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Virtual and Physical Lands

The article on post-colonial computing to me highlighted some of the problems and mores that I see within online communities. Within them, we often see the lionization of technology—and, more specifically, the lionization and nigh on worship of technology as liberation and revolution. We can see this in the topics that permeate the cultural zeitgeist of the virtual communities and forums that cater towards the technologically inclined. Most superficially, we can see it in the popular embrace of technology or platforms that promise to deliver and expand upon what we believe to be the future of virtual experiences. For instance, in the mid-2000s, Second Life was widely regarded as being revolutionary. It made it into the popular consciousness through television shows and political campaigns. It was adopted by individuals and groups who wanted to use the platform in new ways. For a while, its growth was rapid and rampant. The population exploded, last names were constantly made available and filled, and the virtual land itself rampantly expanded. First Land” plots—a system designed to make available land to newly paying subscribers—went almost as fast as they appeared. New continents appeared and expanded, virtual lava pouring into a simulated sea.

I feel like this makes an interesting parallel to Cronon’s tale of early Chicago. Individuals in that cause bought up land because of the promise that its location would provide it with an advantage. This advantage could even be called a technological advantage, given that it was based upon existing transportation technologies (ships and canals; later, rails). The same impulses that once lead people to buy up Chicago and its surrounding territory now lead early adopters to adopt and apply new technologies, such as virtual land, smartwatches, social media. Their creation and acquisition is based upon the assumption that the investor is correcting predicting the way in which these technologies will be adopted and/or utilized. In other words, they’re betting that their interpretation of the future’s course is not only correct, but in some way inevitable. However, Cronon makes it clear that this kind of “prognostication” is really little more than guessing; a mogul who correctly predicts the value of a new technological space may be more lucky than wise. I see the postcolonial computing article as a counterpoint and possible remedy to this often short-sighted adoption and investment. By considering alternate world perspectives, we allow ourselves not to view the course of technology as singularly progressive and inevitable. The rise of Second Life—and of virtual, sandbox worlds—was seen as being a natural and inevitable progression, and existing organizations invested in that platform with the expectation that it would continue to become more and more relevant. Instead, it didn’t. Similarly, some people assume that the availability of new technologies in a post-colonial environment means that their adoption is inevitable. However, assuming either of those things—or, more importantly, assuming that these technologies will be adopted in a way that is congruent with the developer’ or investor’s dominant paradigm—is as likely to lead to failure as to success.

Local genealogies of entrepreneurship

Across the history of taxi driving transportation in Bogota, technology has defined layers of hierarchy. From radio frequencies to recent uses of GPS and satellite systems, owning a technology create new taxi experiences; a demonstration of continuous modernization. This centrality in computing and communication systems remained in the growth of companies like Taxis Libres. In 2001, investments in modernizing communication arrived to more than 8 million dollars, with the development of systems area led by engineers, technicians and developers, and a marketing and economy research. They have a call center with 280 people, mostly woman, which operates 24 hours a day, where they receive more than a million and a half calls. [1]

The “zar” of taxis. Uldarico Peña, owner of the local taxi company Taxis Libres. Photo from men’s magazine Don Juan.

However, these approaches to technology are constantly shaped by representations of what constitutes moving in the city daily, and interactions with the changing infrastructure of the city. For example, taxi drivers do not rely in just one technology. As communication networks present failures in some zones of Bogota, taxi drivers declare that they must have more than one communication system. According to a study on taxi transportation in Bogota, “While the radio, very exceptionally remain out of service, for data transmission the mobile network can become congested, or there might not be good reception of satellites in centric zones with high buildings.”[2]

However these boundary positions,  represented in technologies like the jugaad, mixes not only technological transformations, but also other illegal uses of these technologies, which in the case of taxi driving, appeals to altered taximeters or radio frequency interceptions. It is interesting that framing of jugaad, are always a process of translation into legal regimes, something that has brought the experience of Nigerian cinema from piracy to cultural industry, and as Philip, Irani and Dourish remarks, have started to be coopted by government initiatives in technology. [3]

