Research in Action for Community Informatics: A matter for conversation

 

Matthew Allen

Internet Studies, Curtin University, Australia, m.allen@curtin.edu.au

Marcus Foth

Queensland University of Technology, Austrialia, m.foth@qut.edu.au

 

There is a central and continuing problem in research about, and the everyday practices of, the adoption of information and communications technology (ICT) for social development. ICTs have, over the past three decades, demonstrably led to greater levels of interpersonal engagement, group organizational success and general social improvement knitting people together, for productive results through networked information and communication:

From the support of local community to empowerment, from local opportunities to global interconnection, we find unexpected and pervasive effects of the Internet on community. Yet, we also find geographically based community and identity penetrating the Internet, reminding us that at all times we are locally based, even if technically mobile (Haythornthwaite and Kendall, 2010: 1088; see also Katz and Rice, 2002)

 

This effect is not just the result of what is done on the Internet but also stems from the way the infrastructure that enables us to go ‘online’ becomes part of our everyday places. As Hampton et al. conclude, “an infrastructure for wireless Internet connectivity within urban public spaces may have unanticipated and positive consequences for participation in the public sphere” (2010: 721). Gordon and de Souza e Silva (2011) coin the term ‘net localities’ to describe these new qualities that emerge from the digitisation of the city and the urbanisation of the Internet.

At the same time, the networked relations that ICTs enable and embody can also be seen to have become more superficial, fleeting and less rich. Such is the impression given by ‘friending’ behaviour (Lewis and West, 2009), constant status updates (Kramer and Chung, 2011), and anonymously alarming random online encounters of chat roulette (Kreps 2010). It can be hard to harness the power that networked ICTs provide for collaborative information creation and exchange, distributed multi-vocal conversations and widespread, low-cost dissemination without, at the same time, becoming so fixed upon the technological possibilities that the necessary work of forging trusted, informed and active relationships between participants otherwise ‘linked’ through email, the web, and social media remains undone or, at least, underdone. As Turkle provocatively declares in Alone Together: “the new technologies allow us to ‘dial down’ human contact, to titrate its nature and extent” (2011: 15). From this latter perspective, technically mediated sociality runs several risks, including a loss of the sense of place within which social interaction occurs (Wellman et al., 2003), excessive valorisation of individuality in place of collective identity (as in Bloem et al, 2008), and reification of the electronic processes of connection in place of the positive enactment of human relations (Willson, 2006). ICTs then might give us only the appearance of meaningful intersubjective connections, masking the absence of connection, or perhaps now in the networked society, simply giving a poor substitute for that which might previously have been possible.

Yet these risks are not inherent within the adoption, use and exploitation of networked forms of communication (see for example Postill 2009). Perhaps these risks can be better understood as the consequences of failing to attend closely to the dialogic relationship between technology and society in which one can never be understood as distinct from the other but simply differently observed modalities of innumerable actions within the field of human existence. Whether one is merely intrigued by, or deeply committed to, the premises of Actor Network Theory concerning the interpolation of humanity and technology, self-evidently in our society “the differences between technology and person get folded up into a new network of identities. We need to understand what that network is, how it changes the way we see each other, and how it alters our identity as human” (Evans, 2010). Equally we might say that meaningful intersubjective connection is always at risk in any form of social interaction: it is at risk precisely because it is also the goal we seek. The circumstantial fragility of its attainment lies not in the means (technologically mediated, enhanced or substitutive) by which we seek it, but in the very project we set out to achieve.

ICTs then are neither the solution (as often claimed) nor the impediment. Yet they play a central role in contemporary social life in achieving intersubjectivity, which is a state of shared understanding of differences in perspective (see Gillespie and Cornish, 2010), from which then we can forge effective social relations not only recognising differences but making them part of the formation of relations and consequent effective action. Whether they play a positive or negative role most likely turns on the degree to which technologies are seen as conversational: are the technologies imagined and used, as part of the relationship process, to host, create, and enable conversations? In what ways are they framed as an extension of, replacement for, alternative to the processes of co-present human interaction and, in turn, reframe what we mean by conversation? As Hutchby identified more than a decade ago:

Technologies for communication can become implicated in our ordinary conversational practices while, at the same time, those very practices may not only adapt to but also shape the cultural meanings and communicative purposes that such artefacts have (2001: 3).

 

In posing these questions, we wish to emphasise a quality of networked ICTs that is too often overlooked. While ‘networks’ have allowed dramatic increases in the exchange of information between people by publishing, broadcasting and other analogous forms, as well as increasingly enabling automated information transfers between people and devices, and the devices themselves, ICTs have their most deep and profound effects and are most intimately entwined within the lives of people when they enable dialogic speech, performed consciously with and for others, in a moment where, without others, there is no conversation. To converse is to conjoin, even in difference. Conversation subsumes different individuals’ speaking into a single collaborative act of speech, and links intimately speaking and listening as two components of an equally indivisible whole. Fundamentally, then, conversation (and not information exchange) is a pre-requisite for any attempt to achieve an effective and appropriate intersubjective basis for social relations. Harnessing ICTs for conversation not only requires more priority to be given to applications that promote active dialogue rather than dissemination and reception, but also requires designed technological contexts which cue users that conversation is the goal and process. It should also be understood that the forms of the ensuing conversations can be quite different to those which we might understand from our experiences with physically collocated discussion: they can be distributed, both in space and in time; they can involve dissimilar forms of speech which nevertheless all count as contributions to the conversation; and dialogue may occur more reflexively than unconsciously (see for example a discussion of wikis as ‘conversational knowledge management’, Wagner 2004).

