Visions for A Grassroots Praxis of Technology

[From the concluding chapter of my doctoral dissertation “A Grassroots Praxis of Technology: View from the South”]

My work with the grassroots social movements of the U.S. South to the extent I have reported in my dissertation is by no means a conclusive work on the broader agenda that I set out to do in the field of computing. This is to say, the agenda to construct and practice resistance and accountability against hegemonic technology cultures of the world has always been and is going to be, a long term project beyond the scope of a dissertation. Perhaps, beyond the scope of the academy altogether — who are we to set the rules for how the culture we bet our livelihoods on gets dismantled? But at the same time, a liberatory future of technology should not be the burden of over-burdened community organizations alone. My work of helping build a local movement and helping sustain a regional one has been an exploration in finding the balance with which I can use both parts of identity — a technology scholar in Western academia and a community organizer from the Global South — to actively help build that future.

Specifically, in my dissertation, I have shared how I established meaningful research partnerships with two grassroots social movement organizations — -the local organization of Science for the People, Atlanta (SftP-Atlanta), and the regional movement of Southern Movement Assembly (SMA) — both based in the U.S. South. Although my work with these two organizations produced academic outcomes — both conceptual and material — my relationship with these communities has been rooted in my volunteer commitments of social movement work I did with them. Participatory action research, the primary method of inquiry that I employed for this work, gave me a unique opportunity to conduct community-centered research rooted in transnational solidarity over the cultural connection of the South.

In this blog post, in what follows, I want to share a synthesis of my dissertation, the key contributions I make, and the broader impact of my work as I see it. Next, continuing to reflect on my dissertation I share some of my personal takeaways from this work. I hope to channel these takeaways into my future work.

Summary & Contributions

I see the scholarly outcomes of my dissertation to be contributing to the field of Computer-Supported Cooperative Work(CSCW) and broader Human-Computer Interaction (HCI). CSCW research has long established the importance of understanding situated uses of information communication technologies (ICTs). To understand technology, we need to understand the dynamics of both its production and use. Understanding ICTs in use can certainly uncover the needs, purposes, and motivations of users — -as have been studied extensively with CSCW research on appropriation. That said, my focus in this dissertation has been to posit technology-use as a way of understanding the cultures of technology production.

This particular way of looking is not new to CSCW. For research within this discipline that particularly engages with modern critical theories this has been a long-standing project: what does it mean to rethink the technological object, to move away from “the myth of the lone creator of new technology on the one hand, and the passive recipients of new technology on the other?” In her foundational piece “Located Accountabilities in Technology Production,’’ Lucy Suchman suggests that “for technology designers and developers, the basic change implied by rethinking the technological object is from a view of design as the creation of discrete devices, or even networks of devices, to a view of system development as entry into the networks of working relations — including both contests and alliances — that make technical systems possible.” Reconstructing technology relations, as Suchman puts it in that article, was a call to action.

With my work and my dissertation, I see myself primarily as responding to this call. In many ways, my finding of the fact that modern ICTs create a division within communities of practice is something that we already knew. My findings confirmed this truth. We further knew that users have been working around these gaps — -by training themselves to gain more expertise, to catch up to digitization of work and workplaces. We knew that designers and developers of modern technologies have been trying to be more aware of these gaps and further mitigate them with more user-centered, participatory approaches to design. Makers and marketers of corporate technologies, too, have extended their efforts to bridge the “digital divide” (for example, with their distribution of devices among the disadvantaged people, or, building better internet access in rural areas). My dissertation does not negate the validity of these efforts in any way, but it does urge us to rethink the fundamentals of what we have come to know as ICT-mediated digital gaps in communities.

The work of reconstructing technology relations, as I established through my work, goes beyond providing token access to technology devices and the ability to appropriate or even create custom technology artifacts for organizational goals. I argue that it also urges designers, developers, practitioners, and users to examine technology-mediated exclusions as extensions of structural harm. In this way, I see my dissertation to be broadly contributing to ways in which CSCW designers and researchers can approach fraught technology relations in communities of practice that are also victims of structural oppression.