Lucy Suchman insight on what is kept out of the legible boundaries of “professional design’ helps to understand how current digital framing of entrepreneurship connects technology and culture. It is to raise the question historically of the kinds of moral and legal economies where designations of innovation circulate. The history of industry of taxi radio services in Colombia constitutes a neglected episode in entrepreneurship genealogies, attached to the expansion of urban life in Colombia during the eighties. From radio taxis to local video stores, histories of entrepreneurship framed the resourceful and intelligence of Colombian people, stories of social ascension, that interestedly still circulate among certain academic spaces. [4] Nevertheless, the current approach to taxi driving industries’ entrepreneurship combines a number of references to authoritarian practices, monopolistic practices, and immeasurable capacity to intervene politics, especially when presented as a mafia.

In contrast to the Unitron case in Brazil, Corporations like Uber do not have to appeal to extern pressures but to a local community of users and independent drivers to push legal transformation. The argument that Uber is a software company instead of a transportation one, demonstrates the efficacies of dissolving the materiality, by moving the arguments from labor issues to the needs of users. It is not that Uber services will lead to a better mobility in the city, but user experience will be so pleasant that time perception could be another. [5]

To turn into design practices in the expansion of an enterprise like Uber, the historical fields of discourses on everyday experiences of infrastructure, seems to have the greatest rhetorical power to cope with desires of worldwide elites. For that reason, it is also important to consider global design in relation with the emergence of global elites, and especially users who around the world are claiming certain globalized experiences. Following the work of Ong, Cameron McCarthy, Ergin Bulut, Michelle Castro, Koeli Goela & Heather Greenhalgh-Spencer call attention to the neo liberal aspirations of youngster in the project of mobilization of value and personal branding, as they move towards tertiary education and careerism as the members of a new transnational creative class.” [6]

Certainly, cultural remarks on incivility and absence of literacy to understand technology, as most of the Uber advocates stress, demonstrate the importance of tactically understand techno culture. It seems like Uber have found the perfect rhetorical infrastructure of Bogota citizen complains against street holes, contamination, disorder, incivility, chaos, unlivable, to translate the whiteness of cars to disrupt the apparently dark everyday experiences of walking in a developing world city. Furthermore, under the multiple genealogies to the digital, to historicize the tricks that erase of history towards innovation, is a fundamental task to enable the contingent and collaborative construction of other narratives, praised by postcolonial computing.

Works Cited

[1] Los reyes de los “unos”. Revista Dinero. august 2001.

[2] Acevedo B., Jorge, Rodriguez, Alvaro. 2010. Taxi! El modo olvidado de la movilidad en Bogotá. Bogota Unversidad de los Andes.

[3] Philip, K., Irani, L., & Dourish, P. (January 01, 2012). Postcolonial Computing: A Tactical Survey. Science Technology and Human Values, 37, 1, 3-29.

[4] Morales, C. H. (1996). A puro pulso: Los dueños de Jolie de Vogue, Servientrega, Betatonio, OP Gráficas, Taxis 2111111 y otras empresas que partieron de cero. Bogotá: Circulo de lectories.

[5] Jaffe, Eric. People in a Hurry Choose Uber Over Traditional Cabs. City lab.

[6] McCarthy, C., Bulut, E., Castro, M., Goel, K., & Greenhalgh-Spencer, H. (January 01, 2014). The Argonauts of postcolonial modernity: elite Barbadian schools in globalising circumstances. Globalisation, Societies and Education, 12, 2, 211-227

Culminations: Tactical considerations towards possibilities and potentialities

I echo Sveta’s assertion that closing the course with Kavita Philip, Lily Irani, and Paul Dourish’s “Postcolonial Computing: A Tactical Survey” provides an excellent summation and culmination of theoretical frames that are working through the concept of collaborations particular to the broad understanding of what we consider part and parcel of networked technologies. The scholar’s use of tactic and “bag of tools” to describe the ways postcolonial computing re-casts and complicates the the modernist project of changing constructed and complex systems into natural, homogenous, and abstract concepts recalls Marxist ideologies’ emphasis on the function of tactics in relation to strategies. According to Salil Sen’s transcription of Josef Stalin’s writings, tactics “determine the ways and means, the forms and methods of fighting that are most appropriate to the concrete situation at the given moment and are most certain to prepare the way for strategic success.” [1] Tactics then are synonymous to hacking, rigging, and crafting: finding ways to solve problems that take in consideration the failures of process in hopes of reaching the big picture goals in the future.

