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Beth Kolko at Berkman

Forgive me, blog readers, for I have sinned. I’m three days behind in posting my notes from a Berkman talk. Blame Canada.

Beth Kolko joined us as a fellow at the Berkman Center this summer. I’m especially excited about having Beth at the Center because she’s fascinated by some of the same phenomena that interest me, especially the adaptation of technology in the developing world. And I’m inspired by the off path her career has taken, from a background teaching English and Rhetoric to a current position teaching technical communication at the University of Washington.

Her talk at Berkman is titled, “User, Hacker, Builder, Thief – Creativity and Consumerism in a Digital Age.” She points out that there’s a great deal of literature that helps us understand user-generated content (citizen media, mashups, fan fiction, alternative newspapers) as a form or resistance. There’s much less work done on understanding hacking – in a sense, user-generated or user-modified technology – as a form of resistance.

Her talk has two goals – to get listeners to think of emerging markets as creative places that shape the emergence of technology, and to rehabilitate the word “hacker”. The word, she worries, has been corrupted, turned into a term of fear. “There’s a movement to protect ourselves against hackers, and this movement can threaten innovation.”

To set a framework for thinking about technical innovation and adaptation – hacking – she invites us to think about fan fiction. The practice of fans writing unauthorized sequels and extensions to existing books, movies and tv series, is viewed by cultural critics as “resistance to scripted consumer roles.” The fanfic authors worked their way from an existence as passive consumers into a new role as producers, embracing “a dynamic that says, ‘I will not passively consume. I will speak back, and add my voice.'” In her earlier work, Kolko wrote about women who wrote romance novels, fascinated by the way fans of these novels moved “from consumers to producers of a variant artifact.”

The move into digital media makes this sort of cultural extension seem somewhat mundane. But the adaptation of the technologies themselves opens some interesting questions. Even the question of what technologies get adopted is worth exploring – “What do people choose to use, and what do they use it for?”, which implies the questions “What do people choose not to use and what possibilities are foreclosed to them?”

Kolko has studied these questions in a variety of environments, primarily southeast Asia and central Asia, over the past decade. She some observations about technological adaptation:

– People’s adoption of technology is similar to hacking. They use technology in novel ways to make it serve local needs and purposes
– People use older, “obsolete” tech and figure out how to make it work for contemporary purposes
– People share systems we think of as single user. A computer user in Uzbekistan might not be literate in Russian or Uzbek, but might visit a cybercafe with a child in tow to translate and help her send messages to friends. Youth might pool money and surf together.
– Games fuel the growth of internet cafes. In Uzbekistan, cafes often have tiered pricing structures – 2.5 som an hour for internet access, 1.5 for “online”, which means low-bandwidth internet activites like chatting, and 1 som an hour to play LAN-based games or watch movies stored on local servers.

Kolko notes that NGOs that open cybercafes tend to ban gaming, hoping that users will seek more “productive” uses of the internet. But gaming may be what makes internet cafes viable in low income communities. She observes that the countries of Central Asia tend to place very well in the World Cybergames, an international competition of videogamers, based on their extensive experience playing these games competitively in cafes.

The importance of gaming in Central Asia and the high cost of connectivity lead to some fascinating adaptations. World of Warcraft is a very popular game in Central Asia, but connectivity to the Blizzard servers is very expensive. So, in regional cities, people are setting up rogue World of Warcraft servers that allow players to compete against people in the same town. She observes that many of the dynamics of World of Warcraft simply don’t work in a 200-person universe, and that the operators of these rogue servers are discovering they need to change some of the rules to keep the game competitive and interesting.

Hacking in Central Asia extends beyond PCs. She shows slides of “phonebooths” – phones hanging out the windows of private homes. To use them, you give some money through the window to the homeowner, who plugs in the phone and allows you to call. Mobile phone companies are moving creatively to find profitable niches. In Tajikistan, there are nine mobile phone operators for six million people, which seems excessive, until you realize that some companies operate exclusively on the Afghan border and basically serve as Afghan phone companies without a license. Voice over IP serves as a non-gaming source of revenue for Internet cafes.

In considering how this sort of technical hacking can be “legitimated” to the same extent as “content resistance”, Kolko looks at another community – a group of hackers and technology inventors in Seattle. She shows us some projects a group she works with have produced, including a high-altitude balloon loaded with cameras and electronics, homemade Tesla coils, experiments with ferrofluids and RF tags.

These hackers are creatively repurposing technology for very different reasons than their bretheren in the developing world. “Hacks in the developing world are responses to institutional failures. These hacks are responses to less obvious, less visible failures,” of consumer capitalism. Specifically, Kolko and her friends are worried about the extent to which new consumer technologies are closed to hackers, either through physical or legal constraints, like clauses of the Digital Millenium Copyright Act which illegalize the reverse-engineering of copy protection systems. “THe logical extreme of this system is that purchase no longer means you own something,” as you’re not permitted to repurpose or tinker with it. She points to the fact that it’s extremely hard to modify contemporary cars because they involve proprietary software that you don’t have access to.

While I like the parallels between developing world and developed world hackers, it seems a bit of a bridge to far. I asked whether the fact that developing world hackers have an economic motivation behind their activities, while developed world hackers are mostly playing, changes the nature of the activity. She points to Etsy as an example of makers looking for economic rewards for their hacking. I wondered whether there’s a likelihood of solidarity between developed and developing world makers – Kolko pointed out that there are interesting collaborations, especially around long-range wireless technologies, where mesh networkers in North American and European cities are working with people in rural parts of the developing world on homebrewed networks.

3 thoughts on “Beth Kolko at Berkman”

  1. hmmm one thing that helps me grasp hackery in the developing world is to realize it’s an old phenomena it’s not limited to computer networks and mobile phones.

    take cars for instance how old cars are kept running indefinitely and parts of old cars mashed together to build irrigation machines or larger cars (the new trend in Egypt is turning old vespas into tricycle rickshas).

    it’s common for mechanics to complain about newer car models and how they’re useless for recycling, but I’ve no idea if this is out of unfamiliarity or the way the cars are designed.

  2. Hi Ethan,

    I’ve been following the Etsy community these last months and it’s amazing the use they made of the platform, and, indeed, of a whole constellation of apps such as blogs, flickr, youtube and so.

    Worth spending some afternoons surfing from link to link to discover its richness, I promise.

  3. Pingback: Open Parenthesis » Hacking Hardware at Berkman Center

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