Can Indigenous Knowledge Systems and Technology Exist Side By Side?

While reading Tim Unwin’s text ICT4D, I was slightly dismayed by his descriptions of how development as a field has come into being and how it has progressed over time. Unwin spoke of how 17th century Enlightenment values of rationality and progress became intertwined with science and technology, which has in turn had important implications for development discourses in the 20th and 21st centuries. The author then briefly touches on how these beliefs became part of ‘dominant development practices’ from the industrial revolution to the green revolution and shaped attitudes towards the application of technology in the developing world. He makes a small concession to the fact that the notions of ‘rationality’ and ‘stages of progress’ are part of a dominant discourse and that there are other alternative conceptualizations of development that the book will address if they are of ‘particular pertinence’.

Unwin fails to address the fact that current applications of technology centered around ideologies of ‘progress’ are the product of an inherently Western world view that overlooks cultural difference and undervalues indigenous knowledge. In our discussions of a knowledge society, it is critical to remember that forms of knowledge are contingent on culture, space, and time, and that one system of knowledge does not have more or less value than another. I believe that one of the reasons development has largely failed in the ‘third world’ is that practioners approach development with not only a disdain for indigenous knowledge but also the belief that their knowledge is somehow more legitimate than that possessed by their beneficiaries. This is a dangerously patronizing perspective that can perpetuate Western hegemony and endanger knowledge systems that may be critical to effective development. It may also correspond with a lapse in ethical principles, a reality that has unfortunately occurred too many times with the application of technology to the third world by first world entities.

One of my favorite social activists, Vandana Shiva, describes how the belief of many Westerners that the indiscriminate application of technology will lead to progress leads to unethical practice here. Though she is mostly concerned with the use of biotechnology and the ignorance Western corporations, development practitioners, and scientists have towards traditional farming systems and indigenous knowledge of biodiversity cultivation, these issues resonate within the field of ICT. As budding development workers we must be aware that our knowledge and what we hold as true is shaped by our cultural context and is not in fact universal. We must take care to understand that we are products of our environment and learn to respect how this context shapes individuals and society. As Shiva states in her article, no technology is neutral, and neither are we. ICT must be carefully applied in developing contexts with regard to local culture and knowledge, and ethics cannot be forgotten, as unrelated as one think they might be to technology.

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2 responses to “Can Indigenous Knowledge Systems and Technology Exist Side By Side?

  • areed2014

    I felt the same way when reading Tim Unwin’s conception of development, knowledge, and technology. In another related post describing knowledge verses information societies I issued the question of knowledge by and for whom, and for what purpose. You stated it perfectly when you said that this idea of information technology disregards other forms of society, and harmfully perpetuates Western (and I would argue masculine) hegemony. While ICT has the potential to bring benefits to the lives of those in developing countries, such tools must be considered within the framework of that specific culture, region, and perspective.

  • maddielrudow

    I think that you make such a valuable important point here. Many people working in the IDEV field try an integrate modern innovative processes into communities and cultures that they know nothing about. Then they wonder why they fail. What works for us in the West is not a product of the technology, but how we have come to use it and its social implications. It is crucial, especially in terms of technology to allow to grow from the bottom up, within the community. I believe that in order to integrate the use of technology, it is vital to consider the people to be effected first and foremost before implementation strategies can even be considered.

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