely one that makes use of concepts from the area of complex adaptive systems. By taking the discussion of co-construction to the level of individual bodies and their daily life, this approach has insights to offer about the location of agency. Looking from this perspective, we can study in a finer grain how persons, the living human beings, and their development in their life trajectories is entangled with the technology that they bring into use. The correlation between their life and their use of technology is not of a linear causal nature such as a perceived need leading to a particular use. Instead we show that the causal structure is emergent through their entanglement as can be explained with the conceptual framework of complex adaptive systems. When analyzed within this framework, the persons and the devices are parts in a systemic whole where the parts and the whole mutually constrain each other in a series of dynamic relations. Such a system is characterized by an irreversible historical development in which we can see the co-construction of users and technology.

We further argue that the agency is located / embodied in the simultaneous top-down and bottom-up constraints that bound such a system. In this paper we present the ethnographic account of the becoming of Sarsu, a girl living in an urban slum in the city of Bangalore, India and her use of multiple phones in terms of emergent complex adaptive system.

Background of Study

India is a democracy with multitude of languages and cultures. India amounts to 17% of world population and includes one-third of world’s poor (Rao 2009). According to the last Census of India (2001), India’s overall population was 1027 million, out of which 285 million (27.8 %) lived in urban areas. Bangalore is located in southern part of India and it is capital city of the state of Karnataka. Bangalore has a population of over 6.5 million and is ranked fifth most populous city of India (Raman 2008). Bangalore is a world famous Information Technology (IT) center and is often referred to as ‘Silicon Valley of India’. The city has played a major role in economic growth of India and has also been test bed for number of ICT initiatives for development (Singhal & Rogers 2001).

It is widely accepted that ‘slums’ are difficult to define and there are multiple definitions and meanings co-existing (Sliwa 2008). According to UN-Habitat (2003):

Slums are distinguished by poor quality of housing, poverty of inhabitants, the lack of public or private services and the poor integration of the inhabitants into the broader community and its opportunities.”

31.6% of world’s urban population i.e. 924 million people lives in slums and population of urban slums across the globe is estimated to increase by 2 billion in next thirty years. 67 million of the urban population of India are below poverty line i.e. people living on less that US$ 2 per day (Rao 2009). Urban Slums are marginalized and represents the most disadvantaged group of urban dwellers. Much of the labor forces in cities of developing countries live in slums (2003).

This ethnographic fieldwork was conducted in Sudarshan Layout, an urban slum in Bangalore, in February 2009. A first exploration of the data has been reported in Singh (2010), where the focus was on identifing design challenges and opportunities for mobile based community communication services for marginalized communities belonging to Indian urban slums. The methodological approach followed in this field study was inspired by Ethnographic Action Research (EAR) and Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA). Ethnographic Action Research (EAR) is the research approach to study impact of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) especially in the area related to poverty alleviation (Tacchi et al. 2003). Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA) is a research methodology which advocates bottom-up research approaches with flexible and innovative mix of various methods and sensitivity for the local context (Kumar 2007).

In this article , we expand the work stated by Singh (2010), by reporting on a new analysis of part of the data generated during the field study. It is an experiment in applying the conceptual framework of Complex Adaptive Systems to ethnographic data in order to understand the intricate relation between the users and technology. The science of complexity has generated a large amount of literature but hardly any has been brought into the gamut of user-centered design research. In our attempt we base our discussion of complex adaptive systems on Juarrero(2000)'s action theoretic application of this framework. Moreover we further limit the discussion by the goal set in the beginning of this article. We will focus on an individual person and her use of technology and then try to explain it in the context of her local community as a complex system. We begin our discussion with her peculiar use of phones.

