In this post, I am looking at technological innovation from a critical perspective, covering appropriating technology, hacking and the process by which the name “innovation” is bestowed, or not, using a video from 1988 as provocation.
In 1988, the national Australian public broadcaster ABC and journalist Jill Emberson produced a short 7 minute story on their Quantum Science TV program about Dr Bruce Walker (Emberson) and “appropriate technology”. Dr Walker founded the Center for Appropriate Technology in Alice Springs, in the Australian outback, to improve the lives of Australia’s first people. The story shows his work in one of the remotest communities in Australia: the Pintupi people in Kintore, about 300 miles out of Alice Springs, which is very, very remote!
The philosophy of appropriate technology “looks for the real functions technology should serve, without any assumptions.” This means Dr Walker makes decisions differently to those made when designing technology for the urban environment. Throughout the video, Dr Walker explains how the environment in these remote parts of Australia is very harsh: extreme heat and cold, monsoons, dust, wind, and without reliable sources of water and power, if any at all. This means that technology designed for urban environments does not last out there, and sometimes would not work at all. Emberson the journalist says the standard explanation for why it does not last is to blame the people, saying the technology is misused. However, Dr Walker points out these outsiders from the big cities (Sydney and Melbourne) do not understand the harsh conditions of the outback and tend to patronize the indigenous people. Dr Walker suggests instead of wasting time and money trying to teach people how to use these technologies “properly”, they should ask why they are using it the wrong way in the first place.
Dr Walker needed to make decisions about what materials to use, and how things can be powered, operated, maintained, and repaired, appropriate to the environment and community they will be used in. This is very different to the environment and communities they were designed for originally, the urban environment.
The video talks about washing machines as an example. The narrator points out that Aboriginal people use a lot of blankets, to keep warm in the desert and as ground sheets or covers, and no western washing machine can fit them, let alone handle cleaning them. In addition, the washing machine made in the city with plastic parts and needing electricity will wear out too quickly in the arid desert.
The video then shows Dr Walker’s wonderful design of a mechanical washing machine, one that works well in the harsh outside conditions of the desert, does not need electricity, is large enough to handle blankets and uses basic metal parts that the Pintupi people can repair. These are the essential considerations for Dr Walker when making design decisions for engineering appropriate technology for remote communities in Australia. The “chip heater” (sorry not sure if thats what it is actually called, couldnt quite catch it in the video) is also given as an illustration of appropriate technology: re-purposed gas cylinders that Dr Walker’s team trains community members to repair, and which utilizes the local people’s excellent skills at fire-building.
One final example is the mobility device for those differently abled in the community, which was low to the ground so they could sit with everyone else, meeting their social needs, while still being able to be pulled by someone else in their tribe, because personal independence and mobility was not that high a priority for them, but being involved in the community was very high. An urban wheelchair was unfit for their lifestyle, culture or physical environment. Dr Walker said that so much of urban technology is aimed at the top end of our market, rather than basic needs like water, food and technology like washing machines and showers for people to stay healthy.
Dr Walker himself is a maker, and although he is following an unusual career path by focusing on appropriate technology in remote communities, he is nevertheless an insider of the dominant party, white, middle class and well educated, like most makers and hackers (Lindtner; Christina Dunbar-Hester). Dr Walker is a Western scientist with a great deal of agency and resources at his disposal, compared to the remote communities he is working with (Christina Dunbar-Hester).
His designs are definitely hacks, “a material practice that produces difference”, although his inventions are not of “the computer, network or communication technology kind” (Jordan). His washing machine, chip heater and mobility aids are basic engineering, and yet shows a mastery of technology to create it, they are impressive to other scientists in their simplicity and practicality and he finds his work “challenging and rewarding” (Jordan). Dr Walker, like Kamal the graphic designer interviewed by Irani, understands the importance of language and how it can frame and limit the conversation around innovation. In Kamal’s case, he had to re-educate people on their idea of what could be labelled “Indian design”. In Dr Walkers, he must make sure people do not give urban names to solutions like “wheelchairs” rather than “mobility” devices, because that limits engineers and designers thinking about solutions that would be “appropriate” for remote communities. He stresses that the value of technology is weighed based on our own culture and lifestyle preferences, not that of remote Aboriginal communities, and his designs need to try to ignore those assumptions and make things more appropriate for the people’s culture and lifestyle he is trying to help.
The video does not show how the Pintupi people might have appropriated technology directly, but it alludes to it. It talks about people “misuse” technology, and Dr Walker talks about people trying to teach the community how to use technology “properly”, so I am assuming they often use it in a way that suits them, rather than in the manner it was designed to work. Given their low power relative to the white urban designers and global manufacturers, Eglash would call their reinterpretation, adaption or reinvention an appropriation of technology (Eglash), by changing the nature of their relationship with the technology away from consumer towards producer.
Just like the people at DevDesign studied by Irani, and those not-for-profit and development bodies they work with, Dr Walker is trying to help the people of the Pintupi tribe and others in remote Australia. Both the Pintupi people and the villagers of India are in a period of drastic, rapid change, transitioning from traditional lifestyles to a more modern one, and the rest of the world is worried they will be left behind. Dr Walker is trying to train remote communities to repair their own technology, but also to innovate in the way they provide for their own basic needs, like food and shelter and cleanliness.
