Subversion, Conversion, Development: Cross-Cultural Knowledge Exchange and the Politics of Design

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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 discussions.

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 form.

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."