User, the person in flesh

Sarsu is a 19 year old girl living in a small community called Sudarshan Layout (SL). Sudarshan Layout conforms to the definition of an Indian urban slum within the city of Bangalore in southern India. Sarsu lives in one of the 150 dwellings with her joint family which includes her parents, brother and sister and their spouses. She does not own a mobile phone herself, but during a normal day she ends up using many. Few months before the fieldwork was conducted, Sarsu had started commuting outside SL to attend school as well as for tuitions she gives to younger students. While returning in the evening, the patch of road that leads from the bus stop on the highway to SL is dark and is considered unsafe for a lone girl. Therefore she makes a phone call (sometimes just a missed call) using a coin-booth near the bus stop to a mobile phone which is with her mother. Upon receiving the call, a male, usually her brother will go to escort her to home. Once at home she has access to her mother's phone as well as her brother's phone from which she can make calls to her friends as well as receive them on her mother's phone. When neither is available she can go to one of the six coin-booths installed in the petty shops serving the local community. Sarsu is also associated with a community initiative devoted to informal computer education for children in SL. This way she is related to a group of volunteers and the local members who participate in the activity. In the evening she uses her mother's mobile phone to exchange up to twenty SMS with these colleagues for greetings as well as updating each other. The volunteers are financially better off citizens of Bangalore so she can give them a missed call and they will call her back. A 'missed call' is when a caller rings the receiver but disconnects the call before it is accepted.  Apart from these Sarsu has access to some other feature rich mobile phones owned by other residents of SL. She can negotiate a time and borrow them for use as a camera or as a music player when there is a community celebration such as birthday. 

The pattern of Sarsu's use of mobile phone is not unusual but is still unique. Sharing and borrowing mobile phones for various purposes in India is by now a well-documented phenomenon (Konka 2000). Being a young girl in a traditional and traditionally impoverished community that has historically suffered in the caste system (and has not yet overcome the damage), the trustful communication Sarsu enjoys with male members of the society is unique. What makes it possible is mostly her reputation achieved through the role she plays in the above mentioned community initiative called AC3. Women do go out of SL for work, but that is usually as a domestic help, i.e. household chores in apartments. Their work is not supposed to include making acquaintances with men; this is especially binding on unmarried girls. In the case of Sarsu however these conventions are relaxed respectfully in recognition of the valuable role she is playing in the community. The relaxation is not indiscriminate. It is finely coded. This allows for certain kind of relationships.  Sarsu's use of communication technology is then not arising out of her needs but an emergent result of the interwoven patterns of a complex society. To examine Sarsu as a representative user will risk missing these intricacies that give a meaning to her engagement with technology. The being and becoming of Sarsu, the person in flesh, is irreplaceable in our analysis. For this reason we propose to understand the community of SL as a complex adaptive system in order to locate the agency and causality in the co-construction of users and technology.

Figure 1: Sarsu's use of multiple phones

Sudarshan Layout as Complex Adaptive System (CAS)

In this section we will apply the conceptual framework to the ethnographic data collected from Sudarshan Layout. We will begin with an elaboration of Complex Adaptive System showing how it differs from simple mechanical systems. Then we will introduce different aspects of CAS and their importance and role in the scheme and elaborate those in the case of Sudarshan Layout.

A mechanical system is made up of a number parts which are restrained in a certain way that defines their relationships with each other. In such a system it is possible to calculate the results of the chain of cause and effect in a series. Mechanical systems can incorporate feedback loops, they can reach an equilibrium, or they can oscillate between two different states as in the case of internal combustion engine. The structure of such systems do not change overtime. These are simple systems. The rules that govern such systems are also time reversible.

The systems that we observe in nature cannot be described in such a way. The biological organisms or inorganic systems such as weather systems change over time. They may reach an equilibrium for a period of time, like the ecosystem, but they nevertheless evolve into another system when a change is introduce in some way. These are complex adaptive systems. They can not be explained adequately through the simple mechanical cause and effect chains. They call for a different explanation of causality. The rules that govern these systems are not time reversible, and those rules themselves can change over time.

While there is a large body of literature on complexity and complex adaptive systems, and complexity can be considered a field of science in itself, we will base our discussion on the application of Complex Adaptive Systems by Juarerro (2000) to intentional behavior. Instead of following Juarrero's lead to the explanation of an individuals behavior we attempt to explain the co-construction of technology and the becoming of the person who is the user in question. What follows next is a brief outline of a conceptual framework CAS from Juarrero's proposal.

A CAS emerges from interdependent parts that are related in such a way that they constrain each other's abilities. According to this framework, an aggregate of various entities goes through a sudden formation event where the parts engage in relations with each other. After this event there is no patternless aggregate of parts but a bound system, where the parts are interrelated and influence each other as well as the whole. In this new dynamic formation these constraints simultaneously limit alternatives for action as well as create new possibilities for action .