The authors reference so much of Lucy Suchman’s work in their theoretical construction of postcolonial computing. We must not separate the analysis of computational formations within dualistic human/machine dynamics. The complexities of collaborators in contributing to constructions of innovation require a holistic vantage of analysis in addition to attuning to the various scales that determine which metrics are valued and which are silenced.

Thinking back on James C. Scott’s work in deconstructing the ways statecraft reconfigures the messy forms of nature into beautiful and abstract in addition to the tactical considerations from the piece in postcolonial computing, WIlliam Cronon’s The Nature’s Metropolis similarly complicates and exposes the interconnected components that led to Chicago’s status as gateway to the West. Extracting the ways city and country in addition to first nature and second nature are co-constituitive in contributing to the opportune geo-spatial position of Chicago as a mediating entity between two different competing capitalist economies. Cronon provides the power-laden negotiations and violent capitalist reordering of natural resources into commodities that enabled the rise of the metropolis. Stepping back and looking at the configuration of Chicago’s development, the collaboration between technological innovations and commercial interests transformed both local communities surrounding this center and how a larger network of commerce operated.

Although I appreciate the interrogation of Chicago’s formulaic rise and exposing the various components that came together in its construction, it was yet another missed opportunity to reflect on indigeneity that came before. In the pursuit of deconstruction projects, the focus often stops short of acknowledging the on-going struggles of indigenous people for sovereignty and the exploitation of their lands and resources. As Jesse acknowledged in her post, Cronon considers Indians as part of a periodized past. Their displacement outside the settler-state’s recognized boundaries does not erase the traces of their epistemological existence in the here and now. A recent GLQ volume, “Queering the Middle,” may refocus postcolonial computing’s tactical tool kit to the specific locality of Chicago. In the special issue, queer scholars working from the Midwest region of the United States offer a “queer vantage,” one that considers “instabilities as productive of alternative ways to approach space and time and to reimagine routes and paths, contours and shapes, directions and teloses of … lives, practices, and institutions.” [2] A queer vantage may already be part of the many lens of postcolonial computing. Queerness’ trajectory of cruising towards a hopeful future attends to the potentialities and possibilities of reimagining our worlds.


[1] “Marxists Internet Archive” (2008). Accessed: 9 Nov 2014.

[2] Manalansan, Martin F., Chantal Nadeau, Richard T. Rodríguez, and Siobhan B. Somerville. “Queering the Middle Race, Region, and a Queer Midwest.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 20, no. 1-2 (2014): 1-12.

Pondering the Glocal and the ‘Rurban’…

This week, I was most drawn to Cronon’s text where he complicates the term ‘natural’, posing the question “how can one human community be natural and the other not?” (7) He argues that while the city and the country might be separate places, they are never isolated. Instead, they are dependent on one another; the author writes, “the city helped define – might even be essential to – what I and others felt about the country.” (8) Both only find definition though their juxtapositioning as counterparts. So the question begins to address the blurred spatial boundaries between the city and the country, between the unnatural and the natural (perhaps, as Cronon suggests, between the human and the unhuman). Cronon writes, “gauged by how we feel about them, the distance we travel between city and country is measured more in the mind than on the ground.” (8) I emphasize the word “feel” in the prior quote to draw on the ways in which the author mentions experience, feeling, and the mind without really engaging with what it means to ‘feel’ a certain way in space. We feel, imagine, think about, and experience land and it’s transformation. We imagine spatial differentiations based on a variety of factors that are often both individualized and broadly and socially constructed. Space is produced through what we are told to think about it and what we experience it to be. In our intellectual index of land and terrestrial formations , there might exist distinctions between city, suburb, rural, and nature – all of which seem to exist in isolation. I think Cronon could extend his analysis of the felt experience (the affect?) of spatial crossings between the city and country (especially since he focuses so much in his prologue on his childhood feelings about the journeys to and from the city) and include the perspective of the insider city dweller who makes a journey from the city to the rural space.

