Posted to the Ethnos Project by on January 15th, 2013

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

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.

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