The constraints that bound a systemic whole are conceptually differentiated in three distinct types. The first type, context-free constraints are those whose occurrence is not solely dependent on probability, yet they are significant enough to make a system diverge from chance or randomness (Juarrero 2000). As an example, Juarrero cites how different languages exhibit different patterns in the incidence of certain letters following others. Such patterns are primarily based on the conventions of each particular language. In our analysis, we would include the Indian government telecommunication policy and infrastructure, and the caste system as two examples of context-free constraints.

The next type is referred to as first order contextual constraints. These are mostly physical boundaries that bound the formation as well as location specific features such as availability of resources. These two types of constraints are instrumental in making a system possible. The third type and the ones of specific interest to us in this article are the second order context sensitive constraints. These are patterns of relationships whose emergence signifies the emergence of a complex bound system.

The system is bound to a degree that we can make it a unit of analysis but it is not necessarily closed. It can be said that as a community Sudarshan Layout (SL) is a system that is bound by its physical limits and by a specific population yet also manages to interact with the outer world through the everyday activities of its members. Next we will describe these constraints in the specific case of SL.

Context free constraints in Sudarshan Layout

Sudarshan Layout is a residential area for the marginalized community of construction workers, domestic helpers, laborers belonging to scheduled castes, as recognized by Indian constitution. The local residents identify themselves as ‘dalit’, a self-denotation for people belonging to lowest of castes as per Indian Caste System. ‘Dalits’ have suffered prolonged social discrimination due to their lower caste status.

The older residents of Sudarshan Layout migrated from rural areas of Karnataka and nearby states like Tamil Nadu, Kerela and Andhra Pradesh over a period of thirty years to settle and work in Bangalore. This group consists of individuals who dropped out of school to work at a very early age and many of them cannot read or write. In contrast, the younger generation of Sudarshan Layout was born in Bangalore and many of them completed High School. The local population of Sudarshan Layout communicates in multiple languages, including Kannada, Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam. The youth of Sudarshan Layout is comfortable with Hindi and English as well.

The Sudarshan Layout residents, as in case of other urban slums in Bangalore, have been part of the labor force of Bangalore but have faced multitude of social, economic and civic discrimination due to caste issues, poverty, lack of education, illiteracy to name a few. These issues compound to many problems that this population faces in their daily life.

Before going into further details of the system we can already start identifying the constraints which bind the system together. It could be said that the location of SL within the city of Bangalore, its size, boundaries etc are contextual constraints pulling the parts of aggregate together. The community is also bound by other context-free constraints such as historical identification within Indian caste system, its contemporary stigma, and the set of social opportunities/limitations that come with it and associated economic condition. These factors are not specific to Sudarshan layout but nonetheless, from a systemic perspective, they are instrumental in bringing the parts together within system's boundaries. As we will move into the discussion of mobile communication of the residents of SL we will see that there might be other context-free constraints emerging from the interaction with the Indian telecommunications system, like tariff rates of voice calls and SMS, infrastructure policies that lead to the availability of coin-booths etc.

First order contextual constraints in Sudarshan Layout

Sudarshan Layout is roughly a hundred meters long by fifty meters wide in area, surrounded by big corporate office buildings. Over three hundred families live in approximately one hundred and fifteen houses, most of which are one room tenements. A big sewer-line runs along one of the boundary of Sudarshan Layout. Family income varies between Indian Rupees (INR) 1500-10000 (40-150 Euros) per month.

Apart from the physical limits of the settlement there are other factors that affect the possibilities of life for the residents. Sudarshan Layout has regular electricity supply but persistent voltage fluctuation hampers the use of electronic equipments. The literacy is within the community quite low hence newspaper subscription is insignificant. Almost every household in Sudarshan Layout has a television set; and DVD players are very common as well. Mobile phone is the most pervasive electronic device in Sudarshan Layout. These are the first order contextual constraints that put the parts of the aggregate in relation to each other. Here we find that there is no need to differentiate between the human and non-human parts of the system.

Even though our data about the history of SL is insufficient to establish the evidence of a sudden formative event, it does not take a leap of faith to consider the beginning of this close knit community. When the residents settled in this small tract of the land, they came together owing to a shared historical stigma even though they came from different regions of India, speaking different languages and belonging to different local cultures. However it is the establishment of the second order context sensitive constraints that signify the emergence of a complex adaptive system.