Cronon talks about Von Thünen’s book The Isolated State. (48) In the text, he produced a representation of the isolated state to map the ways in which economy and culture changes as distance from the city center increases. The author uses Von Thünen’s map to historicize the complicated binary between the city and country and to put it in conversation with Turner’s frontier stages to argue for the overlap (indeed, sameness) of the frontier and the metropolis. Mimicking his arguments about the inability to separate the city from the country and vice versa, I think the notion of the ‘glocal’ and ‘glocality’ is useful here as a method through which to think about such an overlap. Originating in the field of economics to think through the ways in which local and global economies inform one another, the term now extends outside the field to describe how global issues are always rooted in local spaces (but this is a more geographical use of the term, and how I often use it). In the same ways, local issues are always informed by those of a broader global frame. Glocalization, then, works within the context of globalization to forge inherent connections between the local and the global in a similar was as Cronon seeks to find intersections and uniformities between the city and country. The local and global, like the city and country, are spatially separate yet never isolated. People move, animals move, products and resources move, nature moves; space is never isolated.  Does Cronon’s conception of ‘nature’s metropolis’ work similarly as a term which captures the urban and rural?  Are there other terms or rhetorics we might formulate to better describe the product of his argument (rurban)?

One last thought I had about Cronon’s text (and especially within the frame of our class on systems of collaboration) is that in many ways, the binaries constructions which have become normalized to separate the city and country, the unnatural and natural, the human and nonhuman, are all results of a collaborations between leading figures in the production (and domination of a certain mode) of knowledge. The ways in which we think through and understand nature and the natural are consequential of combined (and normalized) visions of spatial, cultural, social, and industrial distinctiveness. A system of collaboration might exist between knowledge producers who establish and reify how we experience, feel, and know the urban and the rural.

some thoughts on postcolonial computing

Kavita, Irani, & Dourish’s article, “Postcolonial Computing: A Tactical Survey” (2010) seems like a fantastic way to wrap up our readings for this course. It echoes many of the themes we have discussed in class quite nicely: the contingent (rather than inherent) nature of technoscientific objects, the messiness (and centrality) of infrastructure, the situatedness of design practice, and the productivity of interdisciplinary investigations that recognize that culture and technology are mutually coproduced. This is a text that I can picture myself returning to often in the future. Perhaps as a function of its structure, the text prompted many connections to other work, as well as suggested many additional artifacts that could productively be read through such a framework. Ned’s example in his post, about content moderation, also came to mind while reading Kavita, Irani, & Dourish discussion of materiality and the imagined distance between “green concerns” (about the environment) and “red concerns” (about labor and political economy). In reality, these issues are largely intertwined.

Photograph of a Bulgarian Pravetz 8D computer showing a dual Cyrillic and Latin keyboard. (Image via

Photograph of a Bulgarian Pravetz 8D computer showing a dual Cyrillic and Latin keyboard. (Image via

I want to use this space here to use the Postcolonial Computing framework to think through a newish interest of mine: the history of computing in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. One of the tactics outlined in the text is to look things that seem to exist “outside” of the boundaries of established narratives about technoscientific progress. One way in which these narratives establish their dominance is by defining what “counts” as innovation, as opposed to mere imitation. Kavita, Irani, & Dourish contend that “articulation work,” the work of integrating, adapting, and maintaining technologies in novel contexts, are actually key part of the design process. Moreover, as Suchman contends, these practices are in fact generative of novel design innovations. Kavita, Irani, & Dourish illustrate this section of the text with their discussion of Unitron’s Mac de Periferia. Unitron’s reverse-engineered computer, originally seen as design innovation working in the Brazilian national interest, was reconfigured as mere piracy through the intervention of a newly globalized intellectual property regime (10).

Keyboard of a Pravetz-8C computer [Apple IIe clone]. (Photograph via]

Keyboard of a Pravetz-8C computer [Apple IIe clone]. (Photograph via

I’ve just recently started reading more about the history of computing in Eastern Europe. One of the things that have struck me in my preliminary research is how often these machines are framed as being merely clones of IBM or Apple computers. In fact, the region is a site for a large number of computing histories, not all of which fit neatly into a narrative of about the adoption of Western technologies in new locales. Even those computers that were clones of Western ones required a large amount of articulation work to function in these new contexts. Perhaps an obvious example of this articulation work was the fact that each of these computers had to be engineered to support Cyrillic characters. I imagine there is an interesting history to be told about the parallel development of Soviet bloc home computing and Unicode (and other expansions of the ASCII character encoding set) in the 1980s.