To do so, I took on a method that allowed me, as a researcher, to be aware of the ways in which power and privilege are intertwined with the position of a technology scholar. Participatory action research (PAR), as a method, allowed me to switch roles — between a researcher and an activist. It also offered me space to reflect on my own experiences with both technology and structural harm. I see this dissertation to be a contribution toward our methodological choices for how to reconstruct technology relations in communities. While PAR may not be the only way to conduct such research, the tools and practices that I mention throughout the dissertation can be incorporated in broader ethnography-based research in CSCW. Additionally, with my work, I posit (transnational) solidarity as a research ethic for researchers and designers who want to study and even help marginalized communities.

I further note that the work of reconstructing technology relations needs us to be first aware of the consequences of a fraught technology relation. With my first study with SftP-Atlanta, I contributed an understanding of exactly what is meant when we speak of modern ICTs being misaligned with liberatory goals. In that, I identified three core values — inclusivity, privacy/security, and social translucence — to be missing from the popular ICTs used by grassroots social movements.

With my second study with the regional movement of the Southern Movement Assembly (SMA), I contributed an additional layer to this understanding of the consequences of conflicted technology relations. I noted that with BIPOC communities organizing against structural oppression, and especially communities of the South, this conflict is often cultural. The framing of the culture, as this dissertation argues, is a particularly useful lens to look at technology-mediated structural exclusion. This study ultimately leads me to generate a theory for why using ICTs lead to exclusionary consequences even for communities that actively question structural exclusion. The theory suggests that these communities are often at an awkward intersection of technoculture of exclusion and technoculture of inclusivity. That is to say, while they need to rely on the ICTs and the culture of systemic exclusion they are often produced from, their adoption of ICTs also makes them inherit the cultural traits of ICT production. ICTs, much like other structural phenomena, reproduce their values in sites of their use. A key contribution of this study was the systematic analysis of structurally conflicted technology relations — particularly, in a regional community in the U.S. South.

Toward constructing a grassroots praxis of technology, that would address structural gaps perpetuated by technology, I further took a sociomaterial approach. That is to say, methodologically, I used a combination of material and discursive exploration of ICTs in the movement. Specifically, I organized three participatory workshops, collaboratively designed a handbook of movement communication, and contributed toward building a relational infrastructure for resisting ICT structures of a regional movement. A key contribution from this final part of my dissertation was the translation of a theory into practice — specifically, I worked on translating the theory of reproduction of ICT values I generated with my earlier study. I found the combined and iterative use of theory and practice to particularly be useful in surfacing the lived realities of ICTs. For instance, the theory I generated with the interview study only suggested that ICTs can reproduce their values onto the fabric of a community leading to complex implications for its culture. But it is only with the application of material and discursive practices of workshops and design that I could surface why such reproduction happens even in communities that actively stand against it. I posit that this is not only caused by values currently embodied by ICTs but also their enactment of ICTs is related to how the harm caused to them by technology systems and structures of the past. While this theory and the particular lived realities that the theory is grounded on can be seen as contributions on their own, I also present the overall sociomaterial approach as a useful technique for studying technology-use as a way to elicit hegemonic cultures of technology production.

Finally, I see my dissertation as an attempt in community-centered, praxis-oriented research. In this work, I am particularly committed to grassroots praxis, but beyond that, I see many opportunities for following a similar approach in community-centered research in CSCW with a commitment to a different base of theory and practice. In what follows, I share some of my personal takeaways from this dissertation and grassroots praxis in general.

Reflections & Visions for the Future

As a CSCW researcher and an individual committed to the cause of public accountability toward the hegemonic culture of technology, the most important thing I have gathered along the way is hope for a liberatory future of technology and society, for resistance to a hegemonic culture of technology is not only possible it is already happening. There is massive inequality on the side of resistance, we are outnumbered and over-exhausted, but we are here. The Southern Movement Assembly (SMA) frequently uses a slogan that goes “the seas are rising and so are we’’ — I have always taken several quiet moments to fully grasp the power in that slogan — all the countless times I have heard it. It speaks to the impossible challenge many communities — mostly indigenous, poor people of color living in coastal areas of the South — face against the rising temperature of the earth, the sea levels, and the climate capitalism driving it all. The slogan, “so are we’’ carries a stubborn faith in the power of the people, in their collective anger, because they are not only rising in number they are rising in their consciousness, visions, and strategies too. The consequences of climate change are more immediate and more fatal than the consequences of Big Tech in these communities, but if I had to take away a pearl of singular wisdom from the epistemologies of the South, it would be to never lose focus on the intersecting ways capitalism operates. Technologies of oppression are connected and mobilized, we who refuse to let them win have to be too. The slogan is also a reminder of the fact that no matter how big and overwhelming systems of oppression and erasure look like, the resistance can be just as loud and overpowering.