The importance of conversation, of a more traditional form, is also the origin of this special issue of the Journal of Community Informatics. Its genesis was a workshop run by the guest editors as part of the 2010 Making Links conference held in Perth, Australia. Making Links has run annually since 2004 and aims to “engage interested people, organisations and groups working at the intersection of social action and IT – including community workers, educators, trainers, not-for-profit organisations, people who work with marginalised groups, activists and researchers” (Making Links website: http://www.makinglinks.org.au/about/). The conference has a strong history of providing opportunities for community and third-sector workers and organisations to educate each other (by both learning and teaching) about the potential for ICTs to improve social justice; it has also emphasised the role that university-based researchers have in contributing their knowledge and providing examples from outside of the immediate fields of practice of community activism. Perhaps most tellingly, the conference aims to build “networks amongst workers and activists interested in how ICT can be used to support social justice”. In other words, while networking, in the technical sense, is the focus, the goal is to create networks in a socio-political sense through the shared interest in ICTs. In this respect Making Links follows a long tradition of utilising common attention to ICTs as a mechanism for achieving deeper and distinct collective identities for social justice (Allen, 2010).

At the 2010 conference, we held a workshop entitled Research for Action: Networking University and Community for Social Responsibility, which enabled conversations to explore how ‘academic researchers and community practitioners and activists can work together to explore the use of information and communication technologies, social media, augmented reality, and other forms of network technologies for research and action in pursuit of social responsibility’. Of the many insights from that day, three stood out. First, that research for action implies that the grant or article or any other component of the political economy of institutional research is not the primary motivation and, if it were, would impede the effective research process. Second, that the question always remains: who is the researcher? Even in the act of researching and working within communities, this question will remain unanswered as a prompt to ethical and inclusive practice. Third, that the involvement of universities within communities may proceed on the basis of ‘research’ but always involves significant elements of that other great mission of the academy: to educate and foster learning. (For more see: http://www.netcrit.net/events/research-for-action/ ).

The excellent papers in this special issue continue, in a more distributed form and enriched by additional contributions as a result of an open call, the productive discussions which occurred in 2010 and help us to answer the question that persisted when the workshop came to an end: how might we make effective research for action, given these critical insights about research motivation, identity and the link with education? They present an eclectic and informed approach to the whole question of participatory research focused on ICTs within a community setting, not only reporting on the practice of community informatics but reflecting on how it exemplifies and explains the political and pragmatic importance of participatory research.

To begin, Ridolfo presents an intriguing account of the development of an ‘Archive 2.0’ approach to the management and use of the documentary heritage of the Israelite Samaritans held by the Michigan State University. He emphasises that there are two key pre-conditions to the effective use of emerging ICT capabilities in this kind of community-oriented project for a digital humanities. First, Ridolfo argues, the authority and importance of the “cultural stakeholders” of archival materials must be recognised, and not just the interest of scholars. Second, having recognised that authority, researchers and developers of systems to make archival material more available must learn from the community whose past and contemporary identity are founded on that heritage and design the technology based on what they learn. Crucially, Ridolfo’s work demonstrates the central power of the conversations held between community and researcher, conversations in which each participates equally (but differently) towards a more inclusive and effective end result.

Williams and Craig, in describing more than a decade of work in New Zealand to provide computer access, skills and opportunities to disadvantaged communities, also reveal the importance of the close integration of community voices and ICT development. The success of this ‘Computers in Homes’ (CIH) scheme rests not just on the way researchers have worked in communities with a participatory action research approach but on the way that this participatory model is now part of the community’s own approach to its development and improvement. In other words, “community informatics research … has been intrinsic to the [CIH program’s] evolution” and, most recently, the goal has been to “facilitate ownership of the storytelling by the participants themselves”.

Carroll et al., outlining more than seven years’ of work within the State College, Pennsylvania community, highlight one of the emerging challenges for community informatics in the current era compared with earlier times when computer networks were first developing and had no widespread social currency. Discussing the arrival of the World Wide Web, Carroll et al. note that “posting community information became easier, but engaging in community discussion became less easy”. They outline how, with the growth of more user-centred technologies generally known as Web 2.0, some of the problems which the Web caused for community information networking eased. Yet, tellingly, they found that it is the conversations within communities, not between community members and experts, which have the greatest significance: “when community members describe their own experiences and innovations to their neighbours… [t]his creates a virtuous cycle between technology exploration and community learning”.