Second order context sensitive constraints

The patterns of relationships that emerge when a parts of a system are bound together are the second order context sensitive constraints. They are  a result of a shared history and lead to a shared future. The need to survive in an adverse social position and in the absence of any social security put in motion a complex adaptive system.  We found that almost every household has at least one mobile phone with a maximum of four mobile phones per family, usually owned by the working members of the family. It is a general belief amongst Sudarshan Layout residents that anyone who has to go out of Sudarshan Layout for work deserves to keep a mobile phone. Among the major reasons for this belief, as explained by locals, is sense of safety and connectedness with members of the community. Residents of Sudarshan Layout are like a close-knit big family. Sense of belonging for the local community was noticeable among the residents. These common beliefs can be understood as second order context sensitive constraints and are indicative of the emergence of a complex adaptive system.

Top-down and bottom-up constraints

The second order context sensitive constraints are further distinguished as top-down and bottom-up. The structural pattern of the whole restricting the parts' movement is the top-down constraint. This keeps the system organized and bound. These can change drastically as a result of some seminal events as we will see later, establishing a new structural pattern. The parts however within their restricted mobility practice their freedom. These variations in different parts together make possible an almost infinite range of permutations and combinations. This way the parts in their combined action have the ability to provide the system with a richness of pattern. These are the bottom-up enabling constraints. As we will see later it is between this play of top-down and bottom-up constraints is located the agency of co-construction.

So far we have introduced the core concepts of CAS and shown how Sudarshan Layout can be studied as a complex system. In the next section we will attempt to take this discussion to the level of individual bodies as we return to Sarsu and explain how the various constraints work in complex manner as her person evolves. The peculiar use of the term person, as in the phrase 'she carries it well on her person', is intentional here to suggest the malleability of the person. This however does not mean that 'she' is in any way distinct from 'her person'.

From aggregate to a bound system

When parts of an aggregate are not bound by relations they have an equal freedom, i.e. they are equiprobable. This means that there are no meaningful patterns, just plain noise. Once they are bound in a whole they are constrained top-down which restricts their possibilities. According the Juarrero, this top-down restriction guides the evolution of the system in a particular direction. This reduction in possibilities is however more than compensated by what are called the bottom-up enabling constraints. The interdependence of parts reduces their individual possibilities but at the same time from the new relations result new possible combinations. In other words the number of combinations that all the parts have together is far more than the number of possible states of any single part.

For an example when a glass is filled with water the system can be considered as an aggregate of water molecules. (though it is not as the structure of water is already there resulting in surface tension) When a drop of oil is added it spreads over the surface of water. The circular periphery of the surface over which the oil layer can spread is a first order contextual constraint. While spreading the oil layer has uneven thickness. This depends on the formative event of the oil dropping in the water as well the viscosity of oil that is a context free constraint. The pattern of rainbow colors that form as the oil spreads is due to the varying degree of diffraction caused by variation in the thickness of oil layer. Emergence of this pattern signifies the establishment of a complex adaptive system. As the oil spreads the pattern evolves. The new pattern has a history in the previous one. Again, we cite Juarrero’s analogy of the alphabet. A random soup of letters is meaningless. However when the combinations are constrained by a set of rules such as language they make possible an increasing number of meaningful words and sentences.

The second order context sensitive constraints co-evolve with the pattern of relationships in SL that bound the community in a historic continuity. Each member of the community is entangled in these intricate relationships that are restrictive in a sense that the code of conduct is finely regulated but at the same time is fruitful since it creates a possibility of individual development and enjoyable events within the otherwise miserable circumstances. The person then is a product of these adaptations as well as an active agent in the process. Our field data shows that the use of technology is internal to this process of adaptation. Adaptation of technology and the becoming of a person is not separable conceptually from the evolution of the complex system that the community is.