Some Disconnected Thoughts on Nature and Indigeneity

As many of you know, the history of human definitions and ideas of nature as well as the American relationship with representations of indigeneity and sovereignty are major interests of mine.  I was excited to read Nature’s Metropolis and intrigued by the introduction that sought to erases the definite boundaries between the cultural ideas of ‘city’ and ‘country’.  But even in his attempts to prove that our understanding of nature, or the dichotomy between urban and rural, natural and unnatural, wild and tamed, human and inhuman, are defined by 19th-century understandings of these terms, Cronon, at times, presents an idea of nature and American Indians that seems uncomfortably in line with the ideology he is critiquing.

While describing the human history of the land that became Chicago, Cronon writes: “The great boon years had carried Chicago ever so speedily away from its Indian past and toward the urban future on which the speculators had based their investments…” (30). I have a few major misgivings about this statement.  Cronon, at moments in his history comes dangerously close to equating nature, the past, and Indianness.  Chicago is a modern metropolis, while linked to its landscape and its history, it appears as the antithesis of the Indian villages he describes in the beginning of chapter one.  He also gets dangerously close to assuming that Indians don’t have a presence or cultural life in contemporary Chicago.  Chicago has not left its Indian past behind, because it is still lively with an Indian presence, perhaps just not in the ‘traditional’ ways Cronon imagines.  Bunky Echo Hawk’s recent exhibition at the Field Museum is a perfect example of this unapologetic presence.  Not merely images of survivance, Bunky’s work demonstrates a reclamation of land, history, space, and a retelling of history.  His exhibition intervenes directly into this 19th-century discourse that Cronon is criticizing, by making a statement at the Field Museum, a settler colonial space that has been attempting to define the history of the landscape and the natural world for decades.

The exhibition is still up.  Until June.  You should go check it out:

This text also got me wondering: can we write a natural history that is divorced from human influence?  Cronon seems to believe that we cannot, that a history has to understand both the unnatural and natural influences, but that all histories are human histories.  Can we tell a natural history that is just natural?  Our history of time and space is always defined by discovery and human science.  We understand the prehistoric past because of paleontology and archaeology.  Scientists (primarily white men) uncover artefacts and fossils and reconstruct a vision of the past that is purely influenced by former science and discoveries.  Our interpretations of the past, even the prehistoric past is never divorced from contemporary politics or socio-cultural understandings of the world.  Which makes me believe, we can never write a truly natural history.  But perhaps we can feel it, smell it, taste it.

In an art history reading group meeting led by artist and professor Deke Weaver and sponsored by the IPRH, we recently discussed the idea of the end of nature and all that is fraught with that idea.  Despite however much we destroy the natural environment, and no matter the fact that no ‘untouched’ spaces remain, nature still exists, and operates every moment without human intervention.  Deke discussed the idea that we can feel that power, even in the most banal or mundane ways.  Nature doesn’t exist in the indigenous history of a place, as Cronon almost claims, but it exists in itself.  In our discussion with Deke, Melissa and I brought up taking our dogs for walks, following their level of sight and sense of smell, and discovering the world in a new way that slows us down.  And this is what I mean by smelling a history of the world, or tasting it.

Can we smell a true natural history, as a dog does, when we step outside on a crisp fall day like today?  Can we taste a history of our landscape in the vegetables purchased from the farmers market?

I swear that I could feel the vibrations of the history of the land when I was backpacking by myself (well with my dog) at Buffalo Gap National Grassland this past Augst.  But at the same time, I felt very much like an intruder, as the prairie dogs very happily reminded me as they yelled from their holes each time I passed through a dog town.  And maybe this is what Cronon means, we cannot have a natural history save for our understanding of the human intervention within it.  Unless of course, we begin to understand even destructive forces as part of nature, which I guess is the kind of history that Cronon is in fact trying to establish.