But despite their good intentions, these organizations like DevDesign and the Center for Appropriate Design appear to be racialized organizations as defined by Ray (Ray). The use of the word “appropriate” is full of assumptions. Who determines what is appropriate for the remote communities? Nothing can be concluded from a 7-minute video from 1988, but listening with 2020 ears, it sounds like Dr Walker with his White credentials was the one making the decisions about what is appropriate for these people.
I base this on three observations, albeit from one video; the prima facie appropriateness of his inventions in the physical conditions, the implicit problem he is trying to solve, and the appearance of a lack of appreciation for the local expertise.
Firstly, Dr Walkers inventions are simplified versions of modern technology, but can we call them “appropriate” for living in the desert, if we leave all urban assumptions behind? I think two of the three inventions are quite inappropriate given the environment of the Outback and the nomadic traditions of these tribes. A washing machine that uses washing powder and water in the desert? A chip heater for hot showers in 120-degree heat? I do not presume to know what the priorities were for this community, and perhaps neither did Dr Walker, but in the cold hard light of 2020, these seem inappropriate. Had Dr Walker arrived from the city looking for ways to adapt and improve modern technology to the remote community environment, full of optimism that technology had the power to transform their lives? It appears that way.
Secondly, I wonder what problem he was trying to solve? If many technologies fail in these remote conditions, it is perhaps not enough to merely change the materials and the mechanics to last in this environment, but one must look at the wider purpose of the technology and see if its solving the most pressing problem for the community. Dr Walker’s Center might be tinkering with narrowly defined problems as is often done in crowd sourcing competitions as described by Majchrzak and Malhotra, when he could be tackling major wicked problems that may not even have a technological solution (Majchrzak and Malhotra). I think despite his wish to do away with assumptions, he walked into Kintore with assumptions about the top priority problems of the community were, and that no matter the problem, a technology solution was the answer.
Dr Walker believes he has solved the problem of the better washing machine or the better water heater. He compares his inventions to the suitability of high technology, but what other comparisons should be made? Were there non-technical solutions to their problems? Was it even a problem to them? I cannot tell from this video as no Pintupi voice is heard.
This “problem” could be an issue the urban culture has with traditional culture, and these efforts are part of the hegemonic communication campaign to bring urban (dominant) values to the remote communities. Washing powder would cost as much as four times as much as in urban stores and is not readily available. Are the likes of Proctor and Gamble and Unilever (makers of OMO, see Figure 1) interests served by inventing products and trying to link washing machines to health and cleanliness to keep this community using their washing powder?
Figure 1 Screen Shot from the Emberson video
Perhaps if Dr Walker looked even deeper again at why someone used technology incorrectly, he might actually see what traditional solutions people used well before the advent of technology, and try to design with the community to come up with something that really suits them, even if its not “scalable” or “glamorous”. The solution may have very little technology involved at all.
The last clue along the lines of the Center possibly being a racialized organization is the omission of any form of “innovation” made by the local people. It illustrates Irani’s research on how there is a cultural and hegemonic process to determine what can be called “innovative”. In line with Irani’s theories, in order to be innovative, the invention must be scalable beyond the local needs of a remote community, yet it must also align with white peoples’ view of what Aboriginal innovation should look like. Perhaps the “chip heater” and the “mobility device” designed by Dr Walker were originally designed by the locals, and Dr Walker copied their creativity? Maybe their designs were jugaad and therefore not sophisticated enough to be called innovation, so he had to “modify” them to turn them into legitimate “innovation”?
This video was only 7 minutes long and I am watching it with 32 years of hindsight, but there are still clear signs of the urban culture defining what is “appropriate”, what is the problem and who is the innovator. I think if this video were produced today, the journalists would take more time to give credit to the local people, and their traditional way of life and skills. They would include the community in the process by running workshops and training them to see their own “problems” and “opportunities” just as DevDesign did with the Indian village people.
I just came across this recent initiative also in the Northern Territory by Original Power to bring solar power into remote communities and train locals to maintain the panels. This is a great example of the kind of representation that I would expect (and hope for) today .
Christina Dunbar-Hester. Hacking Diversity. Princeton University Press, 2019.
Eglash, Ron. Appropriating Technology: Vernacular Science and Social Power. U of Minnesota Press, 2004.
Emberson, Jill. Appropriate Technology. ABC Science, 1988. YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zrYEGbAZhzc.
Jordan, Tim. Hacking: Digital Media and Technological Determinism. Polity, 2008.
Lindtner. Inventing Shenzen. 2020.
Majchrzak, Ann, and Malhotra. Unleashing the Crowd: Collaborative Solutions to Wicked Business and Societal Problems. Palgrave Macmillan, 2019.
Outback Stores. “Fridges a Cool Idea in Papunya.” Outback Stores, 17 Dec. 2019. outbackstores.com.au, https://outbackstores.com.au/fridges-a-cool-idea-in-papunya/.
Ray, Victor. “A Theory of Racialized Organizations.” American Sociological Review, vol. 84, no. 1, SAGE Publications, 2019, pp. 26–53, doi:10.1177/0003122418822335.