/ Published October 05, 2016
Subversion, Conversion, Development: Cross-Cultural
Knowledge Exchange and the Politics of Design edited by
James Leach and Lee Wilson. MIT Press, 2014, 257 pp.
Compiling works from a conference of the same name, Subversion,
Conversion, Development explores how cultural tendencies shape
and influence technological ends. The emphasis throughout, as shaped
by editors James Leach and Lee Wilson, varies significantly from
standard views showing how technology determines cultural emergence to
how currently existing cultures change technology implementation
through their own interpretations. The essays discuss how cultures
subvert, convert, and develop technology through their own societal
requirements in influencing change. The work does not fit as a canon
element for those exploring cyberspace’s more technical aspects,
yet it still provides a useful counterpoint to culturally based
The text opens by suggesting information and communications
technology (ICT) is not domain and content neutral. These functions
instead begin through embedded societal values from their creators and
later transfer new values back to the original creators. These ICT
transfers may be subverted through disrupting an established order,
conversion through reconfiguring material into knowledge, or
development through uniquely social innovations.
One could divide the work’s 10 essays into four rough
categories: communications ownership, knowledge translation,
culturally informing, and a miscellaneous category unrelated to the
larger work. These essay categories are not closely aligned with the
text’s structure as described in the preceding paragraph. The
first category, communications ownership, depicts how cultures change
through the ICT ownership process. The essay by George Peterson deals
with the Freifunk phenomenon in Germany. The Freifunk culture
established free wireless services in Germany through communal
interest in broader services as opposed to government or commercial
initiatives. Rather than restrict services to paying customers, the
group used personal knowledge and resources to share wireless
communications. Peterson even describes an instance where those
seeking to profit from the free services were shunned by the
group’s remainder. The second essay, by Poline Bala, explains
how a Malaysian group, the Kelabit, adopted technological advances to
improve their own standing in the broader, national culture. The
Kelabit viewed ICT advances as they would an improved boat or other
tool and have made significant lifestyle improvements as well as
technological accomplishments part of their own internal view of
success and moral righteousness. Both essays describe an emerging
culture appearing through broader digital communications without
losing their initial cultural values.
The broadest category, knowledge translation, explores where
cultures use current values to inform knowledge implementation. The
first two essays examine how primitive cultures view their own aspects
through another society’s ICT lens. For example, “Sacred
Books in a Digital Age” by Hildegard Diemberger and Stephen
Hugh-Jones studies how Tibetan monks view their own works when
converted from a textual prayer wheel to CDs and computer devices.
Many oral traditions are shown to empower knowledge with special
values due to the difficulty of otherwise acquiring the knowledge.
Easing knowledge-accumulation practices changes associated value
systems internal to those societies.
The next two knowledge-translation essays examine how ICT adapts to
other cultures, first examining nonliterate interaction and then how
inherent assumptions about knowledge change overall interpretations.
For example, most computers use standard icons such as a file folder,
a trash can, or the Internet Explorer symbol. These symbols may have
entirely different values assigned by other cultures. In this section
of the book, “Assembling Diverse Knowledges” by David
Turnbull and Wade Chambers was possibly my favorite essay. It adapts
the ICT topic to consider a wider problem than most of the culturally
defined case studies. The authors depict how systems theory applies to
knowledge through complex, adaptive systems and where the subsequent
story-weave presents a useful picture to future developers without
requiring intrinsic assumptions.
The third and last section depicts how cultural processes inform
design practices. The elements detail how one must establish
meaningful requirements to accomplish development tasks. Both
requirements and their meanings are informed by societal needs, and
the authors merely comment on how needs change with time and location.
The practice customers use to inform design processes is significant;
however, merely stating cultures inform requirements is not a
significant leap. In the Design for X essay by Dawn Nafus,
one interesting point emerges when the author notes,
“anthropologists are warned to be wary of quantitative
knowledge” (p. 218). That singular quote probably explains much
of the difference between technically based cyberspace studies and
this text’s cultural impressions.
The collection’s last two essays are the only true misses
within the work. “Liminal Futures” by Laura Watts is a
nine-page prose poem with a few pages of explanatory text explaining
how the poem applies to ICT changes on the Orkney archipelago off the
Scottish Coast. The poem does not mesh with this collection and fails
to bring additional insight through either the poetry or subsequent
explanation. The point regarding ICT change begins to appear but Watts
fails to deliver because of the poetry emphasis. The other miss is the
essay “Engaging Interests” by Marilyn Strathern, which
explains how cultural interests drive decision processes. It appears
to have been taken from a verbal presentation during the conference
but, like some of the other knowledge demonstrated within this
work’s essays, it does not translate well to the written ICT
Overall, Subversion, Conversion, Development: Cross-Cultural
Knowledge Exchange and the Politics of Design was an interesting,
well-written work. The heavy anthropological reliance made the work
read as several unrelated case studies rather than presenting a
well-focused argument. The book will inform marketing professionals
and designers better than those directing military applications.
Despite the well-constructed and superbly written aspects of
individual essays, the overall subject matter is simply too far from
what the reader expects when selecting a work based on how cultural
aspects shape technology use. At best, the work might help those
assigned to an embassy position and tasked with cultural outreach.
Lt Col Mark Peters, USAF
"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."