Becoming of Sarsu, the user

We can see how similar patterns appear to emerge in Sarsu's communication. In description that follows we will use a markup for the first order '<C1>' and second order '<C2>' contextual constraints. These are also summed up in Table 1. Sarsu lives in a joint family with multiple earning persons<C1>. As a result her house (Figure 2: A) has developed into a concrete structure with more than one room and an in-house toilet. This kind of house which the locals call 'building' compared to other smaller one room structure with a tin roof, makes her one of the privileged in SL <C2>. Sarsu feels an urge to help the poorer children in getting educated. A group of volunteers who call themselves as AID (Association for India's Development) are engaged in AC3 <C1>. With the help of AID volunteers Sarsu managed to pursue some poor parents to enroll their children into school. When AC3 was established Sarsu became actively engaged in teaching and presenting this initiative at other forums <C2>. Her skill as a presenter and her integrity as a social worker was appreciated by AID volunteers as well her community. Regular, visibly productive activity with AID and AC3 members led to community's and family's approval to these comradeships <C2>. Since Sarsu does not have a phone as she rarely needed to go outside. She could use her mother's or brother's phone to communicate with her colleagues. The SMS she exchanges with AID volunteers and AC3 members are not considered private and they are not supposed to be because it is not her personal phone. At the same time they are not always about work. The serve a purpose of maintaining the relationships by entertaining each other as sell as expressing that 'I care for you'. The following excerpt from her interview relates to this finding.

Researcher: How many SMS you send or receive each day?

Sarsu: sent sms per day is around 20. Sometime around 30.

Researcher: What kind of conversation happens over sms?

Sarsu: fun

Sarsu: Sometime personal.

Context free constraints

First order contextual constraints <C1>

Second order context sensitive constraints <C2>

The historical stigma of caste

The tariffs of mobile services and cost of devices

Physical limits of Sudarshan Layout

Sarsu lives in a joint family with multiple earning persons

A group of volunteers who call themselves as AID (Association for India's Development) are engaged in AC3

Absence of social security for this community.

Sarsu's house (Figure 2: A) has developed into a concrete structure with more than one rooms and an in-house toilet. This kind of house which the locals call 'building' compared to other smaller one room structure with a tin roof makes her one of the privileged in SL 

When AC3 was established Sarsu became actively engaged in teaching and presenting this initiative at other forums

Regular, visibly productive activity with AID and AC3 members led to community's and family's approval to these comradeships

Need for close networking among the community members

Table 1: Types of constraints

As the AID members are financially well off, she can give them a missed call and they will call back. This way the AID members bear the cost of the call. However this applies only for reasons that are important from their social work point of view. To call for personal recreation is not appropriate.

AID Volunteer: Mobile is very useful here for organizing meetings. Geeta , Senthil sends sms informing about time and place for meeting. SMS is used over email or anything. Community here also uses this [Mobile Phone]. She [Sarsu] also uses SMS if she needs anything because if she has to access email she has to go somewhere.

AID Volunteer: When she [Sarsu] sends sms I call her and talks to her.

The AC3 members however are youth from SL. They are considered equal in economic status to Sarsu and she cannot give them a missed call and expect them to call back.

Researcher:  Do you give missed call [to friends]?

Sarsu: no no no I wont give missed call. I will talk for 10 rupees or 15 rupees.

The passion they share for the work of AC3 justifies close friendships and their dependence on AID members and each other is acknowledged through daily evening greetings and updating. All this does not taint Sarsu's reputation as a decent girl but rather she is recognized for her ability to work with men and build collegiate relationships. The AID members insisted that her family sends her to higher education as they came to believe that she has potential that should not be wasted. So in spite of the advice of conventional minded members her mother took the decision to send her to city to study and work as well. This has put Sarsu in the category of those who commute daily outside SL and hence the convention that such people carry a mobile phone has become applicable to her. But to buy a mobile phone is decision worthy of long-term deliberation in Sarsu's family. Till then she has to use the coin-booth near the bus stop on the highway to ask for an escort to walk her through the dark unsafe patch of road to home. Sarsu needs to communicate with her other friends too but the mobile phone is not always available to her. In such cases she will go to one of the petty shops in SL that have coin-booths (Figure 2: C & D). Two of them are closer to her home but she prefers the one whose owner is a kind and considerate person not only to her but to other women in SL.

Sarsu:  Most of time I will use this [a particular coin booth]. Whenever I have to talk to my friends I will use this. When my brother will be speaking to his friends he will not give me the phone so at that time I will come here to speak.

Sarsu : He is my friend. He speaks nicely. Whenever I go to his shop he will ask of my family and friends. I will also ask and chat with him.

Sarsu : He is a good person. He will give things [with the account to be settled later]. He talks nicely. When I will go to his store he will speak about himself and myself. We will chat. We have a good relationship. He will give some discounts. He has two coin-booths that I will use.

(The other shop keeper is said to be unfriendly for several reasons. We do not put the speech verbatim here for privacy concerns.)