Echoing both of the previous articles, Day cautions that community informatics remains an academic construct of value only when its academic practitioners ensure their work is grounded in the “day to day activities of community life” and that community voices are to the fore. Day usefully describes how, in achieving this aim, the community voice needs to be empowered by “community learning” involving “dialogic exchanges …between community learning network nodes”. What is most interesting in Day’s analysis of the experiences in Brighton of community informatics is how this community learning informs and shapes the higher education institution (University of Brighton) as much as the community which it serves.

O’Reilly-Rowe approaches the question of learning from a different perspective. Writing of the experiences of shared popular education through Buildthewheel.org, he argues that there is a “synergistic relationship between popular education and digital culture”. The effective use of ICTs may no longer be something that needs to be developed within a specific community setting because the ongoing development of networked information systems is enabling sharing of and feedback on information in ways that do not depend so clearly on pre-existing personal networks. Citing Mark Deuze (2006), O’Reilly-Rowe makes clear the potential for the newer forms of digital culture associated with social media to reorganise “the production and consumption of knowledge” so that it serves community development and activism, without necessarily needing to make ICT use the central focus of that developmental process.

Yet technologies do not of themselves solve problems. Saeed et al. studied the way that the European Social Forum (ESF) adapted itself to network communications in organising and managing itself. While on the face of it, a distributed, multinational NGO like the ESF should naturally benefit from online technologies, in fact there were considerable problems. Saeed et al. astutely identify from their ethnographic research that technologies themselves can stand between participants, alienating them from the social processes essential to the forum and its political goals. We also note their cautionary tale: the ESF is often of interest to researchers and its members have become disenchanted with the way too much research has turned their organisation into an object of curiosity.

The final two articles in this collection provide clear insights into the way that research and practice in community informatics can achieve the desired goals of inclusion, effective use of ICTs, and the development of resilient communities empowered by that use. Light et al. report on the process by which action research must first begin with “participant making”. In other words, people from communities working with researchers do not just become participants by being placed in that relationship. Rather, academic and other researchers must take the lead in working with people so that all can share in an experience which shifts from them being ‘in the university’ or ‘in the community’ to a contingent shared place where their identity is determined by being a participant in a joint process. This work requires a “considerate” process of engaging all to understand what might be achieved, how and with what consequences. As detailed in their account of Participants Utd!, Light et al. clearly show that conversations, where personal trust can emerge as an outcome of intersubjectivity between different domains of understanding, are the key to this quest for consideration.

Bilandzic and Venable conclude this special issue with a thorough argument for the fusion of the traditional values and practices of participatory action research with user-centred design, in the context of Urban Informatics. They argue that Community Informatics can lack sufficient attention to the opportunities for engaging community members in design practices especially in urban environments that are marked by a much looser sense of collective identity and greater degree of networked individualism. While the ultimate goal of the forms of action research proposed might be to “enhance the communicative ecologies of individuals in the context of their everyday urban life”, nevertheless, the methods resonate closely with those proposed and enacted by the authors of the other articles presented here. The people whose lives are to be enriched are both subjects of research and co-researchers themselves. These people may indeed be the very academics conducting the research, suggesting auto-ethnographic practices which relocate academics within the city, as much as making the citizens into researchers themselves. In all cases, as Bilandzic and Venable state, “the involvement is extensive [emphasis added] rather than just consultative”. This declaration suggests effective research depends not on the fractured listening / not speaking of ‘consultation’ but on the dialogic unity of listening and speaking together.

We began this introduction by pondering why it is that ICTs might at one and the same time both enrich our social lives and also thin them out, suggesting that the answer to this problem may lie not with the technology itself but with the complexity of the project of achieving meaningful and productive social relations. Technologies can be said both to aid this project and hinder it; yet, to the extent that we, humans, are technology itself, perhaps the answer lies more in the dialogic exchanges which bring us together, however they might be mediated. And, in reflecting on the diverse stories of success and failure reported in this collection, what emerges also is that technology is not just the object of discussion, but most often provides the language through which our conversations now occur.

In the 1980s and 1990s, community informatics served to include communities and their needs and wants within the emerging possibilities of a networked society on the basis that, mostly, communities were excluded from such opportunities. Now, perhaps, community informatics addresses the problem of the surfeit of connectivity. Participatory action research, and variations that consider the question of connectivity such as network action research (Foth, 2006), including the design of and learning about technological systems, should now recognise that no longer do communities need to become informatic in their practices but must, instead, be empowered to choose what kind of informatic life they can lead. And the conversations which lie at the heart of such research, while ostensibly being about technology and its affordances, are best understood as debates about politics and identity, purpose and means which can these days only be conducted if thought about in terms of the technologies we might be forced to use, forced to choose, and hopefully empowered to appropriate and refashion. Sussman (1997: ix) might have noted that “where there is technology, there is embedded politics”. Perhaps a more challenging circumstance is that, today, where there is politics, we speak it in the language of technology.

 

References

 

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The Journal of Community Informatics. ISSN: 1712-4441