Wouldn’t you know it! Soon after Rachael Petersen joined up with the Ethnos Project, she turned the proverbial microphone on me and conducted a proper interview. I thought I’d post a link from here to the interview posted on Rachael’s site www.globalnativenetworks.com.

Mark Oppenneer

Read the Interview

From Rachel’s post: “The Ethnos Project site itself avoids editorializing, serving more as a neutral compilation of useful resources for those who might want to form their own opinion about the transformative power of tech. Try as I might, I couldn’t quite place the creator’s own ICT4D ideology amid the site’s current framework. So I sought out Mark’s voice: did he consider himself a tech-optimistic? Where did this Ethnos Project idea come from and where did he hope it would go?”

Here are my answers to Rachael’s questions:

1) How did you get interested in the intersection of technology, “development,” and Indigenous peoples?

That’s a good question considering I am not strictly a technologist, I haven’t worked in “development”, and I do not belong to an Indigenous culture. The answer lies somewhere between my love of story, my experience as a web developer, and my fascination with the human condition.

I have a life-long love of narrative. I enjoy listening to and telling stories – especially ones that come from places I am not. So I began to study story traditions from around world, a process that eventually became the focus of a Master’s degree in Mythology and Oral Tradition. I have also been a web designer and developer since the before times. I grew up as a denizen of the World Wide Web. These two parts of me, which used to occupy very different spaces, merged when I entered a doctoral program in Communications & Rhetoric. My research focused on the cultural impacts of ICTs when used by Indigenous peoples to sustain and stimulate their traditional knowledge. As an extension of that research, I have become interested in a variety of issues which involve technology and indigeneity, culture and development, ICT4D, digital humanities, and so on.

2) Tell me a bit about the creation of the Ethnos Project.

I started the site in 2008 as a research portal in the same spirit as Ismael Peña-López’ ICTlogy website. It was a place to collect resources and collate my thoughts. As well, it became a web development sandbox as I started using it to build some prototype custom databases to house my notes (I finally settled on WordPress as the content management system). I also started using social media platforms along with the site to reach out and connect with other people who share similar interests. Over the last five years, I have tried to make the Ethnos Project a research destination – next, I’d like to see it become a research community.

3) What is the most exciting new trend or project in ICT4D that you’ve seen in recent years?

That’s a trick question. To be honest, I am actually quite distrustful about the notion of ICT4D. No ICT4D project (or any endeavor that situates ICTs as a “solution” to a cultural or societal problem) can avoid having unintended consequences for the people it is meant to serve. Often, those consequences – which can be dire – do not get discussed or are conveniently ignored. Until recent movements like FAILFaire, people simply kept mum about the failures. This makes identifying good projects difficult since I am levels removed from understanding the direct cultural impacts the programs are having – and that is how I am most likely to judge a project. I can say this: I am far more Bill Easterly than I am Jeffrey Sachs (I believe in bottom up development, not top down), and more Kentaro Toyama than I am Nicholas Negreponte (appropriate technologies can amplify human capacities, but technology in and of itself is not a solution). Although I am reticent to answer you with a specific project, I think that IICD (based in the Netherlands) is an example of an organization with the right spirit and approach to ICT4D.

4) So, would you classify yourself as a techno-determinist, -optimist, or skeptic? Why?

Not a determinist, for sure. Skeptic, definitely. If we move off the ICT4D track and move more toward projects involving ICTs and the preservation of culture, I am slightly less pessimistic. I am drawn to projects that are born within Indigenous communities (FirstVoices is a notable example) or that stem from healthy community partnerships (I would say eBario and the Ulwazi Programme fit the bill nicely). To put a finer point on things: I am not entirely sold on the idea that ICTs as they currently exist are the proper tools for “preserving” culture. Storing information, yes. Sustaining the human spirit at the heart of a dying culture, not so much. The idea of Kentaro Toyama’s I mentioned about the potential of appropriate technologies to amplify human capacity is just as true for ICT4D projects as it is for ICT-mediated cultural transmission.

5) What is the biggest struggle you’ve faced in conducting your research and growing your website?

I think that my obvious skepticism and doubt is at the top of the list. Lack of time is the other bit that gets me. When I was a student, the Ethnos Project was a great way to focus my energies and time. But now my time is divided between a full time family and a full time job, which leaves only a wee bit of time for research and blogging. One other challenge has been the issue of physical distance. I am discovering and connecting with really interesting people doing really amazing things and I would love to be able to see these people in real life.

6) What is your hope for the future of the Ethnos Project?

Simple answer: I would like to open source the Ethnos Project. I would like to invite other people to join in and actively grow it in different directions. I can’t tell you how pleased I am that you’re on board! Your experiences, insights, and energy are such a great match.