Sarsu as a user of communication technology is inseparable from her being a respected girl in the community. Here it is important to see that while being respected and being a girl are two different sets of meanings, they cannot be separated in analysis. The process of becoming of the 'respected girl' is executed through an intricate web of relationships with human and non-human objects in the community. These relationships do not come to be without a historical development. Historicity is a crucial aspect of the conceptual framework of CAS. In the next section we look at the historical events that are a key to the becoming of Sarsu.

Figure 2: Sudarshan Layout: hand drawn map by Sarsu and her friend (+12° 55' 26.31", +77° 36' 8.16")

Historical Development of the system/community

In the life of a Complex Adaptive System occur dynamic transformations that lead to a new phase, a new regime where the components acquire new meanings.  They are attributed to the amplification of naturally occurring fluctuations around which a phase change nucleates. This is the so called bottom-up causality (Juarrero 2000, p.31). In a system like SL which is not closed but has interaction with outer world, such transformations can have an external trigger. While this trigger can be completely external such as a political or economic upheaval at the national level it can also be an intervention that was attracted due to certain developments within the system. In the recent history of SL we can identify two such events which reconfigured the meaning of many components of this system including the role and character of Sarsu. Upon the examination of these events we can see that the naturally occurring development within the system attracted an external influence leading to a significant event that changed the lives of the community members. Here we describe these two events to elaborate their effect on the life of Sarsu.

Event 1: Inauguration of AC3

Ambedkar Community Computing Center (AC3) is described by residents of Sudarshan Layout as an informal computer education center for children of slums (Figure 2: B). AC3 is based in Sudarshan Layout.  The idea of AC3 was conceived during a meeting of local youth of Sudarshan Layout with Stree Jagurati Samiti (SJS) and Ambedkar Youth Association (AYA). Stree Jagurati Samiti (SJS) is a Bangalore based Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) and Ambedekar Youth Association (AYA) is an association of local youth of Sudarshan Layout. The local youth aspired for computer education and during the meeting they expressed these. AYA agreed to provide space to start a computer center while SJS contacted Association for India’s Development (AID) with request for teachers. Association for India’s Development (AID) is a group of volunteers primarily software professionals working in Information Technology industry of Bangalore. Local youth took the responsibility to take care of affairs of the computer center and other residents helped in building the necessary infrastructure such as furniture, painting, doors etc. Finally, the computer center was formally inaugurated on 6th July 2008.

AC3 is a bottom-up initiative. Local community holds the ownership of AC3. AC3 follows a layered and community oriented approach of teaching i.e. the AID volunteers teach the local youth while they in turn teach the younger children from Sudarshan Layout. AC3 was created and is sustained by joint efforts of various groups of people. Some of the groups belong to Sudarshan Layout while others are from outside.

The involvement of Sarsu and others of her age in this initiative changed their identities into respectable members of the community. It increased the mobility of Sarsu within the community freeing her partly from the taboos which otherwise would be imposed on her, such as restrictions on making male acquaintances and communicating with them informally. There is yet another event that was to happen soon which made the whole community proud of this initiative and where Sarsu's role was especially acknowledged.

Event 2: Richard Stallman and Eben Moglen’s visit

In December 2008, two months before this ethnographic field study, Richard Stallman, founder of Free Software Foundation and Eben Moglen, chairman of Software Freedom Law Center, visited AC3. Both, Richard Stallman and Eben Moglen praised and acknowledged efforts of AC3 and AC3 Members. As a AC3 member Sarsu prepared a presentation and presented to both the high profile dignitaries. These visits were covered by local print and online media and photographs of AC3 Members appeared in newspapers, blogs, and online magazines. With this event sealed the reputation of Sarsu as a talented girl who has an extraordinary value for the community.

 Once a transition point is passed, new modes of being emerge, in particular new modes of causality. “The most essential and characteristic feature of a qualitative transformation is that new kinds of causal factors begin to be significant in a given context, or to ‘take control’ of a certain domain of phenomena, with the result that there appear new laws and even new kinds of laws, which apply in the domain in question” (Bohm, 1971, p.53). (quoted in Juarerro 2000, p.32)

These events mark a phase change within SL that generated the possibilities of new kind of personalities and new kind of relationships within the community.