In my vision, a grassroots praxis of technology — one that I studied, designed, and theorized throughout this dissertation — will facilitate a carefully nuanced analysis of technology structures in the future. This future calls for a synergistic effort from both theory and practice — a phenomenon theorized in this thesis in the name of praxis. Portuguese economist Boaventura de Sousa Santos whose book “Epistemologies of the South: Justice Against Epistemicide’’ has substantively influenced my writing in this thesis, notes an ever-growing distance between theory and practice in the political Left. He describes in great detail how this distance has been well warranted, especially since “Eurocentric critical theory (and the political Left it founded) has not acknowledged: women, indigenous peoples, peasants, Afro-descendants, piqueteros, the unemployed, gays and lesbians, and the Occupy movement’’ — movements and social groups that —“dwell not in industrial urban centers but rather in remote sites, whether in the forests and river basins in India or up in the Andes and in the larger plains of Amazonia.” With this, Santos paints an important but frequently overlooked picture of the Global South and its deeply diverse epistemologies. While he sees the value in Eurocentric critical theory, he poses that it has perpetuated a deep discrepancy between what is stated in theory and what is happening in the field of liberation around the world — a discrepancy deeply rooted in the fact that these theories ignored the political existence of these global struggles. However, the disconnect between theory and practice has come with significant consequences for the political Left. For example, it has been largely failing at identifying what it is up against: is it aiming at replacing capitalism with a post-capitalist future, or is it attempting to replace neoliberalism with a type of capitalism with a more human face? I posit that the same can be argued for how we understand technology at the moment — our theories about technology getting detached from our understandings of contemporary technology practices carry the risk of this ambiguity too. Do we want to build technologies toward that post-capitalist future? Or do we want to replace one capitalist technoculture with another? As a well-documented example for the latter, we can take the trend of replacing the technoculture of product design with the technoculture of “design thinking’’ led by Silicon Valley . A grassroots praxis of technology — grounded in epistemologies of the Global South including the U.S. South — will urge designers, researchers, practitioners to take the former stance.

What does it mean to take this stance — practically and intellectually? In my dissertation, I reflected on what grassroots culture means for the regional movement of the SMA. Their commitment to grassroots praxis can be seen in the way they designed their movement structure, their mode of participatory decision-making, and perhaps most importantly how they stay ideologically open to form global solidarities. In my experience of the movement, they refuse to compromise on this commitment to grassroots culture for the sake of efficacy or political coherence. While the hegemonic culture of technology drove the movement to choose technical efficiency over inclusivity at times — the movement was fundamentally open to its growth beyond that pattern. A grassroots praxis of technology will similarly stay vigilant of the way the hegemonic technology culture may interfere with its commitment.

For this, we will need to sustain a culture of technology that prioritizes its own accountability, especially prioritizes to be held accountable by the people and communities hegemonic cultures have excluded for so long. A grassroots praxis of technology will be centered on community accountability. Accountability in this sense is not just an evaluation of how smoothly our tools function in communities, it is also an evaluation of whether our tools (and our designer selves) are needed in the community at all. My work with the SMA was a constant exploration in finding what works for the community — this required me to reject the belief often perpetuated in institutions of technology i.e. as technology scholars our only way to help communities is with new sociotechnical solutions involving novel artifacts. A preoccupation with novelty in technical artifice is both misguided and narrow-sighted. I was working with a community that carried wisdom predating industrial visions of the modern world — wisdom that was rooted in their survival against forced labor, migration, dehumanization of their core identities. Learning from how they relate to modern technology as well as what their technological imaginaries are proved to be more important and necessary than creating a novel technical “solution’’ in the name of grassroots design. Toward prioritizing community accountability, a grassroots praxis of technology will similarly prioritize marginalized cultures and their radical imaginaries over Eurocentric measures of technical efficacy and advancement.

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