A phase change is the qualitative reconfiguration of the constraints governing the previous attractor regime. The shift creates new relationships among the system’s components as well as between the system and its environment. Phase changes signal a reorganization of the old dynamics into a new system with renewed relationships among the parts. These new relationships embody new properties and are governed by new laws. Within an established dynamical regime, the components’ meaning is given by their contextual setting. (Juarerro 2000, p.49)

The new phase is noticed by external observers as well.

AID Volunteer: Let other similar community know what is happening here. Many of the people from nearby areas came here to see [After local newspaper covered Richard Stallman's visit]. And now they also feel if Mani and Sarsu can do it then why cant we.

SJS President: One of the biggest achievements is not to get the center [AC3] setup; one of the biggest achievements is to get individuals to realize their own potentials and to get knowledge and information across. Once that is there they develop. They just grow.[referring to Sarsu and her colleagues]

The transformation of the phase change is not disruptive, neither does it imply a break from history. On the contrary the history of the system is operational in the phase change. Sarsu remains a girl of the community, now with some additional attributes, unlike what she was before. But in the appreciation of her new self by the community there is an acknowledgement that 'she' could do an admirable presentation in front of the dignitaries. The weight her personality carries now includes the weight of her history as well as the history of the community.

Indeed, precisely what makes these complex systems dynamical is that a current state is in part dependent on a prior one. Feedback, that is, incorporates the past into the system’s present “external” structure. Feedback thus threads a system through both time and space, thereby allowing part of the system’s external structure to run through its history.

Feedback processes thus embody the context-sensitive constraints of history. By embodying context-sensitive constraints, mutualist feedback renders a system sensitive to (constrained by) its own past experiences. (p.37)

These feedback processes are not time reversible like in simple mechanical systems. They amount to a history, a sediment of past experiences. It is only through an historical account of these feedback processes the causality of the agents in a system can be explained.


The actions that Sarsu could take within the constraints of the system was the enabling bottom-up constraint that changed the whole of the community establishing new laws of relations between at least some community members and thus changing the top-down constraints. Some of the top-down constraints are the taboos related to the character of young girls in the local culture. In case of Sarsu we see these taboos being changed in recognition of her abilities. This change reflects in her use of technology which she invokes in the maintenance of the new kinds of relationships she can indulge in. The feedback loops within the constraints of the system lead to sedimentation of the systems history into its own structure and thus are responsible for the causal structure of the system. From the CAS point of view it is naive to see causality as a linear sequence of events such as particular needs leading to a certain use of technology. Rather causality is emergent as is the rest of the system when parts get bound in a historical continuity of constraints. We cannot locate a single event as a cause of another however disruptive it might be. This brings us to the question of agency.

The idea of human agency is closely bound to theories of causation and the existence of the world. The commonly held notion of causation is that causal relationships can be potentially manipulated in order to achieve control. If A is the cause of B, manipulating A in the proper manner should enable us to manipulate and possible change B. Yet our current conception of the world and of the human entity’s relationship with it precludes full coverage of such interrelatedness. This lengthy discussion that runs through the history of Western philosophy and dating back to Aristotle's definition of formal causes is outside the scope of our essay.

Location of Agency in CAS

If no event can be pointed to as definite and the only cause of another event, then who has the agency, i.e. capacity to act? According to Ahearn's (2001) skeletal definition agency is a socio-culturally mediated capacity to act. Ahearn’s concern is to find how people perceive their own agency and she proposes to study it through the linguistic constructs they use to proclaim it. This way we can study how much agency individuals attribute to themselves. A part of the argument of this paper is that studies of co-construction of users and technology have mostly concentrated on the representations of the users and not on the persons in flesh. As we examine the materiality of the technology we should examine the materiality of the users as well. As agency remains limited to the persons presentation of the self, a user who is merely a citizen assuming rights, or a consumer projecting his needs remains a representation the attributed agency remains a part of that representation. On the contrary the emergent nature of causality in a CAS points to a different location of agency. The materiality of a system cannot be ignored in the discussion of its emergence. Also individual parts of a system cannot be explained meaningfully to act in their own capacity. Users as parts of the system can make their choices but their options depend on the choices made before, not just by the individual in question but by many more parts of the system. Agency is not attributable solely to an individual but it a result of the second order context sensitive constraints of the systemic whole which has a history.  Technology being part of the material as well as discursive constraints of the system is thus more obviously co-constructed with users in body and flesh rather than their representations.


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